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Food Policy Agenda on Menu at City Council Hearing


corey johnson delivers

Speaker Johnson at food policy speech (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The City Council is set to consider a number of bills related to food policy at a hearing Wednesday, including a proposal to codify an Office of Food Policy, a month after Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled an expansive food equity plan with the creation of the office at its center.

The Council’s Committees on General Welfare, Economic Development, and Education will meet at City Hall Wednesday afternoon to examine a package of 14 bills and two resolutions dealing with nutritional access and public education, urban agriculture, and food waste.

Together the bills touch on many of the planks in Johnson’s nascent food platform, which includes expanding existing food programs and tying economic opportunity to farming and nutrition, all under a comprehensive citywide plan coordinated by a newly empowered Office of Food Policy.

Representatives of the Speaker say Johnson will not be attending the hearing, which is expected to be led by Council Members Stephen Levin, Paul Vallone, and Mark Treyger, who chair the three committees. Other members who are either lead sponsors of the legislation at hand or are members of the committees or otherwise interested will also participate.

A number of prominent stakeholders, like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Andrea Strong of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, plan to testify. A representative of the office of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services is also expected to speak.

“Food is a human right. Yet in our city — one of the richest in the world — more than 1 million New Yorkers are food insecure and there is inequitable access to fresh and healthy food in many neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “The Council is working to address these gaps with new legislation and budget proposals.”

On August 1, Johnson released a report entitled “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” which outlined the Council’s agenda to combat inequities in accessing nutritional food and ensure the city has a comprehensive food policy responsive to the needs of different demographics like students, seniors, low-income residents, and non-white New Yorkers. Wednesday’s joint hearing will be the first time the bills are discussed in a formal legislative setting.

Johnson is the co-sponsor of two of the bills being considered, including the proposal to establish an Office of Food Policy and one to increase reporting on the city’s food system, whose main sponsors are Ben Kallos and Paul Vallone, respectively. Council Members Kallos, representing the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Diana Ayala, representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, are co-sponsors of every piece of legislation under review by the committees.

“A lot of these bills are bills on issues we have been working on for quite some time,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “In terms of the overall package, it’s amazing to work with a Speaker who is really empowering so many members -- taking such a large package that is going to do so very much, and sharing it with many members and bringing them into the fight against food insecurity and hunger.”

Under the legislation, the Office of Food Policy would be responsible for developing and coordinating initiatives in four categories: 1. promoting access to healthy food for all city residents; 2. developing support programs to make nutritional food more affordable; 3. expanding reporting in the annual Food System Metrics Report published by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability; and 4. collaborating with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update food standards for meals purchased, prepared, or served by city agencies. The director of the office would be appointed by the mayor or the head of a mayoral agency.

There is currently an Office of the Director of Food Policy under the mayor, but the position is vacant. It was previously held by Barbara Turk, who has been serving in another role -- senior advisor at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services -- since April, according to her LinkedIn account.

“We’re hoping to have a director, make sure that that director position is filled, and ensure that they have a directive that spans multiple agencies and that they can hold the agencies accountable,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette.

“We believe that the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy should continue to remain an important asset in the City’s food policy efforts and look forward to discussing these proposals with the Council,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, Avery Cohen, wrote in an email. The mayor’s office did not respond to emails asking when the next director of food policy would be appointed or for information about the hiring process.

The bills being heard Wednesday include measures that would fall under the food policy director’s purview, whether that office is codified into law or not.

One bill, sponsored by Bronx Council Member Vanessa Gibson, would require the office to consult with city agencies, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders in the food system to develop a ten-year plan focused on food equity and insecurity. The plan would set goals to increase access to nutritional foods through existing and newly-developed programs, reduce food waste, and develop the economic conditions surrounding urban agriculture. The Office of Food Policy would be required to report on the progress made toward those goals.

Other bills in the package would establish new governmental bodies to deal with other elements of Johnson’s food platform. One measure sponsored by Bronx Council Member Andrew Cohen would create an advisory board to assess and make recommendations regarding the city’s food procurement policy and to evaluate contract bids. Another, sponsored by Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, would create an Office of Urban Agriculture and an accompanying advisory board to develop and report on a plan to protect and expand urban agriculture.

Under the package, community gardens would be partially protected from opposing land-use interests. The city’s reporting and assessment of the community garden system would be centralized and farmer’s markets would be allowed to operate on their premises, making them more economically viable and increasing access to community-produced healthy food.

The package also includes a focus on improving public engagement with the city’s existing food access programs like Health Bucks -- coupons for low-income New Yorkers to use at farmer’s markets -- farm-to-city projects, nutrition programs in schools, and summer meals.

Another theme is reducing food waste in New York. Johnson’s report cites a National Resources Defense Council analysis claiming the average New York City household wastes 8.7 pounds of food per week, of which six pounds are edible at the time of disposal.

One bill sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera of Manhattan would require any city agency with food procurement contracts to come up with a plan to limit the amount of food that doesn’t make it to the plate. Under the bill, each agency would be responsible for designating a coordinator to report on its food waste reduction plan and its implementation.

As a whole, the new food plan would require coordination among a myriad of city agencies, like the Human Resources Administration, Department of City Planning, and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, among others. Many of the bills in the package are intended to facilitate or mandate that coordination. Two resolutions call on the state to expand supplemental nutrition assistance benefits, one of which will require action by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“A lot of our food programs are spread across multiple agencies and we need somebody focused on them, all working together comprehensively to ensure folks don’t have to deal with hunger or food insecurity,” said Kallos.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

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7 Years After Sandy - Part I: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed


aerial view bridge

Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo: mayor's office)


This is part one of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- can be found hereThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in October of 2012, the city was hardly prepared for the disaster. Dozens of lives were lost, thousands of homes destroyed. It’s been well-documented and widely-acknowledged that the rebuilding process has been rife with mismanagement, and new resiliency measures have been slow to materialize as New York anticipates the next big storm.

Yet certain aspects of infrastructure in place when Sandy hit worked well -- and even helped mitigate some of the superstorm’s effects. 

In the days prior to the storm surge, short-range weather forecasts saw it coming, allowing the city to make some adjustments and preparations. Schools closed, shelters opened, and the city’s residents had some limited time to prepare themselves as best possible for the incoming barrage. Those emergency preparations, occurring from roughly 48 hours before the storm hit, “went as good as can be expected considering the region was not at all prepared for a storm surge of this magnitude,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview with Gotham Gazette just ahead of the seventh anniversary of Sandy.

One complicating factor was that too many residents in vulnerable areas did not heed the city's evacuation order, seemingly jaded by warnings of severe storms that did not materialize.

But even after the storm hit, some frontline areas – those especially vulnerable to residual flooding – mitigated disaster through a variety of protocols, according to “Sandy Success Stories,” a 2013 study by the Environmental Defense Fund that includes key lessons from 2012 and for the future.

Those measures included creation of buffers designed for durability and flood endurance, targeted placement of landscaping and structures, incorporation of durable building materials and waterproof finish, and elevation of sites and equipment. Elevated mechanical and electrical equipment (above a building’s bottom floors) protected it from flood and salt damage, allowing certain important operations to resume more quickly after the storm.

For example: At 200 Water Street in lower Manhattan and the Solar One building on East 23rd Street, elevation of mechanical and electrical equipment ensured it was protected from damages. At beaches where a landscaped dune system existed, including the Beachfront Bungalow Neighborhood in the Far Rockaways, the storm was less devastating.

The study also showed that waterfront parks with plans in place to control flooding and attenuate waves were more resilient when the storm hit. At both Bronx River Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, both waterfront, topographic design that took into account flood-protection helped contain flooding. At Bronx River Park, a space was created that could detain water without damage, and at Brooklyn Bridge Park, multiple berms protected the park from flooding. 

Additionally, adherence or adjustment to building codes often proved a recipe for safety during Sandy, according to Thaddeus Pawlowski, director of Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“With two houses right next to each other, the house where you step in right off the street would have gotten knocked off its foundation, and the house next door that’s elevated would have been totally fine,” Pawloski said.

Since Sandy, these building codes have been strengthened with an eye toward future storms and floods, with new waterfront buildings held to higher standards amid a changing climate and its realized and expected impacts. The capability of waterfront infrastructure to withstand flooding will be important regardless of massive storms like Sandy, Goldstein said. With sea levels rising due to climate change, shoreline areas are at risk of flooding following routine rain storms and high tide, he said.

While those waterfront areas that escaped flooding during Sandy were for the most part designed to do so, it was not really with disaster preparation at the forefront, according to Sandy Success Stories. Rather, efforts toward sustainability proved to serve a dual purpose, functioning as emblems of resiliency.

“Many of these actions grew out of the pursuit of social, economic and environmental sustainability – rather than from fear of storm surge – suggesting a strong tie between the current sustainability agenda and physical resiliency,” the study reads.

While many resiliency projects are neighborhood specific, the study showed citywide wetland restoration to have the potential to mitigate flooding. In parks and beaches along the coastline, plants that have a high tolerance for flooding and salt inundation can serve to absorb flood water at a significantly higher pace than freshwater plants, thus serving as an additional mitigating factor to decrease flooding. On beaches especially, dunes proved to be effective flood barriers. While the city has embraced dune construction as a mode of its resiliency projects, it has not shown as much interest in wetland restoration, a major flaw in its post-Sandy response.

Though many of the city’s resiliency projects are neighborhood or borough specific, some citywide initiatives -- like dune construction -- can be undertaken to improve resiliency, while others have been aimed at fixing the devastation Sandy left behind. [Part two of this series will look at the city's limited resiliency efforts since Sandy hit seven years ago.]

Build It Back
In the aftermath of Sandy, the city sought to help rebuild homes of residents that were destroyed in the storm; thus began the Build It Back program, designed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reconstruct or fix damaged homes or reimburse residents for their worth, primarily through federal funding. However, it wasn’t until nearly two years after Sandy hit that the program began to reimburse for destroyed homes, and an additional year until homes began to be rebuilt.

“While we still have a lot of work to do, we are seeing real progress under Build It Back, and more families hurt by Sandy are moving home every week,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a 2017 press release, though he has regularly acknowledged that the program has had significant flaws, and has said that the city would do things totally differently if presented with a similar situation in the future. De Blasio inherited the program from the Bloomberg administration when he took office in January 2014, a little more than a year after Sandy hit. Neither administration managed it well.

According to the city, the Build It Back program has now served 100 percent of applicants, and 99 percent of homes in general, with construction, reimbursement checks, property acquisition or completed construction, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But while the city claims to have served 100 percent of applicants, many residents who would have qualified for the program left the area to avoid long wait times to rebuild their homes, Goldstein said. Others simply didn’t stick with the program.

One year after the storm hit, 20,275 households had registered for Build it Back, according to a joint study by the city and the Center for Urban Research at the City of New York Graduate Center. Of those registered, 26 percent hadn’t submitted an application for Build It Back, and an additional 26 percent completed an application but did not pick a program option, effectively withdrawing them from Build It Back. Four years after the storm hit, only 8,040 applicants - less than 40 percent of those initially registered - remained in the Build it Back program. 

“7 years later the fog of war clears a little,” Goldstein said. “But for many if not most of the residents they encountered interminable delays and bureaucracy. People who all of a sudden had no place to live and possessions waterlogged were faced with a lot of uncertainty that lasted months or even years.”

The Build It Back program also faced criticism from those who questioned whether homes destroyed by flooding should be rebuilt if they were to remain deep in flood zones, Goldstein said.

“You have to ask what is the strategy for long-term planning for houses that are located in areas subject to repeated flooding?” Goldstein said. “Dealing with the short-term need of property owners to get back into their homes to some extent sidestepped these longer-term questions of where it makes sense for New Yorkers to live in an era of rising seas and climate change.”

Though the city has developed some plans to curtail the effects of climate change on its many miles of coastlines -- including to extend lower Manhattan into the East River and to construct a 5.3 mile levee on Staten Island, from Fort Wadsworth to the East Shore -- there is no comprehensive citywide plan for dealing with the long-term impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable communities along the city’s coasts, Goldstein said.

Seven years after Sandy hit, two City Council Members recently introduced legislation that would force the city to create a five-borough resiliency plan.

“This is a long-term existential threat to the city and the nation and the planet. And unfortunately, in politics, oftentimes short-term issues take precedence over long-term matters even when those long-term matters are greatly important to the very future of the city,” Goldstein said. 

This is part one of a three-part series on 7 Years After Sandy. Read part two -- on the city’s stalled and advancing resiliency measures -- here.

This series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

One Promising Reform with Rare Support from Both the City and Board of Elections, But Little Movement


mayor bdb public

(photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's office)


While city officials and elections administrators clash over what changes the Board of Elections should make to improve operations and the voting experience, one widely-supported option the city could pursue sits on the back-burner.

A municipal poll workers program would allow the Board of Elections to hire Election Day poll workers from a pool of city employees, significantly reducing the hiring and training burdens for administrators and helping to ensure poll sites are more effectively staffed.

The proposal is an unusual point of agreement among the city Board of Elections, the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and good government advocates, who have all indicated varying levels of support for it, and it is one voting policy the city can enact without action in Albany. It would still require compromises, not only between the de Blasio administration and the BOE, but with the city’s politically active municipal labor unions as well.

The mayor and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who have been highly critical of the BOE’s performance, have both said that poll worker hiring and training is among the top priorities they would like to see the board take up. Michael Ryan, the board’s executive director, has repeatedly highlighted a municipal poll workers program as a powerful tool the BOE would like to have at its disposal to better run elections.

“I would like to take this opportunity to renew the Board’s request to enter into a partnership with New York City to develop a robust municipal-workers-as-poll-workers program,” Ryan told Johnson and other Council members at an oversight hearing following the general election last November. Johnson said he was “open to that” but emphasized alternatives he would like to see the board pursue to address training and staffing shortages.

Election Day is perennially plagued by mishaps like jammed ballot scanners and long lines of voters, created or compounded by overworked poll site staff who are not necessarily experienced in liaising with constituents or quickly moving voters through the process, or equipped to handle some of the more technical problems that can arise. Currently, the BOE struggles to recruit the roughly 36,000 temporary poll workers needed to staff a general election day. In part to help fill those positions, the board requires applicants to have few professional qualifications beyond a mandatory four-hour training.

The board currently finds candidates through referrals from local political party organizations, subway ads, a CUNY initiative to recruit students who typically have the day off, and other such avenues. Despite these sources, turnover is high.

Since 2016, the mayor and City Council have offered the BOE $20 million to improve its operations, including $10 million to expand poll worker training, recruitment strategies, and salaries, which the board has repeatedly turned down. Faced with resistance from Ryan, de Blasio has expressed some interest in working with the BOE on a municipal poll workers program, but is also frustrated with the lack of cooperation on his preferred approach.

When asked about the program at a press conference in April, the mayor told reporters, “Look, we’re happy to work with them on any approach that will improve things, but that’s exactly why we offered them the $20 million.”

Jose Bayona, a mayoral spokesperson, affirmed that sentiment in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We’re committed to having fully staffed polling locations, which is why we’ve offered the BOE $20 million for necessary reforms, including increased staffing. In the meantime, we are exploring whether there is a path forward for a municipal poll workers program in New York City,” he wrote in an email.

Johnson took a tone similar to de Blasio’s when Ryan raised the issue at the November oversight hearing -- frustrated by the BOE’s rejection of city funding, but willing to discuss alternatives. More recently a spokesperson for the Speaker expressed explicit support for a municipal poll workers program to Gotham Gazette, but is not aware of any specific proposals being discussed by the administration. The spokesperson added that it is clear to Johnson that the city needs a robust plan to ensure proper election administration, including staffing at poll sites.

Ryan was hired by the board’s commissioners who are chosen by county party officials and enjoys a high degree of insulation from the mayor’s or Council’s influence. Because they are limited in their ability to compel the board, which is an entity of state law, to take action, de Blasio and Johnson have sought to use the city budget to incentivize reforms. But they have clashed with Ryan over how to spend the money and the best approach to staffing poll sites.

Hovering in the background of this dispute is the possibility of finding common ground on a municipal poll workers program. That would require coordination among city agencies and negotiations with municipal unions, which have never been pursued under de Blasio, according to Bayona.

Under the supervision of poll site coordinators, poll workers are responsible for looking up names and addresses in the voter rolls, distributing ballots, and directing voters to ballot reading machines. They work long hours -- over 16 hours, from 5 a.m. to after 9 p.m. -- and are paid $250 for the day, plus $100 to attend the required four-hour training, according to a BOE spokesperson.

The long hours and low pay make it difficult for the board to recruit and retain poll workers in the leadup to an election. According to a New York Times report, 70 percent of potential poll workers recruited by the board drop out before Election Day. A municipal poll workers program would allow the BOE to supplement its hiring with vetted city employees who have experience providing government services.

"They’re dealing with the challenges of hiring 35,000 poll workers, which is essentially a temporary job that is a couple of days per year. So you’re not going to get the best and the brightest,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy analyst for the good government group Reinvent Albany. “If you tap the city’s employees...you’re going to get a much more qualified workforce that at least in theory is used to dealing with people, because they do so at their agencies every day.”

“A lot of the problems would be solved by having city employees work as poll workers, or at least some poll workers,” he added.

Because it is illegal for municipal employees to be paid twice for one day of work -- like being paid by the BOE at the same time that they are on the clock at their primary city job -- the path forward would require a change in the law or a provision in municipal employee contracts.

“So then the question is how to handle it. Is it appropriate to give an additional vacation or personal comp time day in order to balance that out,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the government watchdog Common Cause New York, in an interview.

“That’s a collective bargaining question, which so far it is my understanding the city has not taken up with the unions,” she added.

There are roughly 332,000 full-time city employees, according to Citizens Budget Commission, most of which are represented by unions, such as District Council 37, United Federation of Teachers, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.

The BOE has also been reticent to allow part-time poll workers to handle problems with ballot scanners -- which are prone to jamming and a major contributor to poll site chaos -- because of the technical expertise required to deal with the machines. Ryan says having an additional team of municipal employees dedicated specifically to clearing simple jams would go far. He has sought a model similar to Los Angeles County’s.

“One of the direct fixes that we can do is have steady staff at the poll sites who are there simply to clear what I am going to refer to as the ‘top-side’ ballot jams,” he told Johnson at the November hearing. “So if a ballot does jam it can be cleared quickly, as opposed to relying on a team of field technicians to have to be dispatched from one location to another.”

If the mayoral administration was interested in pursuing a municipal poll workers program through municipal employee contract negotiations, nothing in the law would prevent it from doing so.

“As a general matter, at present public servants are permitted to work as election day poll workers and translators; they do not require waivers of Chapter 68, the City’s conflicts of interest law, to do so,” wrote Chad Gholizadeh, assistant counsel at the Conflicts of Interest Board. COIB does not have any specific guidance related to poll workers in the rules it has promulgated.

One obstacle the city may face in creating a municipal employee poll worker program is the level of political activity by labor unions in New York. Unions often back candidates and encourage their members to participate in get-out-the-vote campaigns in the leadup to and on Election Day. Having city employees working for the BOE at the polls means they would not be available to do the type of electioneering their unions may endorse.

"We’d have any conversation with [the BOE] but again I find it a little contradictory that we had an approach that would start to address that issue while still allowing city workers to do the work that they are doing – there wasn’t even interest in engaging that seriously," de Blasio said at the April press conference.

Council Member Ben Kallos, who has sponsored legislation on BOE hiring practices, does not believe union political activity has been a consideration for DC37, the city’s largest municipal employee union. “They and their members are just so about the public service and I have never heard a concern that they would prefer to have their members out in the field. For them it’s just about what else can we do to help our city,” he told Gotham Gazette.

Kallos says for DC37 “the only question they had was a logistics question,” like whether the compensation is appropriate and how it would affect time off.

DC37 did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Three other unions representing city employees contacted by Gotham Gazette would not weigh in on a municipal poll workers program.

“We have not seen any details and have taken no position,” wrote Dick Riley, a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, in an email, and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association declined to comment.

Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents employees of NYCHA, CUNY, and some city agencies, told Gotham Gazette the union would not take a position on a municipal poll workers program without seeing specific proposal details.

He did, however, offer the city some advice: “They need to find qualified people wherever they can.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.



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