This month I noticed a new ad painted boldly on the side of a building in the midtown neighborhood where I work. In two-foot-high lettering, it states "On Day Three of an Emergency, What Would Your Family's Food Pyramid Look Like?" The accompanying picture depicts a pyramid-shaped pile of shelf-stable products: salsa, a sardine tin, a box of what might be crackers or pasta. The point that the Ad Council and the Department of Homeland Security seems to be making is this: stock up now because, otherwise, after just three days, there won't be much left to eat.
If most New Yorkers do not see food security as a palpable threat, it's because we haven't really thought about it. But our sources of food and our unique geography combine to make our food supply vulnerable to severe disruptions that would affect all of us, regardless of neighborhood or socioeconomic status.
Most of us (with the exception of Bronx residents) are island dwellers. All of us rely on a few major transportation arteries and access points to supply us with goods. As our food system becomes more global, the region from which New York City draws its food supply -- our foodshed -- grows larger and more diffuse. In turn, we grow more dependent on shipping, fuel, and clean natural resources abroad. It's a complicated web with many policies, subsidies, and business relationships holding it in place. If something should damage this fragile network, New Yorkers would learn quickly how little surplus we have.
The solution is simple. To ensure that the long-term food needs of the City of New York can be met, more of our food needs to be produced locally, both around the five boroughs and within them. With sufficient political will and support, our more than 600 community gardens, four major urban farms and numerous smaller ones, and miles of rooftops, could produce tons of food within the city limits.
During World War II, families were encouraged to grow their own food and produced up to 40 percent of all the vegetables consumed nationally. This spark can be rekindled by encouraging planting of fruit trees, making room for food production in school yards, public parks, and plazas, converting vacant lots to gardens, and creating incentives for rooftop vegetable production. Already New Yorkers are demanding and consuming more locally grown food than they have in decades.
A Sustainable Food Plan
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC does not address the connection between sustainability and food. Here and there we got a glimpse of what would be possible: The plan prescribes increased access to urban green space, the clean up and reclamation of 1,700 polluted acres, and planting trees to defray carbon dioxide emissions, but it makes no direct reference to providing food for a city of 9 million people and sets out no plan for doing so.
Many things could be done. As PlaNYC recognizes, urban greenspace has innumerable environmental benefits â€“ cooling the city, cleaning the air, providing places for people to exercise or get together. PlaNYC includes many provisions for increasing the amount of green space in New York City. It could incorporate and create incentives for cultivating food into many of these existing plans.
In addition, to help ensure that in the long term New York City will have a safe, nutritious, sustainable supply of food, a number of barriers need to be removed. To reach New York's most direct and profitable markets, local farmers must overcome tremendous hurdles. They face long commutes, hours of traffic and the expenses of tickets and tolls. All of this adds up to a substantial cost of doing business and takes valuable time and energy away from the actual work of farming.
Farmland around the city is rapidly and irrevocably vanishing beneath bulldozers and subdivisions. To ensure that farming remains a viable use of land at the edge of metropolitan area and keep local farmers in business, the city should adopt policies and use its municipal procurement guidelines.
A number of other major cities have adopted formal plans to increase the sustainability of their food supplies. In San Francisco and Toronto, the city plans include food sustainability in their vision and concrete goals. The American Planning Association has identified food as a core component to sustainable city planning. In response to the omissions in PlaNYC, several NYC nonprofit groups are working together to develop and adopt a sustainability plan focused on food growing, distribution and access.
Food is a vital piece of our sustainability puzzle. What is available, how it is grown and who gets it will all play pivotal roles in the long-term prosperity of our city. If we want a healthy NYC in 2030, we need to start planting for the future today.
Jacquie Berger is the executive director of Just Food, an organization that makes fresh locally grown food available and accessible to all New Yorkers by connecting rural farmers, urban gardeners, and NYC residents.
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