How New York City Is Revolutionizing Good Food Policy

Errol Schweizer

New York City has released a comprehensive and groundbreaking food policy document. Food Forward NYC: A 10 Year Policy Plan is a sweeping overview of goals, strategies and operational considerations to ensure that the city is building an equitable, sustainable and healthy food system for all New Yorkers. In light of the Covid-19 exposure of the fragility of our food system, the exploitation of essential food system workers that make it tick and the daily food insecurity faced by so many, the policy plan is quite timely and necessary.

Led by a team under Kate Mackenzie, NYC’s Director of Food Policy, who was tasked with coordinating efforts from over 300 organizations and agencies, the Food Forward plan acknowledges the complexity and enormous scope of New York City’s food system. Over 8 million people call the city home, with over 500,000 food sector employees and 40,000 food businesses. The city is among the most ethnically diverse places on the planet, with stores and restaurants that cater to nearly every culture and palate. New York City also sits at the heart of a lush agricultural region, with hundreds of dairy, meat and produce operations within a few hour’s drive. The vast majority of NYC food businesses are independently owned and operated, a big difference from the corporate dominated foodscapes of many metro areas. Nineteen billion pounds of food enters the city annually, yet nearly 1.6 million residents are food insecure, a staggering number considering the city’s global reputation for food innovation and variety. The report also acknowledges the racial inequities of health outcomes and economic mobility, as well as the vulnerability of the coastal metropolis and it’s food supply to climate change.

New York City’s food system is described as distributed, unlike other city essential services such as streets, water and electricity. There is no central hub or authority governing the supply, quality and availability of food, although there is already significant regulation around permitting, zoning, and other oversight areas. The city is a major distributor of food, such as the Hunts Point Terminal Market and supply chains developed by Chinese, Caribbean and other immigrant communities. As detailed by Brooklyn Borough President and Mayoral Candidate Eric Adams in his recent report of the Brooklyn food system, the city is also a major producer, processor and manufacturer of food, from urban farms to bakeries to small scale manufacturing. And New York City is already well known for its retail and consumer-facing outlets, from 14,000 bodegas and supermarket chains, to over 24,000 restaurants and bars.

The food system plan has 5 overarching goals: food access for all New Yorkers, worker protection, good jobs and economic opportunities; modern, efficient infrastructure and supply chains; sustainability from production to disposal; and education, communication and administrative support to implement the plan. The first goal is a huge hurdle with such food insecurity, and there are detailed plans around leveraging and adding to federal SNAP benefits, as well as expanding school meals access for whole families and a variety of tactics to increase availability and access of fresh foods and vegetables. The second goal also details admirable strategies, in particular the expansion of worker ownership, enforcement of fair scheduling, advocacy for stronger federal labor protections, and workforce and career development programs to onboard more local residents into food sector jobs. While the policy plan doesn’t transform NYC into a solidarity economy or worker’s paradise, it is a significant step forward at this scale, and still leaves the door open for improvement through further organizing and public pressure.

Addressing New York City’s food supply chain challenges takes up a big chunk of the plan. Critical distribution infrastructure and storage, packing, processing and production needs investment and strengthening, and food hubs, regional aggregation centers, and waste disposal facilities also seem high on the radar. The final section, on administrative organs needed to implement these policies, is ambitious, including participation in a regional food working group and data sharing projects, establishment of a food justice fund, and significant cooperation and communication requirements across city agencies, NGOs and community groups.

A major theme running through the policy goals is a commitment to the Good Food Purchasing Program. This comprehensive sourcing and supply chain framework developed by multiple stakeholder groups in collaboration with the Center For Good Food Purchasing, articulates five values that guide food purchasing decisions. These include local economies, nutrition, valued workforce, environmental sustainability. This framework means that food purchases by enrolled institutions must take into account the treatment of workers, the use of pesticides and GMO’s, the nutrient content and density, how animal proteins are raised and sourced, and many other metrics relating to the environment and climate. Launched in Los Angeles in 2012, GFPP has since expanded to 20 cities and 53 institutions with over $1 billion in annual purchases, already the size and impact of a mid-size grocery chain or large restaurant chain. With their school system being among the largest public procurement and food access institutions in the country, New York City enrolled in 2017. The city expanded the program across all public agencies in 2019, effectively committing all municipal food purchasing to the rubric.

According to Alexa Delwiche, the Executive Director of the Center for Good Food Purchasing, “New York City is the one of the largest purchasers of food in the nation, second only to the Department of Defense. Through the City’s visionary leadership and strategic focus, along with committed agencies working tirelessly to keep the city’s most vulnerable residents nourished and a community-based coalition ensuring the City remains accountable to their commitments, New York City has proven that if GFPP is possible at this scale, it’s possible in all public institutions; local, state, and federal.”

The plan has caught the ear of mayoral candidates, with public figures such as Andrew Yang, Eric Adams, Dianne Morales and Scott Stringer commenting positively on it and detailing in depth their own plans for food access and food justice . It may be the first time that a concept such as food sovereignty has entered into common parlance and is rapidly gaining recognition.

The plan is not perfect though. Public procurement standards under GFPP auspices only influence municipal supply chains and require public engagement and organizing to be implemented. The exploitation of gig workers and undocumented immigrants, particularly in food delivery and street vending, is still rampant. And just because food businesses are small and locally owned doesn’t mean that they aren’t taking advantage of their workers. And while New York City may be less dependent on national chains, the reliance for food security and access still falls primarily on a more heavily regulated private sector, as opposed to more public sector infrastructure such as food utilities or public cafeterias that would distribute food for free. And the connections between policy implementations and the extensive networks of community mutual aid groups that cared for their neighbors and built tremendous solidarity during the pandemic should be more overt.

However, what the policy plan also stumbles into in all of its vastness and glory is that New York City is sketching out a Right To Food. This concept, articulated as The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement by the U.N. FAO, is sorely needed in a country with such vast inequities in food access and affordability. The policy plan puts to rest the illusion of individual responsibility, instead articulating the complex web of socio-economic relationships and supply chains that enable and empower folks to access good food. By lining up infrastructure, procurement and administration to address food insecurity and sustainability throughout its supply chain’s and communities, New York City is taking an incredible leadership role in food policy for the 21st Century.