Food Movement Rising: NYC Mayoral Food Forum

Outside it seemed like just another political event, with signs for various candidates – Quinn, Liu, De Blasio – held in the air, waving, bright and loud yet somehow after a while becoming inconspicuous, blending into the background like branches on trees; part of the physical and political landscape on 13tth street. There were eager volunteers looking for signatures on petitions about fracking. There was a firm urgency and solemnity in the voices that an election year and a hotly contested, highly uncertain, and very important race (mayor of New York City) can produce so well.

But inside The New School’s Tishman Auditorium, it clearly was not a typical political event. This was something new. The crowd – a mix of young professionals, students, and older activists – streamed in and the check-in lines grew. The energy was palpable, thick like the unyielding summer heat practically melting the concrete beneath the feet of the volunteers outside the building.

Stacks of policy papers and brochures filled the tables in the hallway in front of the auditorium, with titles like “An NYC Food Policy Agenda” and “Food Secure NYC 2018.” People jostled to grab as many as possible, cradling the packets and flyers on their forearms or against their chests, eager to absorb these ideas before the first ever Mayoral Candidate Forum on the Future of Food in New York City began. The auditorium filled quickly, as did the two overflow rooms. Candidates Sal Albanese, Bill De Blasio, John Catsimatidis, John Liu, Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson, and Anthony Weiner were all scheduled to attend.

At 6pm sharp, Dr. Marion Nestle (NYU Food Studies professor, author of key food movement books such as Food Politics, among others) walked to the podium to set the stage and the context for this event. She demonstrated her influence in the food world when she started a sentence with, “you know, Michael Pollan asked me…” Pollan, the well-known author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, maybe the seminal text of this nascent food movement, essentially asked Dr. Nestle, “what is this forum all about?”

Dr. Nestle’s answer, which she relayed to the audience, was that this was a momentous, epoch-defining kind of event. It indicated the growing, undeniable clout of the food movement on the political process, a newfound power that was large enough to attract the major mayoral candidates to come to this auditorium on this night and talk about the issue of food in New York City.

We saw this rising political influence in 2012, with the near victory of Prop 37 in California to label GMOs (which should have been a victory, and would have been a victory if not for some last minute disinformation campaigns on the part of the food corporations). We have seen it in the Bloomberg Era in New York City, as the city has led the way on many food- and public health-related policies such as mandatory calorie counts on menus, Health Bucks (which increase the value of EBT dollars by 40% when they are spent on fresh produce at farmers’ markets), and an expansion of a composting program in the city.

Most prominently, we see it in the renewed consciousness about how our food is grown; about what we put into our bodies and the way that what we put into our bodies in fact becomes us; and about the intimate connection between the health of our land, of our food system (especially the way we treat the most vulnerable of workers in that system), and of our bodies. This food consciousness is just now starting to be translated into a political consciousness, where a more widespread and lasting change is more likely to be achieved.

According to the Food Bank for New York City, 1.9 million New Yorkers (out of about 8.2 million residents) rely on SNAP (food stamps) to get enough food to feed their families. This sort of pervasive food insecurity in our city, in which people often struggle to access a sufficient amount of healthy food and have to rely on emergency food providers or on government assistance, framed the entire discussion on this night. Even if it was not explicitly being discussed, it was never far from view. In New York City, the issue of food is really one of access, of equity, and of fairness, intertwining with issues of poverty, education, and public health.

On the question of access, most candidates used the raising of the minimum wage as the starting point. Healthier food is typically more expensive than processed junk food (thanks in part to government subsidies that make the corn and soy that goes into these products artificially cheap on the farm and at the supermarket). Higher wages could change the calculus of a shopper who looks for the most calories per dollar (which in the current food system frequently leads to the purchase and consumption of junk food and soda).

More than just addressing food access, the minimum wage discussion also relates to workers’ rights: 14% of food workers are themselves receiving SNAP benefits and cannot hope to support their families on their paychecks alone. There is certainly a great deal of irony in the idea that the very people who serve us our food often cannot afford that food for themselves.

Other key issues in the discussion related to revitalizing the Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, keeping it as a source of economic activity for the city, and using the enormous purchasing power of the city to support local farms by procuring more local food for the Market; creating a city agency or administrative post to deal with food issues and help coordinate between community organizational activity and the activity of the city government in the realm of food; and urban agriculture.

It is this last topic that is most intriguing as a source of transformative change in the city’s food system, as it can address the physical landscape of the city and the spiritual landscape of the city’s residents, changing the way we relate to the land beneath our feet and to our awareness of the way in which food rises from the ground and sustains our bodies. In cities, we have lost that connection between food, land and sustenance.

Urban farms and community gardens not only restore that connection, but they are aesthetically pleasing ways to revitalize vacant urban lots, and can provide healthy food for the communities in which the gardens grow. The fact that urban agriculture is a topic of a discussion amongst not just the food community, but the political class too, bodes well for the future of the food system here.

As Dr. Nestle said, quoting a study done at Columbia University: there are 5,000 vacant, farmable acres of land in New York City. When it comes to urban agriculture, there is certainly a role for local government to play, though it is a more hands-off role: allowing gardens to grow, preventing developers from bulldozing the gardens, and facilitating the beginning steps of planning and planting by providing a directory of vacant land that community gardeners and activists can access and use to break ground on their gardens. Sal Albanese said he was the only candidate not taking contributions from real estate developers, and was therefore best positioned to support urban agriculture, since he would not feel beholden to the developers who want to build condos in formerly vacant lots where gardens have sprung up.

This is a pivotal moment in the life of this emerging food movement: all around we see a greater sense of purpose in the movement and a more pervasive consciousness in the general populace about the importance of how we treat our land, of what we put into our bodies, and of the importance of treating the people who grow our food and serve our food with the dignity they are owed. With this election in New York City, we have a chance to elect a mayor that cares about these issues and will act on them. As this forum showed, to be a viable candidate now in New York City requires being conversant and passionate about food issues. After this food forum, the candidates are on record with their pledges about the food system in this city. It will be up to us both to continue our work on the ground, and to hold the future mayor accountable when he or she gets to City Hall.

Back outside, after the Forum, you could sense flowers sprouting out of the crackling concrete, the potential for beauty and harmony where previously they had been scarce – a movement rising, and a true change coming.



One Response to “Food Movement Rising: NYC Mayoral Food Forum”
  1. Robin Fixell says:

    Eric–Beautifully stated and very informative. I can’t believe there are 5,000 farmable acres in NYC! That fact alone makes one aware of the real possibility of seeing local gardens change lives. –Robin

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