There’s a lot to the new Health Care Bill, which will be signed into law on March 30. Among the many changes to health policy is the clause requiring restaurant chains with over 20 locations to list the calorie content of items on their menu. New York was the first city to require calorie postings in 2008, followed by similar citywide regulations in Connecticut, California and Washington state. While many people believe that posting calorie breakdowns empower consumers to make healthier choices about the food they eat, a 2009 study found that half the patrons who visited four fast food chains in “low-income neighborhoods” in New York City did not even notice the new calorie postings. Of those customers who did notice the calorie content, only 28% reported that the listing affected their food order. Contrastingly, a report released by Stanford researchers in January 2010 shows that NYC Starbucks customers ordered calorie reduced offerings once the posting regulations went into effect. Both studies suggest that as time passes customers will become more familiar with calorie postings and will be more likely to use calorie content to inform their orders.
The accuracy of calorie listings however, remains up for debate. A recent Tufts University study suggests that the calorie count listed on menus can be inaccurate and may list calorie amounts that are up to 18% less than the true count for the serving size. Ongoing research into the effectiveness of calorie listings continues to find points on both sides of the issue.
Whether consumers take notice or not, fast food chains seem to have taken a cue from required calorie postings and made subsequent changes to menu items. Starbucks has changed its default milk to 2% (from whole milk) and McDonald’s recently reduced the size of a standard serving of fries by .7 ounces or 70 calories.
Though sufficient time may not have passed to accurately judge all the effects of calorie postings, time will tell if U.S. consumers at restaurant chains will be swayed to make healthier food choices when faced with the calorie content of their meals.
Allison Auldridge is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Urban Policy Analysis and Management with a focus on food policy at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy in New York City.
Columbia University Urban Planning student Margaret Hudson is tackling the important question of how urban farming projects can address the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. For her master’s thesis on the topic, she has interviewed people across the city who are working hard to develop a variety of urban food projects and programs. Her research (summarized by Ms. Hudson in this post) examined the following innovative efforts to supply locally produced food to neighborhoods throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens through varied retail outlets.
GrowNYC (formerly Council on the Environment for New York City)
GrowNYC’s Wholesale Greenmarket team is in the process of expanding the market’s buyers and product inventory. The Wholesale team is actively reaching out to bodegas in the Bronx and other New York neighborhoods to determine which stores are interested in buying local produce from their market. So far, the team has contacted the owners of 700 bodegas and small markets, and 88 of these expressed interest in moving forward with GrowNYC. The team members are now planning visits to these 88 bodegas where they will establish the stores’ capacity to sell fruits and vegetables and determine what needs (in terms of pricing, infrastructure, delivery, etc.) they may have. In addition, GrowNYC is taking steps towards adding Greenmarket produce to the Green Carts program, run by NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. GrowNYC is also working closely with DOH’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative.
Green My Bodega
Green My Bodega is currently working with the Crown Heights chapter of the Brooklyn Food Coalition to increase community support for their ‘farm to bodega’ initiative. They are actively reaching out to bodega owners in the Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhoods to identify those who are interested in buying local produce. Green My Bodega’s goal is to establish itself as a medium through which local residents can actively engage in the effort to improve their community’s access to healthy food.
Gotham Greens is hard at work setting up its rooftop greenhouses in Jamaica, Queens. The company plans on producing 40 to 50 tons of quality, pesticide-free vegetables and herbs annually. Gotham Greens’ mission is to make an impact on food deserts over time, as the firm grows. They plan to sell their produce at local farmers markets in Jamaica and other neighborhoods, and are interested in partnering with other local growers to distribute to local markets and bodegas.
Red Jacket Orchards
Red Jacket Orchards is making great strides toward integrating their healthy, local produce into bodegas in the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant, and East New York. They are working with bodegas that participated in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative and are looking for partners to help mobilize the community to support their efforts. Their goal is to deliver produce to these bodegas using their Brooklyn warehouse and fleet of trucks, and then gradually expand the operation to include produce from other local growers. Having already put in many pro bono hours of work on the project, Red Jacket is in the process of applying for grants that will be used to help cover the costs of infrastructure to keep prices affordable.
Margaret Hudson may be contacted at email@example.com
The New York Times reported today that the NYC City Planning Commission unanimously approved zoning changes to encourage supermarket development in under-served neighborhoods.
On Monday, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer released a proposal to require government agencies and developers in NYC to assess the impacts of their projects on the food system and to mitigate anticipated negative effects, whenever environmental assessments and environmental impact statements (EISs) are prepared.
The City’s Environmental Quality Review process (CEQR) requires all discretionary actions of government (building new facilities, granting zoning variances) to undergo an assessment to determine whether the action will create adverse environmental impacts. The city’s environment is defined broadly to include the natural and physical environment as well as the socioeconomic environment and related infrastructure (e.g., housing) necessary for humans to live in cities. Despite the importance of food to human health and welfare, the effects of projects on the food infrastructure (such as the displacement of a supermarket by a proposed development, or the removal of an urban farm by a city facility) has never been required to be analyzed in an EIS. Stringer’s proposal is for the city’s CEQR manual to explicitly require such food system assessments.
EISs generally analyze the adequacy of existing infrastructure when a proposed action will increase the population of a neighborhood by, for instance, allowing tall residential buildings to be constructed in an area formerly zoned for low-density uses. Under the current practice, the effects of population growth on the water and sewer system, and other key parts of the city’s infrastructure, must be analyzed, and if the project will over-tax the existing infrastructure, the EIS must examine alternatives with lower impacts and measures to mitigate unavoidable impacts. EISs have not considered whether the existing supply of healthy food is sufficient to meet the demands of population-generating projects.
Under Stringer’s proposal, environmental impact statements would have to identify the following key information:
- The number, type and location of food retail stores including full-line supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, and fast-food establishments;
- The frequency, size, location and hours of farmers’ markets, green carts and fruit stands, urban agriculture sites, and other sources of fresh food; and
- The availability of authorized fresh food retailers that participate in Federal, State or City programs related to healthy food access such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) and the Women, Infants, and Children (“WIC”) program.
One of the benefits of the environmental review process is that it enables city agencies, developers, and the affected community to discuss what alternatives and mitigation measures, if any, are needed and feasible. If an EIS were to identify adverse impacts on the food system, potential mitigation measures could include:
- no action — not building the project
- creating new on-site or off-site healthy food suppliers;
- improving existing fresh food supply by, for example, supplementing existing resources such as farmers’ markets; or
- by reserving retail space in a proposed project for fresh food retailers authorized to participate in programs such as SNAP or WIC.
The environmental review process is no guarantee that government decision-makers will use the information in them to require better projects that have fewer adverse impacts, which often makes developers irritated with the cost of preparation and the possibility that flaws in the impact statement will hold up a project.
Nevertheless, EISs are often the only publicly available sources of detailed data and analysis to enable communities and decision-makers to understand the anticipated consequences of new projects and programs. Adding the food system into that analysis, along with water, energy, transportation, open space and other critical urban systems, would provide the tools for agencies, developers, and citizens to become aware of potential negative impacts on the food system so that they can, hopefully, avoid them before irreversible decisions are made.
For more information about the proposal, see Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s website.
According to the latest figures from the USDA, the number of households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly called Food Stamps — grew by an average of nearly 20% across the US between March 2008 and March 2009. The following table, available at the USDA’s website (http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/30SNAPcurrHH.htm), shows the state-by-state percentage jump in food stamp households during this period.
Virgin Islands 24.80%
New Mexico 23.10%
North Carolina 21.20%
New Hampshire 20.70%
Rhode Island 19.60%
District of Columbia 18.40%
South Carolina 18.10%
New York 17.50%
New Jersey 14.80%
South Dakota 12.60%
West Virginia 10.50%
North Dakota 7.80%