Monday, March 29, 2010

New Health Care Bill Requires Restaurants to Display Calorie Count

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.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Right to Home Farm Bill Advances in Georgia

On March 11, 2010, Georgia’s House Committee on Agriculture and Consumer Affairs favorably reported out HB 842, legislation that would preempt local ordinances so that individuals may grow food crops and raise small animals on private property. The legislation applies as long as the crops and animals are used for human consumption by the occupants, gardeners, or raisers and their households, and not for commercial purposes. The bill covers community or cooperative gardens, coops, or pens as well as individual backyard gardens, coops or pens. No site may exceed 2.75 acres, and the bill does not prevent individuals from suing to stop nuisances caused by agricultural activities.

Urban Agriculture Tax Credit Proposed in Maryland

Urban agriculture is often stymied by the high cost of real estate and real property taxes. To address this issue, on March 11th, 2010, Maryland House Delegate Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s County) introduced House Bill 1062, legislation authorizing local governments to give a five-year property tax credit for urban agricultural property.

To qualify for the credit, the property must be located in one of the state’s priority funding areas, a designation designed to promote smart growth. Priority funding areas are developed communities, with existing infrastructure, in which the State wishes to concentrate new investment as a way to combat sprawl and the negative environmental impacts of Greenfield development. Qualifying sites must also be between one-eighth of an acre and two acres and be used exclusively for urban agricultural purposes.

Recognizing that urban agriculture involves many different stages of food production, processing, distribution and consumption, the legislation allows numerous activities, beyond crop production, to count as urban agriculture. These include: environmental mitigation activities, including stormwater abatement and groundwater protection; community development activities, including recreational activities, food donations, and food preparation and canning classes; economic development activities, including employment and training opportunities; direct sales to restaurants and institutions; and temporary produce stands used for the sale of produce raised on the premises.

The bill has a provisional sunset clause. The tax credit can be ended after three years if local governments find that it is ineffective in promoting urban agriculture. If the credit is effective, the legislation allows it to be extended for an additional five years.

Urban Agriculture to Increase Food Access in NYC

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

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 margaret.hudson@gmail.com