Friday, May 29, 2009

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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pie in the Sky?

Last night, I attended a lecture by vertical farming proselytizer Dickson Despommier at the New York Academy of Sciences. The notion of vertical farming is generating an increasing amount of excitement, in large part because of a growing number of fanciful designs of slender high-rises bursting with a cornucopia of vegetables and livestock. I was hoping to come away with a clear and cogent explanation of why multi-story farms are a better strategy for food production than horizontal farms, but I was sorely disappointed.

Despommier claimed several ecological features of the vertical farm: there is no agricultural runoff, crop production can occur year-round, severe weather does not result in crop loss, the buildings use 70% less water than a traditional farm, and there are “no fossil fuels, no pesticides, and no herbicides” used in production. Of course, assuming that solar density is even sufficient to grow crops in a tall building located in the middle of a city, these supposed benefits could be realized only with a significant input of embodied and operational energy, with enormous construction, operational, and maintenance costs. I suspect that the same benefits could be achieved at much lower cost by upgrading a conventional farm with new technologies and expertise.

Moreover, planners need to address the significant social and political implications of a vertical farming future. To what extent does a high rise farm rely on specialized expertise, patented technologies, and centralized infrastructure, and is such a model preferable to lower tech alternatives?

Until there is a serious life cycle analysis of vertical farming, and a clear enumeration of construction and production costs, and careful consideration of social impacts, the vertical farming project strikes me as a significant distraction from a far more pressing need: (1) reviving the small and mid-size farms that exist around our major metropolitan areas, (2) carving out new spaces in cities and suburbs to grow food closer to people, and (3) financing the infrastructure – from greenhouses to wholesale farmers markets -- to make horizontal farming more ecologically sound, efficient, and profitable.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

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.

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.

Monday, May 25, 2009

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.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

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).

Friday, May 15, 2009

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."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

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.