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Putting Food Policy On The City's Front Burner

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The City Council's Committee on Health is slated to take up an issue that has been generating a lot of buzz - the legalization of beekeeping in New York City.

While beekeeping has its funny side -- the news conference announcing the bill on the City Hall Steps a few weeks ago included enthusiasts in bee costume - it also has important implications, and represents just one part of a growing movement that is trying to put New York City in the forefront of efforts to rethink our national system of food production and distribution.

It is time that we as individuals and New York City as a community stop thinking about food policy as something that happens "out there", beyond our reach. We need to take more control of how and where our food is produced, how it is distributed, and do more to bring healthy food choices to neighborhoods with a glut of fast food joint joints and a shortage of supermarkets.

Guiding Development

We have to start looking at real estate development through the lens of public health. Before signing off on proposed construction that would require a discretionary action, the city puts each development plan to a test that measures the impact new construction would have on the neighborhood clean air, along with transportation and health facilities. But as of now the impact of such development on the availability of healthy food is left unexamined.

I have proposed a change to the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) that would require an analysis of fresh food infrastructure, a review that could let the city insist that developers provide support for new supermarkets, farmers' markets and similar operations.

My office, which reviews development proposals as part of the city's land use process, is also working on proposed changes in zoning rules that would encourage the creation of rooftop gardens and greenhouses in Manhattan.

Reforming Tax Incentives

Last year, I released a report on tax breaks that the city hands out as part of the Industrial and Commercial Incentive Program (ICIP). Originally designed to encourage businesses to remain in the city, the program now awards millions of dollars in tax breaks to chain stores and businesses including McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and other fast food restaurants; gas stations, including one in Washington Heights that got $175,000 in benefits; and a Toys R' Us in Times Square that got $2.4 million.

We have to reevaluate tax incentive programs like ICIP and reform those that primarily benefit companies that have a negative impact on quality of life and health in our city.

Creating a FoodStat

New York's CompStat program has been acknowledged across the country as a key tool in increasing safety in our neighborhoods, a monitoring technique that enabled the NYPD to focus its efforts more effectively and has helped produce steep declines in many serious crimes. We need to develop a similar "FoodStat" program that would monitor nutrition and healthy food availability in all our neighborhoods, and help focus city programs where they are most needed.

Earlier this year, my office did such a preliminary analysis of healthy food availability in two adjoining Manhattan neighborhoods -- East Harlem and the Upper East Side, looking at the number of fast food restaurants per block versus grocery stores that offer fresh produce. We found that East Harlem has half as many fresh supermarkets as the Upper East Side, and double the rate of obesity.

There are some rays of hope, particularly in East Harlem. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of local elected officials and community members, Costco has agreed to accept food stamps at its new store under construction on East 116th Street.

Designating a Foodshed

Our stores are full of apples that come thousands of miles from New Zealand and Washington State, rather than from New Paltz in Ulster County or Whitehall in Washington County, New York. Joined by organizations like Columbia University's Earth Institute and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, I have urged that New York designate a "foodshed" consisting of farms in a given radius of the city where growers of healthy food would have special access to city markets and from which government purchasers of food would be required to buy a certain percent of their vegetables, dairy products and other items.

On a preliminary basis such a "foodshed" could be set at a 100-200 mile distance; within this area, designated growers of healthy food would be provided special access to New York City food markets and other retail and wholesale outlets, including farmers' markets. They would also be entitled to compete for a government set-aside through which schools, hospitals and other municipal institutions would be mandated to purchase a certain percent of their produce. Just to give an example, twenty percent of the annual budget for the city's $435 million school food programs alone would mean an investment of more than $80 million in producers within the New York City foodshed.

Meanwhile, the City Council is considering a resolution that would put the city on record as encouraging local and organic plant-based food production. The goal is to lower health-related diseases such as heart disease and obesity, and also to reduce the city's carbon footprint and the greenhouse gases that are produced by "factory" farming and long-distance trucking of food produced thousands of miles from our borders.

The city's next challenge

Changing our development policies, monitoring fresh food availability and even creating a "foodshed" are important initiatives, but they will not be enough to on their own to create a healthier, better fed city.

Our food system in New York City needs a radical overhaul. We need to make food a real priority, designating a high-level office in City Hall to coordinate public and private efforts; create special tax incentives and bonuses to encourage farmer's markets and the building of supermarkets; expand the DOE's breakfast-in-school program; and reduce the administrative barriers for families of the unemployed in order to speed up their eligibility for food stamps and other assistance.

From the father in East Harlem bringing his family's food stamps to the local farmer's market for the first time, to the amateur beekeeper tending a hive on her rooftop, New Yorkers across the city have brought a movement for pro-active food policy to our streets. It's time for the city government to step up as a leader, and take on the challenge of creating a brighter future for nutrition and health in New York.