FoodWorks Unveiled: A New Vision for NYC’s Food System

On Earth Day 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled PlaNYC, his blueprint for city-wide sustainability. Conspicuously missing from this report was the role food could–and should–play in the City’s long-term sustainability. A little less than three years later, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer produced his FoodNYC report, a blueprint for food sustainability. And just this Monday, November 22, City Council Speaker Christin Quinn unveiled FoodWorks, the most comprehensive food report and blueprint the city has yet seen–a 59-point plan that cuts across the entire food system.The report was actually authored by City Council Senior Policy Analyst Sarah Brannen, with research by Gabrielle Blavatsky and Heidi Exline. The report provides unprecedented context, a clear snapshot of the city’s food system, what’s working, what’s not–and some strategies for reform and opportunities. It’s possibly the most comprehensive compilation of maps, timelines, graphs, and statistics ever compiled about New York City’s food system for the public. That alone makes it a valuable resource.

Senior Graphic Designer Antonio M. Rodriguez has created not just a visually accessible document, but an entire visual identity that brings the report to life. It’s literally a modular honeycomb with interchangeable–and interlocking–parts that create an entire system: “By addressing the system as a whole, we can begin to make connections throughout these phases, establish partnerships across sectors, and create more powerful, far-reaching changes,” the report states. The design is a brilliant illustration of what Speaker Quinn is trying to do with her report and blueprint–for this reason alone you really should read the report yourself. What follows is a brief tour of FoodWorks, with a bit of local commentary.

But first, a little context. Christine Quinn presented her FoodWorks report at the Food and Finance High School before an audience of colleagues, food justice and sustainability advocates, and other allies just months after Stringer had introduced his FoodNYC plan. Early into her remarks Quinn acknowledged that her report builds on the work of Stringer, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Mayor Bloomberg. Stringer has released a statement in support of Quinn’s initiative:

“I commend the speaker for her work on this important issue, and am heartened that her recommendations echo many of the same proposals as outlined in our February 2010 report FoodNYC. I look forward to working with the Speaker on these and other vital initiatives related to the city’s food supply system which if done right can improve both jobs and health. Given the range of policies and programs in the City surrounding food, I renew my call for the creation of an Office of Food and Markets to coordinate and lead systematic reform of the City’s food and agricultural policies.”

Any New Yorker could see Quinn’s and Stringer’s plans as rivals; after all, both are rumored to have the next mayoral race within their sights. But however you see it, a second food sustainability plan for New York City points to the prominence food has risen to in public policy.

Quinn’s plan seems to be more tactical than Stringer’s. There is more emphasis on small business-friendly market solutions, more solutions that work at the granular level. However, New Yorkers should remember that part of Stringer’s report is the direct result of the Food Summit he held the previous December. Participants in policy sessions were asked their ideas about how to address policy challenges, and the summary of these results (at the end of the FoodNYC report) are worth reviewing especially in light of FoodWorks’ unveiling.

As for how FoodWorks fits in with Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, there is talk among city food policy advocates that it should become the food “chapter” to the next PlaNYC. However, Quinn sees it as its own entity. She explained in a NY1 interview, “FoodWorks is PlaNYC for food. With meeting the goals I articulated and moving our city to a place where we’re feeding the hungry, improving people’s health, and putting people to work.” While Stringer proposes creating a city Office of Food and Markets, Quinn hopes this will not be necessary; instead she would like to see better coordination between city agencies, nonprofits, and businesses.

FoodWorks is divided into five main areas: agriculture production, processing, distribution, consumption, post-consumption. Within each area is a set of goals with a strategy for each and a set of proposals.

Agriculture Production

This is one of the largest sections of Quinn’s report, focusing on increasing regional food production, encouraging regional procurement by the city, and encouraging urban food production. The plan calls for directing more farm subsidies toward our state’s healthy and sustainable crops, building a permanent wholesale farmer’s market, and expanding farmer’s markets and CSAs, and making these accessible by expanding EBT and WIC benefits at farmers markets.

In her speech, Quinn mentioned that New York State is the second largest producer of apples in nation; yet most of the apples sold in the city come from Washington state. I know every time I step into a bodega or market if there are any apples, they’re always from somewhere else–I’m glad she’s noticed, too.

But what caught my eye in the report was an even more remarkable number: New York State ranks third nationally in milk production and generates nearly $2 billion a year in sales, more than any other crop by some $1,700,000. Yet local small and mid-sized dairy farmers are hurting from the rising costs of processing and distribution, partly as a result of the consolidation of the milk industry. I asked dairy farmer and owner of Organic NY Milk Dean Sparks what he thought of FoodWorks and how he thought it might help his business.

Sparks admit that he “fell in love” with the report. He adds, “Organic and sustainable farming practices would be more widely adopted in Upstate New York if farm families were assured their additional efforts would be rewarded with a small premium.  New York city residents seem willing (if not even ANXIOUS) to spend a little more to support local, sustainable farms close to home. Adopting the FoodWorks model would encourage and bring to light the benefits that a local, fresh food system would bring to everyone in our area.”

The plan also calls for protecting community gardens, counting urban farms in the USDA Census of Agriculture, and mapping city-owned property that could be used for farming, including rooftops, along with other proposals that support rooftop gardening. It’s exciting to see such recognition of the burgeoning urban farming movement–and to see more support on the horizon. There were a few community garden advocates who interrupted Quinn’s speech to ask about her promise to protect the land. Quinn reiterated her commitment, adding that she is working on a “packet of legislation” she will introduce to the Council that will provide long-term protection for community gardens.

Processing

Quinn wants to see the food manufacturing industry grow, and to that end she would like to get new industrial space for food manufacturing built and continue support for the NYers 4 Markets initiative she introduced this past spring. Quinn was at the New Amsterdam Market just two weeks ago calling again for a permanent structure for the market. She also mentioned the La Marqueta food processing facility in East Harlem opening later this year. Hot Bread Kitchen will be housed there, among other small businesses.

Quinn has pinpointed 70 food businesses that want to expand in New York City; rather than let these businesses move to less expensive locations outside the city, the City Council has a Small Manufacturing Investment Fund of $10 million to help develop new manufacturing space for these businesses.

This is good news for the 70 food businesses, but I’m also wondering how smaller vendors like those who sold at the lost Greenpoint Market could also benefit. The market closed because the vendors did not have access to or could not afford city-approved industrial kitchens. Stringer’s FoodNYC called for building incubator kitchens in all five boroughs. Would supporting small startups feed New York City’s economy as much as expanding mid-sized companies? It’s something to consider.

Quinn also wants to hold a regional food business-to-business conference to help facilitate partnerships between upstate farms and city food businesses. In addition to providing exciting networking and synergy opportunities, the conference would also produce workshops on applying for city agency contracts. New York City’s buying power could make a huge difference for the viability of our regional farms. For example, this year Slope Farms served its grass-fed beef to a handful of New York City schools, a pilot project facilitated by the nonprofit School Food Focus. Imagine local, grass-fed beef being available in all public schools. Imagine New York State lettuce in all the school salad bars. Organizations like School Food Focus are poised to make more of these connections happen so long as the political will and support is also there.

Distribution

The focus of this section is almost entirely on the Hunts Point Market. Built in 1967, the market is clearly overdue for a substantial update. Quinn proposes increasing its storage space and expanding the rail service to cut down on the environmental costs of trucking. Her vision for the terminal extends beyond modernizing for today; she wants Hunts Point to be ready for the future.

Hunts Point can’t remain the sole distribution point for the city. Quinn proposes identifying “optimal distribution routes and modes for food distribution within the region and city.” In other words, perhaps New York City should have multiple food distribution hubs. I have my own vision, and it involves a Brooklyn hub that would make feeding Brooklyn’s insatiable locavores a little easier–and more financially and logistically feasible–for farmers. Meanwhile, Quinn suggests that Hunts Point could serve as a model for citywide food system improvement strategies.

Consumption

“If we want New Yorkers to make better choices,” Quinn said on Monday, “we need to give them better options.” Quinn may have said this in reference to past efforts to outlaw using food stamps to buy soda. It’s an imperative I’ve heard food justice advocates like Food Bank for New York City’s Aine Duggan state numerous times. Increasing healthy options is a much more effective strategy than limiting unhealthy options.

To that end, most of FoodWorks’ health and hunger proposals are about increasing access and affordability for healthy food. The plan would expand fresh food retail in underserved neighborhoods by marketing the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program, help bring more alternative food markets like food co-operatives to the city, improve the food options at bodegas, and even create healthy neighborhood food guides. Did you know that a couple thousand of the Park Slope Food Co-op’s members come from Bed-Stuy? The new Greene Hill Food Co-op is actually located adjascent to Bed-Stuy, but it’s still in need of volunteer support and funding. Eating Healthy in Bed Stuy is an example of the kind of healthy food guide the City could produce, but it also needs additional support.

Meanwhile, it looks like New York City is not maximizing the federal dollars that could be strengthening the safety net of hunger and nutrition programs. One of the few times Quinn has openly disagreed with Mayor Bloomberg is over his policy of fingerprinting for SNAP benefits. She calls for this to end immediately–not that it’s within her power to end it. She has, however, suggested that City Council can keep the issue alive until Bloomberg–or possibly the new Governor Andrew Cuomo–addresses it. Fingerprinting applicants deters an estimated 30,000 eligible recipients from signing up for benefits. This translates into a loss of $54 million in federal money not going into New York City’s economy. “Now is the time to decriminalize hunger,” Quinn declared in her speech to a rousing applause.

Other hunger-related proposals include increasing federal benefits to reflect the higher costs of living, translating the WIC vendor book into different languages, and mandating in-classroom breakfast at high-needs public schools–something that’s already being done in Newark public schools.

As for discouraging unhealthy food options, the FoodWorks report mentions cities like London that limit proximity of fast food restaurants to schools and San Francisco’s highly controversial ban on fast food toys. “City Council will review best practices nationally and internationally to discourage the consumption of fast food, and create more opportunities for healthy food service in neighborhoods around the city.” The proposal is relatively vague–which means we probably won’t see sensationalist headlines about outrageous proposals limiting fast food coming out of City Council anytime soon.

Post Consumption

Composting-a-go-go! New York City’s purchasing power comes into play here again: this time the report points out the impact the city could make if it created guidelines for packaging of all food procured by city agencies. As the second largest food buyer in the nation, New York City could influence the entire food industry. FoodWorks suggests finding an alternative to polystyrene foam in city agency food programs–news that’s music to the ears of SOS NYC, an organization that’s been agitating to get rid of styrofoam trays in public schools (Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is already on this one).

Beyond the “reduce” there is also the “reuse” and “recycle.” Quinn would like us to start seeing our food scraps as resources. She would increase residential, commercial, and yes, governmental composting by establishing a voluntary household composting system and look toward citywide composting. City Council has already passed Local Law 42, which requires the city to conduct “a study of various options for increasing residential, commerical, and governmental composting.” Does this mean zoning within city limits for large-scale composting facilities? I think that’s what it might take. Composting advocates call for decentralized composting to make it easier for households, but to get city agencies and businesses to compost will require a great deal of coordination as well as creative solutions to the “not in my backyard” attitude prevalent throughout the city toward composting. We need to do some educating here. Quinn also wants to encourage restaurants to recycle their grease as biofuels.

Does all of this sound like a giant policy burrito you’d really like to order but can’t imagine eating in one sitting? Well, one step at a time, mi amigos. Quinn is starting by passing whatever legislation the City Council can as soon as possible. In fact, she plans to introduce the first FoodWorks-related legislation at December’s City Council meeting. Everything else will require strategic partnerships with other agencies, organizations, the mayor, and businesses.

What about the rest of us? In her speech Quinn threw out the classic “we need you” line. What does she mean by this? The auditorium was packed by government employees, policy wonks, and nonprofit administrators, but I also saw sharp business players like food systems consultant Debra Italiano. At the end of FoodWorks Quinn lists next steps. One is to create a food policy council which will include all stakeholders, including community members and the food industry.  If YOU want to get involved check out Christine Quinn’s Action Center Page, scroll down to the bottom, and sign up for her calendar emails. I have been assured by her office that by attending her events you can make your voice heard–and be part of FoodWorks. Now that we have the report and her ear, let’s hold Quinn accountable and see where this bold vision takes us–and what part we can play.

Photos: William Alatriste

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Adriana Velez is Communications Coordinator for Brooklyn Food Coalition and a freelance writer who most recently contributed to Cookie Magazine‘s online content. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.

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FOODA – Associazione per il Food Design – è un’organizzazione di progettisti, studiosi, comunicatori, aziende e istituzioni con fuoco sullo studio, la progettazione e l’innovazione degli Atti Alimentari. FOODA promuove la cultura progettuale degli Atti Alimentari assolvendola a elemento culturale, economico e ambientale di fondamentale importanza per la società contemporanea e futura, dando impulso all’innovazione di processo e di prodotto e potenziando le competenze degli operatori del settore. Obiettivo di FOODA è definire la disciplina del Food Design, il ruolo e le competenze del Food Designer; incrementare la consapevolezza, lo studio, la ricerca e l’interdisciplinarietà all’interno del paradigma degli Atti Alimentari promuovendo una corretta gestione e una progettazione sostenibile dei processi, dei prodotti e degli immaginari legati al cibo. FOODA intende perseguire i suoi obiettivi per mezzo di iniziative culturali, progetti di studio e ricerca autonomi e in cooperazione con enti e aziende, fornendo formazione e informazione professionale ai suoi soci, consulenza specializzata agli operatori del settore.

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