New York City Food in Good Measure
by Ed Yowell
A lot of us who care about the New York City food system and its consequences, good and bad, know a lot of numbers… how much is spent on food in New York City, how many eaters live here and how many rely on SNAP and emergency food, and how many of us are obese and suffer diabetes, to mention a few of our most cited.
Two NYC government initiatives, FoodWorks and PlaNYC, can give us more.
Pursuant to New York City Local Law 52 (LL52) of 2011, part of the City Council’s 2010 FoodWorks legislative agenda, the City’s first Food Metrics Report was issued in October 2012. The report was compiled by the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS), the same folks responsible for maintaining PlaNYC, the Mayor’s plan for long-term sustainability leading to a “greater, greener” City in the 21st century. According to the Food Metrics Report, it “… provides a snapshot of the work that City agencies are undertaking to address issues related to the city’s food system.” LL 52 requires that the City report annually on just 19, of many more possible, food related indicators.
The snapshot is 41 pages long, mostly numbers in tables. So, all in one place, we know, among other data: how many farms are in the Watershed Agricultural Program (58); how much SchoolFood spent on food ($147.8 million); how many community gardens there are (13 pages worth); how many food manufacturers receive EDC monetary assistance (24); how many trucks (2,733) and rail cars (about 13) arrive daily at Hunt’s Point; how many food stores received FRESH assistance (11); how many neighborhood food stores participate in the Shop Healthy NYC, formerly Healthy Bodegas, Initiative (161); how many Green Cart applications were received (380), issued (96), and are wait listed (2,082); and how many meals and snacks the City provided (a staggering 270,621,363).
All are important numbers, but all are just numbers. For example, what we don’t know is, are 11 FRESH and 161 Shop Healthy NYC food stores and 96 new Green Carts enough? And what does one make of more than one quarter billion meals and snacks…sure, they all should be healthy, but how much should be sourced regionally?
In 2010, when City Council Speaker Christine Quinn rolled out FoodWorks, she set forth a vision, “Businesses and government…make decisions about how they produce, process, and distribute food…(These) choices…have an impact on every phase of our food system, from farm to table and beyond. Each action has the potential to improve our health, our economy, and our environment.” The vision in FoodWorks is to help us make the right decisions. And, accessible, comprehensive metrics are a start.
PlaNYC, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s executive, pan-agency, sustainability manifesto, focused primarily on the physical city and meeting the challenges of growing population, aging infrastructure, the global economy, and climate change. PlaNYC, first released in 2007, established high-profile, quantified agency goals, accountability for those goals, and measures of success in achieving them. According to the 2011 Plan update, “(since 2007) we’ve built hundreds of acres of new parkland…, provided…more transportation options… (enacted law to make) existing buildings more energy-efficient,…(and) reduced our greenhouse gas emissions 13%... Over 97% of the 127 initiatives in PlaNYC were launched within one-year of its release and almost two-thirds of its…milestones were achieved or mostly achieved.” While these statistics speak of an estimable achievement, many felt the plan was incomplete for the lack of a comprehensive set of goals regarding our food system. After all, a healthy population is an important part of our city’s “infrastructure,” a healthy regional farm and food economy will benefit us all, and a sustainable food system will serve us into the future.
Prior to the 2011 PlaNYC update, OLTPS conducted public listening sessions around the City to hear what New Yorkers had to say about the Plan. At a session in Lower Manhattan, members of the Food Systems Network NYC and Slow Food NYC, I among them, joined a few other food-active souls in a food system break-out session moderated by an OLTPS staff member. In the session, we argued for food in PlaNYC. The moderator was circumspect. His reticence was reflected in the caution contained in the Plan update, “…food presents a unique planning challenge; unlike sewers or streets, much of New York City’s food systems infrastructure is privately owned and shaped by the tastes and decisions of millions of individual consumers. These complicated and inter-related subsystems aren’t easily understood or influenced…” The goals included in PlaNYC were quantifiable and largely were within the capacities of the City to achieve. Making change in the food system was seen as less easily quantifiable, with many elements of change outside the control of the City…ergo, making for a riskier business.
However, in part because of the advocacy of many attending listening sessions, including one at City Hall, and in part because of other initiatives (see FSNYC’s Food for the Future), the updated PlaNYC does indeed include a Food Section, albeit embedded, along with Public Health, Economic Opportunity, and Public Engagement, in a chapter entitled, “Cross Cutting Topics.” The Food Section aggregates food related initiatives, some continuing and some new, contained in other, already existing, Plan chapters, including; “Housing and Neighborhoods” - Promote walkable destinations for retail and other services (including healthy food options in underserved communities), “Parks and Public Space” - Facilitate urban agriculture and community gardening, “Brownfields” - Promote green space on remediated brownfield properties, “Water Supply” - Continue the Watershed Protection Program (which includes partnership with the Watershed Agricultural Council to promote sustainable regional farming), “Transportation” - Improve freight movement (launching a study of New York City’s food distribution pathways to improve freight movement), and “Solid Waste” - Create additional opportunities to recover organic material (including food waste).
The present Plan update includes, “132 initiatives and more than 400 specific milestones for December 31, 2013.” And, about a dozen initiatives pertain to aspects of the food system, because, as is acknowledged in the Plan, “our food systems intersect with several areas addressed by PlaNYC. Improving the distribution and disposal of food…and increasing access to healthy food will not only benefit the environment, … (but) also have positive public health and economic impacts…Healthy, sustainable food systems are critical to the well-being of our communities…We cannot create a greener, greater New York without systems that make healthy food available to residents and dispose of food waste in ways that reduce its environmental impact. The food-related initiatives within the Plan will improve the long-term health of individual New Yorkers while strengthening our economy and environment.”
This is a start. The critical nexus of the Food Metrics Report and PlaNYC will be the possibility of connecting more food system dots; agriculture, food, health, economy, and environment. More accessible, cross-sector food metrics will help identify more, actionable food-related priorities, establish quantified goals and accountability, and measure progress. When the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability begin their next PlaNYC update, they and those who advocate for a healthier, fairer, stronger, and more sustainable food system will have benefit of food metrics to guide the process. As Nevin Cohen, of the New School, wrote in his Urban Food Policy blog on October 24, 2012, “It's up to advocates, academics, and agency officials to begin to use this information in the development of new policies and programs, and to request the additional metrics and programmatic and policy information that would turn these data from fun facts into meaningful, insightful information.”