Eating is an Agricultural Act

I’m observing the Memorial Day weekend by taking a break from food policy and, instead, by getting my hands dirty planting my garden. My partner and I are lucky to have a small home in Coxsackie, New York, a rural village on the west bank of the Hudson about two hours north of New York City. We’ve been growing vegetables here for the past three years, learning mostly by trial and error, and a lot of sweat, with slowly increasing success.

Preparing the garden is tedious and exhausting, though nothing is more rewarding than the transformation from a weedy patch to a clean bed. Last season’s decision to use landscaping plastic, an admittedly unsustainable product (insofar as it is single-use), saved me from hours of weed pulling last year, and eased the preparation of the planting beds this year. (This season, I’ve switched to a more durable fabric that promises to last several seasons, but I’m not going back to constant weeding.)

At the start of the weekend, I happened to pick up the latest issue of Edible Hudson Valley at Fleischer’s meat market, a Kingston, NY butcher that sources sustainably-raised livestock from local farmers. The editors reprinted a wonderful essay from Wendell Berry, What City People Can Do, which I hadn’t read in years. Berry makes the case that urban eaters must think of themselves as co-producers of food, not merely consumers, who must reclaim responsibility for their part in the food economy. In Berry’s words, “eaters… must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

Berry’s brief essay reflects on the role of urban eaters in establishing a healthy and vibrant foodshed in places like New York City and its surrounding communities. Re-reading it also reminded me why planting a garden is so rewarding. Pulling weeds, spreading compost, turning the soil, and setting seedlings helps me to appreciate, at a visceral level, the complex relationships among soil, plants, animals and humans, the importance of sustainable agriculture, and the challenges of creating a healthy and fair food system. With regular tending, good weather, the scent of our dog Max keeping the deer away, and some luck, we’ll soon be able to feast on — and share — an abundant harvest, supplemented by trips to the Union Square Greenmarket.

Back to food policy next week.

Food Access Legislation New York Zoning

Making Grocers more Appetizing to Developers

On May 16th, New York City unveiled a new initiative, Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH), which combines zoning changes and some financial incentives to make it less costly for developers to include supermarkets in their projects, and to allow the construction of supermarkets in light manufacturing districts without a special permit.

The initiative applies to four areas of the city with the least access to healthy, fresh food: the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn, and Downtown Jamaica. The Bloomberg administration hopes the rezoning will stimulate the growth of supermarkets in these neighborhoods, and in so doing, provide more equitable access to food, promote healthier eating, and reduce diet-related diseases.

The proposed zoning incentives will be reviewed by all affected community boards, each borough board, and the Borough Presidents. Once these community and borough reviews are complete, the City Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposal before it is voted on by the City Council.

Food Disparities

A growing body of evidence suggests that the location and types of food establishments in a community affects the eating habits of its residents, with significant nutrition-related health consequences. Simply put, having a supermarket nearby makes it easier to buy healthy foods such as fresh produce (Zenk et al., 2005).

Compared to more affluent neighborhoods, however, communities with lower socioeconomic status have been shown to have fewer large supermarkets (Morland et al., 2002; Moore and Roux, 2006; Powell et al., 2007), less access to healthy foods (Baker, et al., 2006), and greater distances between residents and the nearest major food store (Zenk et al., 2005). Instead, low-income communities typically have a higher proportion of small convenience stores, bodegas, and liquor stores to full-service groceries and large supermarkets. Though some low-income neighborhoods have specialty grocers supplying high quality food at an affordable price, in many communities, small shops and bodegas generally have fewer healthy options and less fresh produce than larger grocery stores and supermarkets located in higher-income neighborhoods (Graham, et al., 2006).

In New York, like many large cities, the disparities in food access based on income, race and ethnicity are substantial. In East and Central Harlem, for example, bodegas are more abundant and prevalent than supermarkets, in sharp contrast to affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side where high quality food is readily available. Indeed, a recent study by the Department of City Planning (DCP, 2008) that underpins the current zoning proposal found that many of the city’s low-income neighborhoods lack a sufficient number of grocery stores and supermarkets.

Proposed Changes

The proposed zoning changes allow developers in the four target communities to build larger buildings than otherwise permitted under the existing zoning if they include a neighborhood grocery store on the ground floor. The bonus to the developer is one additional square foot of residential floor area for each square foot of grocery store, up to a maximum of 20,000 additional square feet.

The food retailer must have at least 6,000 square feet of selling area for general food and nonfood grocery products, with at least half the square footage devoted to the sale of general food products intended for home preparation and consumption, and 30% of the area for perishable food, with at least 500 square feet for the sale of fresh produce. For buildings that take advantage of this new zoning provision, the City Planning Commission may allow the developer to increase the maximum building height by 15 feet to accommodate the additional floor area.

The proposed zoning change also reduces the burden of providing parking spaces as an additional incentive. In districts that permit residential buildings with ground floor retail, only very large stores (over 40,000 square feet) would be required to provide parking, while in other commercial and light manufacturing districts, smaller stores would be exempted from providing any parking.

To encourage grocery store development in areas zoned for light manufacturing use (M-1 districts), the proposed zoning would allow large food stores to be permitted as-of-right. In New York, where the uniform land use review process (ULURP) and environmental reviews can drag on for many months, even for relatively uncontroversial projects, as-of-right development can save a developer time and money.

In addition to these zoning changes, the City has assembled incentives for grocers to build, renovate, and equip their stores in low-income neighborhoods. These include real estate tax abatements, mortgage recording tax waivers, sales tax exemptions, and a variety of existing financial incentive programs that grocery store owners can take advantage of.


This proposal is certainly worth adopting. Providing a density bonus to developers who include grocery stores in their buildings, easing parking requirements, and allowing supermarkets in light manufacturing districts will provide incentives for developers to incorporate food retailers in new construction and in manufacturing areas, and therefore will make it simpler for these businesses to locate in communities currently lacking fresh, healthy food. But it is not clear to what extent these zoning changes will significantly increase food access. Supermarkets locate their stores based on their anticipated customer traffic, revenue projections, and financial risks (Winne, 2008). Having the right zoning in place is only one variable in a much more complex equation.

The current city administration has not been timid about wielding its power to regulate and issue permits — and now zone — to improve nutrition and increase access to healthy food. Over the past few years, New York banned trans fats, required chain restaurants to post calorie information, created 1,000 licenses for mobile food vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables in poor neighborhoods, funded electronic benefits terminals so food stamp recipients could shop at farmers markets, and added locally-sourced apples to the school lunch program.

But these bold initiatives, while important steps, need to be part of a much broader food planning effort. The City’s major sustainable planning initiative, encapsulated in PlaNYC 2030, offers a prescription for providing housing, energy, water, open space, and transportation infrastructure to a future city with a million more residents. Yet the plan is silent on the question of how we will feed the current and future population sustainably in 2030.

The community boards, Borough Presidents, and City Council should enact the proposed FRESH zoning changes, but should insist on a revision to PlaNYC 2030 that addresses broader issues, such as how to improve transportation to make the movement of food from surrounding farms more efficient and sustainable, steps to develop a wholesale farmers market to make selling local food to restaurants and supermarkets logistically feasible, and a plan to carve out sufficient space for urban and suburban farms, processing facilities, and markets.

Nearly a decade ago, planning professors Kami Pothukuchi and Jerome Kaufman observed that the food system is “a stranger to the planning field,” conspicuously absent from city plans, the planning literature, the classrooms of planning schools (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000). Fortunately, the past decade has seen significant growth in food system planning. It is time for New York City to take the lead by developing a comprehensive foodshed assessment and plan for the city and surrounding region.

To get involved in this initiative, NYC residents should send comments to your local community board, Borough President’s Office, and City Council member.


Baker, EA, M. Schootman, E. Barnidge, and C. Kelly. 2006. The role of race and poverty in access to foods that enable individuals to adhere to dietary guidelines. Preventing Chronic Disease 3, (3) (07/01): A76.

Brown, Elliot. 2009. Amanda Burden: Supermarket Zoning Plan Weeks Away. The New York Observer. April 23, 2009. Accessed at

Department of City Planning (DCP). 2008. Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage. Accessed April 24, 2009 at

Graham R., Kaufman L., Novoa Z., Karpati A. Eating in, eating out, eating well: Access to healthy food in North and Central Brooklyn. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2006.

Moore, LV, and A. Diez Roux. 2006. Associations of neighborhood characteristics with the location and type of food stores. American Journal of Public Health (01/01).

Morland, K., S. Wing, A. Diez Roux, and C. Poole. 2002. Neighborhood characteristics associated with the location of food stores and food service places. American Journal of Preventive Medicine (01/01).

Pothukuchi, K. and Kaufman, J. L. 2000. The Food System: A stranger to the planning field. Journal of the American Planning Association. 66, 2: 113.

Powell, LM, S. Slater, D. Mirtcheva, Y. Bao, and FJ Chaloupka. 2007. Food store availability and neighborhood characteristics in the united states. Preventive Medicine 44, (3) (03/01): 189-95.

Winne, M. 2008. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Boston: Beacon Press.

Zenk, SN, AJ Schulz, T. Hollis-Neely, and RT Campbell. 2005. Fruit and vegetable intake in African Americans income and store characteristics. American Journal of Preventive Medicine (01/01).


Don’t Greenwash Farmland Destruction

The US Green Building Council’s draft LEED* for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) rating system would allow subdivisions built on prime farmland to qualify for the organization’s green seal of approval. At a time when farmland is converted to subdivisions and shopping malls at a rate of two acres a minute, this is a major step in the wrong direction. Indeed, communities throughout the nation are looking for ways to revitalize their foodsheds and grow more food locally. We should be doing everything possible to preserve prime farmland, not greenwashing projects that pave over it.

Prime farmland is the land best suited for growing agricultural crops with minimal inputs of fuel, fertilizer, and pesticides and without causing soil erosion. Crops can be grown on lower quality land, but with more petrochemical inputs for the same bushels of output. Keeping prime farmland in farming, particularly in urbanizing counties, is a key strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cutting pesticide use, and limiting our dependence on distant food sources. Once this land is divided into parcels, paved, built over, and sliced up by roads and other infrastructure, it is lost forever.

The proposed LEED-ND standard, currently open for public comment until June 14, would allow developers to get LEED status even if the project is built on prime farmland, provided that they purchase easements protecting land with comparable soils. The calculations for mitigation are a bit complex, but in urbanized areas, sprawling projects with residential density less than or equal to 8.5 dwelling units per acre of buildable land have to protect twice as much farmland as they destroy. But the required mitigation drops as the density of the project increases. Projects with residential density between 11.5 and 13 dwelling units per acre must set aside at least 50% of the acreage destroyed. Those projects at a density of more than 13 dwellings per acre have no mitigation requirement at all. In projects located in rural areas, the mitigation requirements are even less stringent.

If adopted as-is, the LEED-ND certification will falsely brand as “sustainable” many projects that squander precious, non-renewable, fertile soils. Given the challenges of climate change, water shortages, and declining soil productivity, coupled with an increasing population, it is essential to preserve prime farmland for future food production near our towns and cities. If advocates are successful in their efforts to shift agricultural subsidies from large commodity growers to small- and mid-size sustainable farms, this farmland will be increasingly profitable to farm, and will form the backbone of a revived, diversified agricultural sector.

No doubt, the USGBC is concerned that a prerequisite precluding development on prime farmland would reduce the pool of applicants for the LEED-ND certification, including projects that have other beneficial green attributes. Some may believe that allowing LEED projects on prime farmland would encourage developers to build subdivisions with small built-in farms, like the well-known Prairie Crossing, and that these farmland subdivisions would mitigate the overall loss of farm acreage. Others may feel that prime farmland is simply not important enough to worry about, or is impossible to keep in farming given the current dominance of large-scale, global agribusiness.

But there is nothing sustainable about a project that diminishes our finite stock of fertile soil. Providing guidelines that encourage developers to build more compactly does not make it right to build a compact development on prime farmland any more than it justifies filling in wetlands, cutting intact forest landscapes, or paving over critical habitat for a project. And protecting an equivalent amount of land somewhere else, or installing solar collectors, greywater recycling systems, or other environmental technologies does not offset the permanent loss of this land.

Moreover, there is plenty of land to build great new neighborhoods in existing communities or on sites with marginal soils not suited to growing food, feed, or fiber located adjacent to towns and cities. Those are types of projects that deserve LEED-ND recognition. Prime farmland, a finite resource, should be the last place anyone builds, and those developers who choose to destroy prime farmland should not be given the honor of being called leaders in energy and environmental design.

*Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

To submit comments on the LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System, see the US Green Building Council’s website. This issue is addressed in the section called “Smart Location and Linkage (SSL) Prerequisite 4: Agricultural Land Conservation.”


Needed — Food Impact Assessments

An article in today’s New York Times reports that Costco, despite having received some $55 million in government support to build a new store in East Harlem, will not accept food stamps from its low-income neighbors.

This illustrates the perils of omitting food from our land use review, environmental assessment, and planning processes. Before receiving city subsidies or zoning variances, large-scale projects must be evaluated for their impacts on the food system, in addition to traffic, housing, water, and other infrastructure typically assessed in environmental impact statements. If food issues are built into the review processes, residents and elected officials will be in a better position to negotiate with developers and businesses for programs, infrastructure, and policies to ensure that the community’s food system is improved, not harmed, by new projects. Issues like traffic and sewage capacity regularly get scrutinized in the land use review process. Food should, too.

Of course, site by site assessment is inadequate. Long term planning is needed. Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration’s long-range sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030, is silent on the issue of how our growing city will be fed, let alone fed sustainably. The plan must be updated with a new chapter addressing the policies and investments needed to ensure that all New Yorkers, including the million new residents projected in PlaNYC, have access to healthy, fresh, affordable, sustainably produced food.

Food Access Zoning

Zoning for Food Access

City planners are increasingly applying the tools of their trade to fixing the failures of the urban food system. In the next few weeks, according to a report in the NY Observer, New York City’s Department of City Planning is poised to certify zoning changes to make it easier for supermarkets to be built as part of new developments and in light manufacturing districts. The Bloomberg administration hopes the new rules will stimulate the growth of supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods, and in so doing, promote more equitable access to food, healthier eating, and reduced incidence of diet-related diseases.

Ensuring that a city’s zoning encourages the development of supermarkets and mid-size grocers is a step in the right direction that is likely to improve access to healthy, fresh, and fairly-priced food for a larger number of residents, particularly those living in poor neighborhoods that supermarkets have abandoned. But this particular strategy needs to be part of a much broader food planning effort that includes regional transportation planning to make the movement of food from surrounding farms more efficient and sustainable, the development of a wholesale farmers market, to make selling local food to restaurants and supermarkets logistically feasible, and a plan to carve out the space for urban and suburban food production, processing, and distribution.

Nutrition USDA

Consumption of Fresh Produce Drops

Efforts to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among poor Americans, who consume far below the USDA recommended nine servings a day, will be more difficult thanks to rising costs. A just-released report on fresh fruit and vegetable consumption (posted on Food Politics) suggests that, over the past year, fruit and vegetable prices have risen while consumption of fruits and vegetables has decreased. The study, conducted by the United Fresh Research and Education Foundation, found that average produce retail prices rose 6.1% between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the fourth quarter of 2007, while total produce consumption declined 3.6% over the same period.

Nutrition Organic

Americans Cutting Food Spending

Eighty-one percent of Americans report limiting their spending on groceries, with 40% reporting that they are eating less nutritious food since cutting back, according to a February 2009 survey of a representative sample of 1,008 US adults by market research firm Multi-Sponsor Surveys. Respondents reported cutting back a variety of foods, including organic foods and beverages (56%), bottled water (52%), cold cereal (51%), cheese (49%), and seafood (47%). Nearly half (45%) said they were making strong efforts to cut back dining out.

For more information, see MediaPost

Congress SNAP USDA

Stimulus for Urban Food Systems

Congress appropriated $28 billion (3.5%) of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Of the USDA total, the Act provides $19.7 billion to increase the monthly amount of nutrition assistance to 31.8 million people through a 13.6% increase in the monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – or food stamp – benefit for recipients, amounting to roughly $80 per family per month. The additional funds under the SNAP program will not only help individuals feed their families better, but will stimulate local economies. According to the USDA, for every five dollars spent through SNAP, $9.20 of local economic activity is generated.

The increased SNAP benefit will begin to be distributed on April 1, 2009. In addition, the recovery act provides about $300 million to help states administer SNAP, with the first $145 million released this month.

In an essay in City Limits magazine, I suggest that with the right local policies that enable SNAP recipients to spend their benefits on healthy, locally produced food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, these stimulus food dollars can be stretched further to enhance the resilience of the city’s food system.

Congress Food Banks Legislation Schools

School Food Recovery Act

On March 9, 2009, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced H.R. 1403, the School Food Recovery Act, which requires schools participating in the school lunch program to donate any food not consumed to local food banks or charitable organizations. Wolf claims that despite the 1993 Good Samaritan Act, which protects donors who give to food banks in good faith from all liability, many school districts have been unwilling to donate excess food, primarily due to administrative resistance and a misperception that federal regulation doesn’t allow it. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Congress Legislation Schools

Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009

On March 5, 2009, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) introduced H.R. 1324, the “Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009.” The bill would require the development of new science-based federal nutritional standards governing all foods and beverages sold outside of school meal programs but within the boundaries of school campuses. These standards would apply to foods sold at any time during the extended school day, including when activities are held that are primarily under the control of a school or a third party on behalf of a school. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.