This month we are sharing a guest post from Nicholas Freudenberg, Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
For more than a century, New York City has used the authority of municipal government to make healthy food, that most basic of human needs, more available for all city residents. In the last decade, the city’s Mayors and City Council have launched dozens of new initiatives to prevent diet-related diseases, reduce food insecurity and create a more sustainable urban food system. In a new report from the City University of New York Urban Food Policy Institute, my colleagues and I ask what New York has accomplished in food policy in the last decade and analyze the lessons for urban food policy in the coming decade.
Our report Food Policy in New York City Since 2008: Lessons for the Next Decade is based on our analyses of four sources: 20 major reports on food policy prepared by New York City and State public officials between 2008 and 2017; six annual Food Metrics Reports produced by the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy between 2012 and 2017; a review of evidence on implementation and impact of 40 major city and state food policies from the last decade; and an examination of 10-year city trends on key health and social outcomes including fruit and vegetable and sugary beverage consumption, rates of obesity and overweight, diagnoses of diabetes, and the number of food insecure individuals.
We found that the food policies of the last decade sought to achieve six goals: (1) improve nutritional well-being; (2) promote food security; (3) create food systems that support economic and community development; (4) ensure sustainable food systems; (5) protect food workers; and (6) strengthen food governance and food democracy. Our review identified policy successes and disappointments.
Food Policy Successes
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment is that food policy is now squarely on the municipal agenda. Two Mayors and City Councils have launched new food policies, created and expanded the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, and included food goals in major strategic plans for the city. Although there are some differences in emphasis over the years, we noted the consistency of food policy and the commitment to making it an intersectoral priority.
Second, over the decade city government and civil society groups have acted to enhance the power of municipal government to improve local food environments. Since 2008, New York City has improved the city’s institutional food programs through which 11 city agencies serve about 240 million meals and snacks a year. The city has simplified enrollment and expanded outreach for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP), a public food assistance program that in 2017 provided food benefits for 1.7 million food insecure New Yorkers. The city has supported dozens of new farmers markets, subsidized grocery stores in under-served neighborhoods, and made fruits and vegetables more available. This emerging public sector in food has the potential to serve as an alternative and catalyst for change to the private sector, which still prospers by making unhealthy food cheap and ubiquitous.
Obstacles to a Healthier Food System
These successes are tempered by significant shortcomings. New York City still lacks a coherent comprehensive food plan with specific measurable goals. In the 20 public reports we reviewed, elected officials made 420 specific recommendations for improvements in food policy, far too many for anyone to monitor.
While advocates are campaigning vigorously to make progress on each of the six food policy goals, their work is usually siloed. Neither leaders nor a policy agenda that speaks for the millions of New Yorkers most harmed by our current inequitable food system has emerged. Despite new governance mechanisms that improve coordination on food policy among city agencies, most New Yorkers still lack any voice in shaping their local food environment, a gap that leaves many policy decisions in the hands of real estate developers, supermarket companies or fast food chains.
Of greatest concern, critical health and social outcomes have barely budged in the last decade and the class and racial/ethnic gaps have persisted. While soda consumption has declined among adults, fruit and vegetable consumption has not increased. Modest declines in food insecurity are probably the result of improvement in the local economy. As in 2007, about 55% of New York City adults are overweight or obese and the prevalence of diabetes has increased slightly. These findings suggest that if we simply keep on doing what we’re doing, New York’s most serious food problems will persist.
To avoid this fate, we recommend five actions:
- With multi-sector participation, create a New York City Food Plan that charts 5 to 10-year food policy goals.
- Identify key outcomes and metrics for these goals that can be used to monitor the food plan.
- Focus New York City food policies and programs more explicitly on reducing socioeconomic and racial inequities in food outcomes.
- Strengthen New York City’s public sector in food to better achieve food policy goals.
- Create new democratic and governance processes that offer New Yorkers a greater voice in shaping their food environments.
With these steps, New York City can translate the new attention on municipal food policy into measurable improvements in the well-being of its residents. Read the full report here.
Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. Co-authors of the report are Nevin Cohen, Jan Poppendieck and Craig Willingham.