November 29, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

How to Revitalize New York City’s Food System Beyond the Pandemic

Mayor Adams preps food (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

This month marks the second anniversary of New York City’s first reported case of COVID-19. As the pandemic begins to recede, it is time to set the policies that will repair the damage it has caused to the city’s food system and to take steps to protect against future crises. 

The pandemic exacerbated long-standing issues of food insecurity, diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and an inadequately paid and protected food workforce. To ensure a recovery that moves beyond a pre-pandemic baseline that was already unacceptable, city policy-makers need to develop comprehensive policy actions that address the fundamental drivers of the city’s food problems.  

For the last two years, food policy researchers at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute at the CUNY School of Public Health, Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, and the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University have assessed the impact of the pandemic on the city’s food system. This week we released recommendations based on these studies that will enable New York City to make meaningful progress towards creating a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable food system.  

Our report suggests four broad goals for a revitalized New York City food system.

First, to ensure all New Yorkers get the food they need to sustain health and eliminate hunger, the city needs to strengthen and integrate its separate and dispersed food assistance programs into one coordinated agency focused on food.

Another imperative is to synchronize policies that increase access to healthy food with those that discourage promotion of unhealthy products like soda and fast food. 

High rates of food insecurity and diets that lead to disease are two sides of a dysfunctional food system. To reduce food insecurity, New York City can shift its charity-based emergency food system in which private organizations distribute free food during crises to a public system that ensures that everyone can afford the food they need.

Specific measures to begin this transition include maximizing enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP,) the nation’s largest food security and poverty reduction program, and ensuring access to affordable housing and health care — the two expenses that lead many New Yorkers into food insecurity. To improve healthy food access, the city can significantly expand fruit and vegetable vouchers and incentive programs, such as Health Bucks and Get the Good Stuff, and improve the nutritional quality and reach of the city’s institutional food programs in schools, childcare programs, hospitals, and senior centers.

To reduce the abundance of messaging that promotes unhealthy food, city agencies should restrict the promotion of unhealthy food in schools, public transit, public parks, and public housing developments. This will reduce the deluge of messages that encourage New Yorkers to consume unhealthy foods, which is a driver of the city’s high rates of diet-related diseases. By expanding the application of the NYC Food Standards, which ensure that the city serves healthy food in its public institutions, the city can discourage distribution and sale of unhealthy food in these settings. Providing incentives to food retailers and restaurants to stop promoting unhealthy food and beverages in their businesses will help make healthy food the default choice for all New Yorkers. Taken together, these steps will help create a coordinated, integrated policy agenda designed to reduce the incidence and severity of diet-related diseases and the racial/ethnic inequities in these conditions.   

Second, New York City needs to move beyond its crisis-driven response to recurring food problems and  create a more robust and sustainable food infrastructure with ongoing monitoring and food insecurity surveillance.

Other actions that can help to avert a repeat surge in food insecurity and diet-related health problems triggered by the pandemic include further investments in the Hunts Point Distribution Center; improving regional transport of food to make it easier for retailers to get regionally grown produce; using zoning to distribute healthier food outlets more equitably; and implementing a long-term plan to support urban agriculture.

Establishing a user-friendly, community-accessible city-wide system for measuring progress towards achieving food policy goals at the neighborhood and city levels will enable residents to hold city officials accountable. Similar data systems are currently in place in public education and public safety.   

Third, any plan to revitalize the food system must also improve conditions for the city’s food workers, a large, low-paid sector of the city’s workforce that was particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

To realize this goal, the city can improve enforcement of local laws on wages, benefits, and health and safety; extend new laws ensuring fair work hours and just causes for termination to all food workers including food deliverers; and develop a comprehensive food workforce development strategy for the city that improves pay, benefits, health, and safety protections and provides the skills and education that enable food workers to advance their careers.

Finally, to improve food systems planning and engage citizens in control and ownership of our food system, the city can support community organizations to develop and implement community food plans. It can also establish and support training and educational programs in schools, community organizations and universities to prepare New York City’s young people and community leaders to be effective advocates for food justice and food equity. 

For the last 20 years, New York City Mayors and City Councils have made multiple important changes to the city’s food system. These changes, however, have been uncoordinated and modest compared to what is needed.

In fact, our studies show these efforts have not been sufficient to make significant progress in reducing food insecurity and diet-related diseases or improving the conditions of food workers, problems  prevalent before the pandemic that have worsened since. To show that food policy matters, the current Mayor and City Council — in partnership with communities, activists, and academics — will need to chart and effectively implement  a more ambitious, coordinated, and well-resourced plan.

The pandemic, new city and state elected leaders, and the growing recognition that only smart, robust government policy can solve the most serious challenges facing the city have created new opportunities for making greater strides towards fixing our food system. Our recommendations provide a comprehensive and practical road map for beginning that transformation now.  

Sara Abiola is Executive Director, Tisch Food Center, Associate Research Professor, Dept. of Health and Behavior Studies, Teachers College; Charles Platkin is Executive Director, Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College, and Nicholas Freudenberg is Senior Faculty Fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and Distinguished Professor of Public Health at CUNY School of Public Health. 

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