NYC Food Policy Offers Tasty Morsels, Not a Complete Meal

NYC Food Policy Offers Tasty Morsels, Not a Complete Meal

July 28, 2011 at 6:00 am

In 2007, when New York City released PlaNYC 2030, “locavore” had been named the word of the year and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma was a bestseller. Despite that, PlaNYC was virtually silent on the role that food plays in our city’s sustainability.


A current photo exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York documents the city's Green Cart initiative. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched the program in 2008 and established 1,000 new permits for mobile vendors who sell raw vegetables and fruits in neighborhoods where access is limited. Photo courtesy of the Gabriele Stabile and Aperture Foundation

The network of activists working to create a sustainable urban food system found this oversight particularly striking.

In response, the four-year update to PlaNYC, released this year acknowledged for the first time that sustainable food systems are critical to the city’s well-being and included food as a cross-cutting issue. The update included a wide variety of food initiatives, including:

  • An effort to use municipal land for urban agriculture, including 129 new community gardens on Housing Authority land and new gardens at schools;
  • Continued efforts to work with farmers in the city’s upstate watershed to minimize the use of fertilizer and adopt sustainable agriculture practices;
  • An expansion of the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program that offers zoning and financial incentives to encourage supermarkets to locate in under-served neighborhoods;
  • An exploration of ways to recycle food waste through composting and biofuel development.

On the Menu: PlaNYC does not articulate a vision of a sustainable food system and does not explain how the discrete pieces fit together. A comprehensive food plan, on the other hand, would consider questions such as to what extent urban agriculture contributes to neighborhood sustainability, food security and environmental quality. It would look at how much space we should devote to it, and what additional resources are needed to support urban food production. What mix of farmers markets, CSAs, green bodegas, green carts, community gardens and supermarkets provides ample access to healthy food, and how can the city help ensure that each neighborhood has the right mix? Should New York City change how it buys food for schools and social service programs in order to support regional farmers, or should cost and minimal nutritional quality be the sole criteria?

The City’s Role: PlaNYC claims that food “presents a unique planning challenge” because much of the food infrastructure “is privately owned and shaped by the tastes and decisions of millions of individual consumers.” But many other complex urban systems addressed in more detail in PlaNYC include private infrastructure and are influenced by consumer decisions. Individual consumers shape the city’s housing, energy, telecommunications and transportation infrastructures, all of which include public and private facilities.

In fact, the city controls an extensive food infrastructure. It owns and leases the terminal food markets, regulates and is a major land owner in the rural Catskill-Delaware watershed, and owns the land many urban gardens lease and farmers markets use. Beyond that, the city controls the infrastructure that prepares and serves food to our children and the residential waste disposal system that manages organic matter. And, as one of the largest institutional food buyers in the nation, the city could use the power of its purse to influence large institutional food producers and processors.

Food Matters: Some 45 city agencies purchase food, support food growing, produce compost, teach about food, bring people to supermarkets, make decisions about land use, or regulate how food is grown, processed, distributed and sold This would seem to indicate the sustainability plan could have a major effect on our food system. But, because PlaNYC lacks the force of law, there is no assurance that any initiatives it mentions will be reflected in other agency plans, or that agencies will focus on the food system.

This has real consequences. For example, in the recently releasedSustainable Stormwater Management Plan, the Department of Environmental Protection did not consider the role of urban farms in absorbing stormwater, while enhanced tree pits and porous pavement were featured. The Department of Sanitation chose to suspend its leaf and yard waste composting program a few years ago even though urban farmers have been clamoring for compost. The Office of Environmental Coordination does not require developers preparing environmental impact assessments to consider the effects of their projects on the availability of fresh food, although it does require them to assess many other impacts, from open space to traffic. City procurement agencies have never been concerned about buying regionally-produced food, so they have not yet developed systems to track where the food served by the city comes from.

Read the full post at Gotham Gazette.