PlaNYC 2030 Update (the food edition)

New York City’s PlaNYC 2030, released in 2007, was roundly criticized by advocates of sustainable food systems because it was silent on food production, processing, distribution, or disposal.  Today, Mayor Bloomberg released an updated PlaNYC, which introduces the topic of food as a cross-cutting issue.  In the current plan, there are references to food throughout the document, particularly in discussions of what constitutes sustainable neighborhoods and in reference to specific initiatives like community- and school gardens and composting programs.  For a complex issue like food, it was a bit surprising that only two of the plan’s 198 pages are actually devoted to food. (Minneapolis just completed a major food plan, and Chicago’s regional plan has an entire chapter devoted to food systems, and the City Council’s own FoodWorks is a comprehensive 90-page policy plan.)

Nevertheless, the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability should be commended for incorporating food into the current version of PlaNYC.  Now that food is officially acknowledged as essential to a “greener, greater NY,” food system planners will be better positioned to advocate for the specific policies and programs that will make the food system sustainable.

The text of PlaNYC’s food section is reproduced below, in italics, with my comments in bold.
Healthy, sustainable food systems are critical to the well-being of our communities and central to our ability to accommodate a growing population. Yet food presents a unique planning challenge; unlike sewers or streets, much of New York City’s food systems infrastructure is privately owned and shaped by the tastes and decisions of millions of individual consumers. These complicated and inter-related subsystems aren’t easily understood or influenced, even by concerted municipal interventions. 

I’m not sure why the food system is singled out as a unique planning challenge “because much of [its] infrastructure is privately owned and shaped by… individual consumers.” One could make the same argument about the private real estate market, which shapes the city’s housing opportunities and determines how sustainable our neighborhoods are, or the energy, telecommunications, and private transportation infrastructure, the uses and impacts of which are shaped by individual decisions and which, in turn, shape the city’s sustainability.  

NYC does have control of its terminal produce market, the land many gardens and farmers markets use, the infrastructure that prepares and serves food to our children, and the residential waste disposal system.  

The only reason the food system is not easily understood is that the city has, until this point, devoted few resources to it. We certainly have the capacity to understand the system by tapping the expertise of agencies like Planning, Health, Environmental Protection, Economic Development, Sanitation, and the Council and Borough Presidents.

Furthermore, many of food’s most significant climate and environmental impacts are associated with food production, most of which takes place outside the city, and shaped by federal policy. Nonetheless, our food systems intersect with several areas addressed by PlaNYC. Improving the distribution and disposal of food within New York City and increasing access to healthy food will not only benefit the environment, it can also have positive public health and economic impacts.

New York City can influence the climate and environmental impacts associated with food production outside of our five boroughs through the power of the public purse.  With hundreds of millions of meals purchased by the city for its wide ranging agencies, and some 860,000 meals per day procured by the Department of Education, NYC has a significant opportunity to buy sustainably-produced food.  And, in the Catskill watershed (as PlaNYC mentions below) NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection has worked to ensure that farming remains viable and that the farms in the watershed are operated sustainably. PlaNYC addresses many other systems that extend beyond the city line, like water, energy, and transportation.  Food is not unique.

We are developing a multi-faceted strategy to increase access to affordable and healthy foods and reduce the environmental and climate impacts of food production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

On food production, we will survey municipal lands to identify underutilized properties that may be suitable for urban agriculture or community gardens. We will continue facilitating agriculture projects at publicly-owned sites by planting 129 new community gardens on New York City Housing Authority land and promoting school gardens through Grow to Learn NYC, our citywide school gardens initiative. We will also review existing regulations and laws to identify and remove unnecessary barriers to creating community gardens and urban farms. In some cases, remediated brownfield sites also present an opportunity for community gardens, and we will design state-of-the-art protective measures that allow community gardens to grow on remediated sites. Through our Watershed Protec- tion Program we will continue to work with farmers in our watershed to minimize the use of fertilizer and adopt sustainable agriculture practices. 

These are all important, worthwhile programs. 

We are working to better understand how we can improve the distribution of food into and around the city. As a first step, we will work with the City Council to analyze our foodshed and evaluate the environmental effects of our food systems. Redeveloping the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market, the largest wholesale produce distribution center in the world, will significantly impact food distribution, so we will work to facilitate the redesign of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market to improve its functionality. 

A standalone, wholesale farmers market, which was strongly supported by the former Spitzer administration but then taken off the table, should be reconsidered.  Other potential distribution improvements are discussed in the City Council’s FoodWorks report. 

Our strategies to create more sustainable communities will promote access to, and consumption of, fresh and healthy food. We will facilitate the creation of 300 healthy food retail options in underserved areas of the city and identify additional zoning amendments to expand the FRESH program to incentivize the development of grocery stores in neighborhoods with food access needs. We will continue using City-owned land to foster entrepreneurship in food retail and processing. 

The FRESH initiative is a great policy innovation, but should be expanded to foster the development of cooperatives, small groceries, farmers markets, and other food retail models besides conventional supermarkets.

Better management of food waste can save money and reduce the environmental cost of food disposal. Food scraps make up 18% of New York City’s residential solid waste stream, and we estimate that food waste composes 11% of commercial solid waste not including construction and demolition fill. We will create additional opportunities to recover organic materials including food scraps, yellow grease, and yard waste at community and commercial levels. We will also pursue energy-generating projects such as food waste diversion at the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. 

Recently enacted City Council legislation requires the Department of Sanitation to examine the feasibility of citywide food waste composting, which would not only keep organic matter out of our disposal facilities, but could create a substantial quantity of compost for urban and peri-urban farms.  Strange that it wasn’t mentioned in PlaNYC. 

In addition to its work supporting the initiatives in PlaNYC, our Office of the Food Policy Coordinator facilitates other citywide programs to improve our food environment, address diet-related diseases, and combat food insecurity. New York City has led public health initiatives like calorie labeling on menus and banning trans fats in restaurants. We have also set pioneering nutritional standards for food served in City agencies and schools. 

New York City’s nutritional standards, which are incorporated in a set of City Agency Food Standards, are quite advanced.  But we may be missing the opportunity to use our standards, which are currently being revised, to foster sustainable food production by specifying that we will make every best effort to procure food from sustainable sources. 

We cannot create a greener, greater New York without systems that make healthy food available to residents and dispose of food waste in ways that reduce its environmental impact. The food-related initiatives within the Plan will improve the long-term health of individual New Yorkers while strengthening our economy and environment. 

Great to see this articulated in PlaNYC.

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