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Planning Sustainable Food Waste Reuse

A new restaurant in Yonkers, NY, Rockwells Express, wants to install a bioreactor (called “Orca Green,” distributed by Green Guard Associates) that would aerobically digest the restaurant’s food waste and corn-based wrappers, cups and other packaging into liquid slurry. The proposal is under review by the City’s Planning Board because the restaurant wishes to be able to flush the digested slurry into the muncipal sewage system to be treated by a county sewage plant currently operating in excess of its engineered capacity.

The highest and best use for nutrient-rich digested food waste is fertilizer, but the infrastructure isn’t in place to move the slurry from the Yonkers restaurant to an agricultural site (and applying the digested food waste to public parks would raise health and safety issues that would need to be addressed). Finding ways to accommodate the disposal of food waste from restaurants and other commercial food facilities is clearly an important challenge for planners and municipal engineers as they consider how to better integrate the food system in new land use plans, PUD applications, and building codes. Nevertheless, absent a system for land application of the digested material, sending it into the sewage system is ecologically preferable to trucking it, in solid form, to a landfill, where it would decompose anaerobically, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane.

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Costco Makes SNAP Decision

The New York Times reports today that, following public objections from elected officials and community board members, Costco has agreed to allow customers to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka Food Stamp) benefits in the chain’s two NYC stores on a trial basis. If the use of food stamps is a success, Costco will accept SNAP benefits at all of its NYC stores, including one that will be opened in East Harlem thanks to $55 million in public subsidies.

Costco’s decision demonstrates that citizens and their elected officials have the ability to push businesses to act responsibly. However, it also suggests that if considerations about food access were part of a city’s planning process, officials might have been prompted to make Costco’s acceptance of food stamps a condition for receiving public subsidies.

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Community-Based Food Planning

Individuals can begin to push for a sustainable citywide food system by integrating food concerns into existing community-based planning processes. In cities like New York, one route is through the local community board, which advises the city on budgetary priorities and policies and land use decisions that affect the neighborhood that the board represents. Community boards vary in the level of expertise of their members, and often focus on opposing development proposals instead of proactively articulating a future for their neighborhood. Nevertheless, by getting involved in your local board, you may be able to encourage it to put the food system on the city’s agenda. Here are three examples of how a board can make a difference.

1. Statement of Needs

One responsibility of community boards is to prepare and submit to the Mayor an annual statement of community district needs, and recommendations for programs, projects or activities to meet those needs. The statement of needs is an opportunity to ensure your community board identifies needs for things like greenmarket space, community and school gardens, space for food pantries, compost sites, and a host of additional programs and facilities that would enhance the food system in your neighborhood.

2. Budget Priorities

Would electrical hookups at your local Greenmarket enable vendors to keep their produce and meats fresher? Does the local community garden need a rainwater harvesting system and better drainage? Is a local city-owned parcel the perfect place for an urban farm? Community Boards are responsible for consulting with agencies on the capital needs of the district, holding public hearings on those needs, and submitting to the Mayor capital budget priorities. In addition, Community Boards participate in budget consultations with City agencies and make recommendations for priority expense budget items. These could include a wide range of services related to the food system, such as funding to support EBT and WIC access at Greenmarkets.

3. CEQR and ULURP Process

Most people interact with their community board when a developer or agency proposes a project that the neighborhood does not want. Boards typically review and comment on environmental impact statements (EISs) and are empowered through the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) to vote on projects that require any kind of discretionary action by city government, such as a zoning variance. The environmental and land use review processes offer community boards the opportunity to require the project’s proponents to consider its impact on the food system and to discuss alternatives that have smaller impacts, including ways to build sustainable food production, distribution, and disposal into the development. While it is unlikely that the environmental review process will result in dramatic changes to projects, it is one mechanism a community board (and advocacy groups and individuals) can use to highlight problems with the food system and potential alternatives that promote sustainability.

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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.

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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.