On Thursday, July 28, 2011, the New York City Council is expected to enact a package of legislation (Int. Nos. 615-A, 452-A, 248-A, and 338-A) that will advance significant parts of the Council’s groundbreaking Foodworks policy plan and thus move us closer to attaining a sustainable, fair, and healthy food system in New York City.
Food System Metrics Bill (Int. No. 615-A)
The recently released update to PlaNYC acknowledged that “healthy, sustainable food systems are critical to the well-being of our communities and central to our ability to accommodate a growing population.” Yet administrative agencies have never systematically examined the food system, leaving large gaps in our understanding of where our food comes from and how it moves through the city to our tables and into the waste stream. Int. No. 615-A begins to close that information gap by requiring the city to develop baseline information about our food system so that we can make intelligent, coordinated planning and policy decisions. And by making core information about our food system available publicly, ordinary citizens, business people, urban farmers, and advocates will be better able to participate in decision-making about food policy.
Specifically, the bill provides the following information:
- Data on farms participating in the watershed agricultural program, enabling us to understand the kinds of agricultural activity underway in the Catskills, the extent to which NYC funds are being deployed to help farms in our watershed reduce their environmental impacts, the kind of food produced on those farms, and ultimately, whether and to what extent NYC should change or expand its watershed agricultural programs.
- Information on the provenance of milk and other food products purchased by the city, improving our understanding of the food miles of city-purchased food and opportunities to re-localize food purchases, and therefore support regional farmers and distributors.
- Information on community gardens that would enable the city council and the public to identify community boards that are underserved, and help to better deploy resources to assist gardeners with production tools and materials, technical assistance, and retail channels for produce, like farmstands and CSA distribution systems.
- Data on food manufacturers receiving economic development assistance will show the extent to which our EDC and IDA are supporting food manufacturing in NYC and identify opportunities to enhance city support for food manufacturers.
- The number of truck and rail trips to or through Hunts Point Market will enable the city to improve transportation options in a neighborhood overwhelmed by diesel exhaust.
- Information on grocery store space per capita will enable city officials, the public, and food access advocates to have a clearer sense of which neighborhoods lack adequate food retail and how food retail access has changed year to year by neighborhood.
- Data on the FRESH initiative will illustrate progress of the initiative to incentivize grocery store development and to support jobs in the food retail industry, and identify gaps in food access that remain.
- Information on the establishments participating in the healthy bodega initiative will illustrate the extent to which that program has been successful in meeting the healthy food access needs of neighborhoods under-served by full-service supermarkets.
- Data on job training programs to help individuals seeking work in the food industry will help make these training programs more effective.
- Tracking the total number of meals served by city agencies will illustrate the extent to which city-provided meals are meeting the nutritional needs of residents in different communities.
- Data on the nutritional quality of city-provided meals will document the extent to which we are meeting the goal of having 100% of our meals meet basic nutrition standards.
- Information on revenue earned from school vending machines will help school food advocates track the extent to which foods from vending machines compete with school meals, and show the extent to which schools are dependent on vending machine revenue.
- Data on SNAP recipients will enable the Council and city agencies to determine whether current outreach efforts are adequate.
- Information on nutrition education programs will help identify the most innovative, successful models of nutrition education, enabling agency officials to improve their educational outreach and, ultimately, improve the nutritional status of agency clients.
- Tracking the number of salad bars in public schools and hospitals will enable the Council and advocates to track the city’s progress in providing adequate access to fresh fruits and vegetables in these institutions.
- Quantifying the amount spent to purchase water other than tap water will point out waste and help agencies to figure out how to eliminate bottled water purchases.
- Information about the green cart initiative will help in evaluating whether the green cart program is meeting the food access needs of the communities in which they are located, how to improve the program, and to what extent cart operators are accepting EBT payments.
- Tracking the number of vendors at greenmarkets will enable the city to determine whether it is doing a sufficient job providing space for the direct marketing of fresh fruits and vegetables through the Greenmarket program, and whether the number of farmers selling at greenmarkets is increasing or decreasing.
There are gaps in some of the required data (e.g., the farmers market data only includes Greenmarkets, not independent farmers markets), and the legislation imposes few obligations on the part of the city to gather new data (e.g., on the geographic source of food) that does not already exist or that vendors do not currently provide. In the coming years, the Council will need to ensure that the reporting agencies follow the spirit of this new law and make good faith efforts to obtain and provide this valuable information.
Local Food Procurement Bill (Int. No. 452-A)
This legislation is an important step towards using the city’s purchasing power to support regional farmers, processors, distributors and producers, including businesses located in New York City. The bill requires the chief procurement officer to develop local food procurement guidelines for agencies, monitor agency implementation of the guidelines, and prepare an annual report for the Council on each agency’s efforts to buy New York (State and City) food.
An important feature of the legislation is a requirement that the city include in each solicitation for food purchases and food-related service contracts a request (unfortunately not a mandate) that each vendor supplying food do the following:
- Review a list of New York State food products to determine if any are provided under the contract;
- Report all the food procured under the contract by type with the dollar value of each type; and
- any New York State food procured under the contract, with the dollar value of each type procured,
- any food from outside of New York State procured when it is also available in New York, together with the value of such purchases, and
- any other out-of-state food purchases.
The obligations on the procuring agencies are minimal, since they are not authorized to pay a premium for local food and are only obligated to ask their vendors for information about provenance. Nevertheless, having an annual report will provide information for the first time on whether and to what extent the city is able to encourage the purchase of local food. If the procurement guidelines do not, in fact, result in more local purchases, the Council and advocates will be armed with data to support changing the requirements.
Database of Potential Urban Agriculture Sites (Int. No. 248-A)
Space is one of the biggest obstacles to the expansion of urban agriculture, especially in dense, economically vibrant cities like New York. Int. No. 248-A would create a powerful new tool for community groups and individuals to identify potential sites for new gardens and farms. The legislation would require the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) to keep and maintain a free, publicly accessible, searchable database of all city-owned and leased real property, including information regarding the location and current use of such property. This information is currently available in several databases, but not in one place, not online, and not for free.
It will cover the approximately 18,500 parcels that are owned or leased by the city, including schools, police stations, libraries, warehouses, highway maintenance yards, parking lots, piers, and vacant land. Users will be able to find out the location and dimensions of each site, along with many other details. DCAS also would have to indicate whether a particular property is suitable for urban agriculture, presumably requiring the agency to assess site conditions like access to sunlight, and helping to fulfill a commitment in PlaNYC to search for new sites for food production.
Unfortunately, a loophole in the bill specifies that data must be provided to “the extent such information is available” to DCAS, which removes any affirmative obligation on the part of DCAS to collect new information. It will be up to the Council and advocates to ensure that the spirit of the law is followed, and if not, to tighten the requirements in the coming years.
Rooftop Greenhouse Bill (Int. No. 338)
New York is a leader in rooftop agriculture with commercial rooftop farms (e.g., Brooklyn Grange), greenhouses supplying retail food establishments (e.g., Eli Zabars) and restaurants growing food on their rooftop (e.g., Bell, Book and Candle). This legislation will facilitate the installation of rooftop greenhouses by exempting them from height or bulk restrictions. The bill amends the building code by adding greenhouses to a list of other rooftop structures (such as water tanks and air conditioning equipment) that do not count towards height and floor area ratio calculations. Only greenhouses that are less than one-third of a roof’s area qualify for this exemption, however, so larger structures may still bump up against size limits.
In conclusion, it is clear that Int. Nos. 615-A, 452-A, 248-A will go a long way towards making food systems planning standard operating procedure in New York City. Doing so will improve program effectiveness, fulfill several goals of PlaNYC, and provide a new level of transparency that will enable the Council to oversee agency performance and allow the public to participate in the development of food policy.
PlaNYC noted that the “complicated and inter-related subsystems [that make up the food system] aren’t easily understood or influenced….” In part, this is because agencies have never before been required to aggregate, organize, and analyze data about the food system. Enacting these three bills will change that, ensuring that agencies begin to gather information – and therefore play a role in influencing – New York City’s food system.