Be it Resolved: Sustainable Food is Not Terribly Important

On June 30th, a coalition of NYC non-profits called the Foodprint Alliance celebrated the introduction of Resolution No. 2049 in the New York City Council. The Resolution, introduced by Council Member Bill de Blasio and 15 other sponsors by request of the Manhattan Borough President, calls for a citywide initiative to “establish climate-friendly food policies and programs, financial and technical support, a public awareness campaign regarding the City’s food consumption and production patterns and greater access to local, fresh, healthy food.” These are important goals that are supported by most sustainable food advocates, but I’m concerned that the resolution process is not the best strategy for achieving them, and can, in fact, divert energy from needed legislation.

Resolutions express a legislature’s intent. They are used to signify approval of land use changes, the budget, and political appointments, but they are also the vehicles through which legislators can sound off about state or federal matters, or obscure issues they choose not to tackle through a local law. For example, resolutions in the City Council made July 28th Peruvian Independence Day in New York (Res. no. 505 of 2006), and banned the pejorative use of the word “ghetto” (Res. No. 1723 of 2008). Each resolution was designed to make a statement and score political points, yet neither has much more than a symbolic impact. Few citizens, beyond the interest groups championing them, even know about the resolutions adopted by the City Council.

More importantly, when the Council chooses to adopt a resolution instead of a local law to address a matter that is within the Council’s legislative purview, it signals to key stakeholders – the Mayor, businesses, interest groups – that a mere symbolic statement is sufficient. In many ways, a resolution gives Council Members the appearance of taking action without the consequences.

The Foodprint resolution was referred to the Council’s Committee on Community Development (not Environmental Protection), where it probably will be discussed in one or more upcoming public hearings, be voted out of committee, and then pass the full city council. It may, paradoxically, signal that the City Council lacks the will or political capital to compel the Mayor to include the food system as a core element in its planning processes. While the resolution references the administration’s sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030, which is silent on how to feed a million new residents sustainably, it does not require the addition of a new food chapter. Nor will the resolution provide financial and technical support to community groups, businesses, and individuals working to grow and sell locally produced, fresh, healthy food.

What would be a more productive alternative? Rather than focusing on the Foodprint resolution, advocates would be better off spending time urging the Council to pass a local law that adds food to the portfolio of issues under the responsibility of the Mayor’s Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, which prepares PlaNYC 2030. The City Council actually created the office and defined its responsibilities by enacting Local Law 17 of 2008, which amended the City Charter to add the agency. Local Law 17 specified that the director of the office has the “power and duty to develop and coordinate the implementation of policies, programs and actions to meet the long-term needs of the city, with respect to its infrastructure, environment and overall sustainability citywide, including but not limited to the categories of housing, open space, brownfields, transportation, water quality and infrastructure, air quality, energy, and climate change…” The one word that the Council missed when it passed Local Law 17 was “food.”

Amending the law would correct this oversight. It would also elicit testimony about how to approach food system planning in New York, how much it will cost to develop and implement a food policy, and an analysis of the benefits of food planning. At the end of the day, Council Members would have to vote on the legislation, and if passed by the Council, the Mayor would either sign or veto the bill.

Beyond the need to establish food system planning, the City Council can be the leader in food systems policies by adopting a comprehensive package of policy initiatives outlined in Borough President Stringer’s report, Food in the Public Interest. The Mayor and Council have enacted progressive food systems legislation before. Local Law 9 was passed in 2008 to establish the new Green Cart program of fruit and vegetable pushcarts. Advocates should work with City Council Speaker Quinn’s office, Borough President Stringer, and the Mayor to develop a package of bills that advance the goals enumerated in the Foodprint resolution, but not expend energy on the resolution itself.

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