NYC Food Standards Should Address Sustainability

Executive Order #122 of 2008 established New York City’s food policy coordinator and required the development of New York City Agency Food Standards by the coordinator and the Commissioner of the Health Department. All City agencies are required to follow the food standards for all meals purchased, prepared, or served, and agencies must also ensure that their contractors follow the standards for all meals served in City funded programs. The Executive Order requires that the standards be reviewed and revised at least once every three years from the date of their implementation. Such a revision is currently underway. 

In the past, the food policy coordinator has construed the standards as narrowly focused on nutritional goals to improve health outcomes and reduce the prevalence of obesity and diet-related disease. And, indeed, the agency food standards developed three years ago are effective at reducing fat and sodium content, requiring agencies to buy only 100% fruit juice, prohibiting fruit canned in syrup, recommending whole wheat bread and pasta, and establishing healthier cooking methods by prohibiting techniques like deep frying. They are ambitious measures that have undoubtedly improved the health of the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on City food in a wide range of programs.

Unfortunately, however, the standards do not address how the food that New York City serves is actually produced. As the city goes through the revision process, the food policy coordinator and the city officials she is working with should consider addressing in the standards some or all of the broader goals of sustainability articulated in policy documents like FoodWorks, Food in the Public Interest, and other city plans and programs. Executive Order #122 does not preclude making the standards more comprehensive. And a preference for sustainably-produce food could benefit the rural communities surrounding New York City and the ecosystems that our city depends on for drinking water, open space, and clean air.

Broadening the standards to address sustainability might mean adding language that requires New York to buy food produced in the healthiest way possible, with little or no pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and in the case of meat, minimal use of antibiotics and growth-inducing hormones. For fresh fruits and vegetables procured by city agencies, it might mean preferentially procuring food grown in our watershed or in the Hudson Valley, as Int. No. 452, currently under consideration by the City Council, would encourage. Other environmental and social factors could be considered as well.

Expanding the scope of New York’s Agency Food Standards would not divert attention from the need to get people to eat more vegetables and less sugary beverages. Rather, it would incorporate the other critical dimensions that make a food system both nutritious and sustainable.

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