Just over a week ago, the New York City Council voted in five impressive pieces of legislation designed to help ensure more New Yorkers have access to healthy, fresh, locally grown foods produced in New York State and contiguous states. Our own Councilmember Brad Lander, representing both Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, co-sponsored four of the five bills.
The new legislation, part of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s FoodWorks Initiative, requires local government to aid in the process of increasing access to healthy food, an issue primarily championed by a diverse collection of community gardeners, parents, teachers, activists, chefs, farmers and students across New York City and beyond.
Lander sees the movement for improving our food system as one that has bridged many diverse groups.
“There really is a grassroots movement concerned about our food system and what it’s doing to our environment and to our health. The outpouring of interest from all kinds of people during my time in office has truly been striking,” said Lander.
The separate but related bills aim to encourage the procurement of locally-grown foods, help identify underused city property for agricultural or gardening use, reduce wasteful food packaging and energy usage and implement annual reporting and monitoring of city procedures and programs related to food.
“These bills are crucial to the goal of FoodWorks – to use our food system to create jobs, protect the environment and improve public health,“ said Speaker Quinn in a statement.
The first bill, “Buy Local” (452-A), co-sponsored by Lander, will encourage city agencies to prioritize the purchase of locally-grown and processed foods, and hopefully create incentive for investing in more local food processing and distributing businesses, which are a crucial but underdeveloped link in the local food system.
Councilmember Lander pointed out one difficulty that local growers now face.
“There is a processing issue. Lettuce, for example, is purchased by city agencies in large quantities. Some lettuce is grown in New York; however, there is not a large enough wash/cut/pack facility nearby," he said. "As a result, the majority of our lettuce comes from California."
"Hopefully this legislation will create the incentive for someone to invest in such a facility," Lander added.
The bill will affect most city agencies, ranging from the Department of Parks and Recreation, to the Department of Corrections and the Police Department.
In each solicitation for food purchases or food services, agencies must include a request (not a mandate) that each vendor supplying food review a list of potential sources in New York state, report all food procured under the contract by type and dollar value, and indentify food procured under contract from New York state and the value of those purchases.
“This is a tough issue, because cost matters,” said Lander. “We need to be good stewards of people’s tax dollars. We need to find folks who can provide good food at a competitive price.”
A second bill, 615-A, which Lander calls “Understand our Impact,” establishes an annual reporting system on our food system. The bill requires the monitoring and reporting on multifarious phases of the food system, so that government officials, agencies, organizations, advocates and individuals working on food issues can make educated decisions about what improvements can be made to our food system. The annual report will be issued for each fiscal year on September 1.
The report features data on everything from types of food produced upstate and transportation routes of food in and out of the Hunts Point Terminal Market, to information on food industry job training programs and tracking the number of salad bars in schools.
“A bill establishing procurement preferences and a bill establishing an annual report go together well,” said Lander.
“If we want to make our food healthier and more environmentally friendly over the long term, we need to know how much we are eating, where our food comes from, and what are the associated impacts,” he said in a statement after the bill’s passage.
While the Department of Education will be monitored under the annual report, the procurement bill will not affect it. The DOE has a unique status because of a state bill passed in the first Bloomberg term that places it directly under mayoral control.
Lander has shown his support and devotion to this key issue recently through the organization of a conference called School Food Rocks, which he helped organize along with partners like Wellness In Schools, FamilyCook Productions and Grow NYC. The conference was designed to bring together diverse people and groups working on the issue of improving access to healthy, locally-sourced food in schools, and to “highlight the range of projects” working to achieve this.
“If you spend any time in most school cafeterias you’ll find they aren’t places where healthy, locally-sourced food predominates," said Lander. "Food outside of schools is often worse. School is where lots of kids learn eating habits, so that’s why we’ve focused on it.”
This past July, Lander also heeded the call of several hundred Kensington/Windsor Terrace residents who petitioned for access to healthier food and a farmers market. Now, local high school students help sell fresh fruits and vegetables along Fort Hamilton Parkway.
Lander co-sponsored a related bill, 461-A, aimed at reducing unnecessary food packaging so that less waste is sent to landfills.
Lander also backed a fourth bill, (627), which urges the New York State legislature to reform the State’s food purchasing guidelines.
The new city council legislation passed also requires the Department of City-wide Administrative Services (DCAS) to create a searchable, online, free database of city-owned and leased property. This will enable individuals, groups and organizations to identify underused city land that holds potential for gardening or agricultural use, open space, affordable housing or economic development.
Finally, the legislation makes it possible for building owners to construct greenhouses on their rooftops, by adding greenhouses to a list of rooftop structures that are excluded from height limitations. Greenhouses have the potential to grow some food year-round and thus provide New Yorkers with more healthy food. This bill also creates a Green Roof Tax Abatement for building owners that grow food-producing plants.
Lander said the abundance of new initiatives happening around the city to increase access to healthy, local food has great potential.
“There is a lot of experimentation going on right now – we don’t know yet what is going to be most effective. But through monitoring and reporting hopefully we will get some results and that’s very exciting," he said.