Mayor de Blasio at a food pantry, pre-pandemic (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)
The New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy is announcing the city’s first-ever 10-year food plan, called Food Forward NYC, to better address food insecurity, improve a number of food- and nutrition-related processes, and meet the requirements of legislation passed by the City Council early last year.
The policy, previewed by Gotham Gazette before its public release on Monday, is intended to tackle hunger, food waste, malnutrition-related ailments, and food industry instability through five core goals, which all have underlying plans that require the cooperation of multiple city agencies and other entities. For example, the plan includes developing a “Food Community Hiring Initiative” to easily identify entry-level jobs in the food industry and creating a commercial kitchen for providers of the city’s Department for the Aging by partnering the program with Citymeals on Wheels.
“It should go without saying that in a truly great city, no one should ever go hungry,” writes Mayor Bill de Blasio, in part, in an opening letter of the Food Forward report. “But beyond tackling hunger, we are also committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers have the information, tools, and access to eat healthy food and learn about nutrition; to lift up food workers and reduce food waste; and to back local businesses and urban farming, among a host of other responsibilities.”
The five overarching goals of the plan are: “All New Yorkers have multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food; New York City’s food economy drives economic opportunity and provides good jobs; The supply chains that feed New York City are modern, efficient, and resilient; New York City’s food is produced, distributed, and disposed of sustainably; Support the systems and knowledge to implement the 10-year food policy plan.”
According to the plan, 1.6 million New York City residents are food insecure — meaning that they do not have stable access to quality, nutritious food.
This number has only increased during the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen widespread loss of jobs and work, but there was a severe crisis even before the outbreak. Previously, 1.2 million New Yorkers were food insecure, according to data from Feeding America.
Malnutrition from a lack of nutritious food, which can be a result of food insecurity, leads to health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and therefore other challenges, shorter life expectancy, and more vulnerability to diseases like COVID-19.
“Communities of color in all five boroughs have less access to affordable, healthy food than white communities and they are disproportionately impacted by diet-related health diseases,” the food plan reads, in part. “While many food businesses are owned by people of color and workers in the sector are substantially people of color, low business margins and low wages often result in limited economic mobility. Furthermore, many distribution hubs and waste facilities are located in communities of color, therefore placing additional disproportionate environmental and health burdens on them. At the same time, many of the biggest innovations in food policy in New York City, from local farms to cooperative ownership models, have emerged from communities of color. NYC’s food policy can support these successes and turn the food system into a source of health, wealth, and sustainability.”
According to the plan, two out of every three food businesses in the city have fewer than ten workers and almost half of New York City’s food originates from locations outside the city before ending up in the boroughs’ grocery stores, restaurants and schools.
The food industry is a key part of the city’s economy and one whose workers have been hurt by the pandemic. Even before covid, restaurant and grocery store workers were already making yearly salaries far below the average New York yearly income, according to the new food plan, and while many food workers have been classified as “essential” during the pandemic, helping some to keep their jobs, they have been unable to work from home and therefore at significantly higher risk of covid. At the same time, many food businesses, like restaurants, have closed during the pandemic, costing many jobs.
“At this moment in 2021, the city is in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of food insecurity,” Director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Planning Kate Mackenzie writes, in part, in her opening letter of the new policy. “Yet, through these harrowing months, we have deepened our understanding of how essential our food workers are to our food system. From the farm workers who grow our food, to the drivers and store clerks who ensure our grocery stores and bodegas remain stocked, the delivery workers who bring food to our homes, the cafeteria workers who keep our students fed, the volunteers distributing food at pantries – we see you and we thank you.”
For goal one of Food Forward NYC, the plan is to “expand food benefits to reach more New Yorkers in more places,” “distribute food more equitably,” and “reconfigure how the city sources food,” each of which come with their own sub-initiatives.
The city plans to expand to more low-income neighborhoods the “Get the Good Stuff” program, which allows Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to earn an extra dollar in reward points for every dollar they spend on fruits and vegetables at participating grocery stores.
Food Forward NYC also plans to allow adult members of children’s families to permanently get free grab-and-go meals at public schools, during summer months even after the pandemic ends. Before COVID-19, only children were eligible for this program, and parents weren’t allowed to take food even when they came with their children. The program was expanded to adults accompanying children and then all New Yorkers at the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.
Other strategies to achieve the first goal are to work with the state and federal governments to get “Medicare/Medicaid coverage for medically tailored meals.” to make the city’s outdoor dining program permanent, and to improve access to cold storage in underserved areas, among other things.
“For all New Yorkers to get the food they need and want, they need multiple ways to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food that meets them where they are,” the plan explains. “The plan embraces that food intersects with New Yorkers’ health and the broader economy in multiple ways, and not simply with regard to hunger; that food is important as an expression of cultural identity and as a way to connect with family and friends; and that food can bring tremendous joy.”
The second Food Forward NYC goal focuses more on how the food industry relates to the economy.
Initiatives within it include enforcing already created fair-scheduling laws in the fast-food industry to make sure that workers have some control over their work schedules and get paid overtime when necessary, expanding and creating new childcare centers that have weekend and overnight hours to accommodate food service workers, pushing the state for a NYC Small Business Recovery Tax Credit for small businesses and restaurants, and developing customized workforce training programs in manufacturing and industry technologies. The city proposal for a tax credit would apply to “businesses with gross revenue below $1 million,” which would “be eligible for a tax credit equal to 6% of their calendar year 2021 rent, up to maximum credit of $10,000.”
The city will also “create financing and technical assistance plans to support worker-owned cooperatives,” by adjusting current programs to better suit the needs of food businesses and by working with community organizations and business improvement districts.
“The restaurant industry is also vital to the city as a major draw for residents, workers, and visitors, underpinning many other industries such as office employment in the central business districts and serving as a draw for tourists,” the plan says. “Indeed, the restaurant industry is key to making New York City the compelling place that it is. Its economic contribution is also large. In 2019, the industry made nearly $27 billion in taxable sales.”
Food Forward’s third main goal focuses on the way that food comes into New York City and where it originates — which more often than not is far from the five boroughs.
Initiatives in this category include modernizing the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center by implementing resiliency measures to protect the building from rising sea levels and flooding, increasing the amount of food the city buys from the New York region instead of outside sources, and removing barriers to urban farming that currently exist in the forms of laws and regulations, such as “reviewing regulations related to land use and exploring different nonprofit and for-profit operating models and mechanisms to distribute micro-grants more efficiently.”
Under the fourth goal of the plan, the emphasis is on making sure that food is distributed fairly throughout the city and that food waste is handled sustainably and resourcefully.
The city is aiming to collect 90% of organic waste by 2030 and to “mandate the source separation and recycling of organic waste within all city institutions and schools by the year 2025 and in all residential buildings by 2029”; to figure out how to make cold storage more efficient and sustainable at a lower cost; and to include local seafood and seaweed in the New York State Grown & Certified program, which “is a program that makes it easy for consumers to identify local, safely-handled, and environmentally responsible agricultural products.”
The final component of Food Forward NYC is about ensuring different stakeholders in the food and public policy worlds will work together effectively to make the ambitious new plan a reality.
“New York City’s food system is highly distributed and fragmented, made up of many small parts that interact with each other in complicated ways,” the plan reads. “In fact, the system is so complex that even people who have spent years working in one sector of the food system often have little to no knowledge of how the rest of it works. It is not surprising that it can be extremely hard for anyone who plays a role, from policymakers to food workers to advocates to food consumers, to understand what levers to push for systemic change. This complexity also makes meaningful community engagement and decision making around food very challenging.”
Strategies to meet the goal of “strengthening community engagement and cross-sector coordination around the development and implementation of food policy” include partnering with the non-governmental sector to increase community participation in food policy decision-making, working with the private and civic sectors on food education campaigns about sustainability and nutrition, and establishing a Public Housing Food Leadership Innovation Lab to work on projects regarding food access, food production, food waste management, and community building in NYCHA. The plan indicates intention to finally begin recycling at public housing developments.