For those of us wondering what it would take to “localize” urban food systems, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has some answers. In a just-released study called “Food in the Public Interest,” Stringer’s office analyzes the New York City “foodshed” (a term we’ll be hearing a lot of in the future) and comes up with a lengthy set of recommendations. If it does anything, the report emphasizes just how daunting a task it will be to reform food policy in this county.
Much of what Stringer hopes to accomplish (especially in the area of nutrition programs) will be handled at the federal level. Still, the report emphasizes the outsized impact on issues that involve land use and commercial development that the control over zoning and business licensing regulations gives to local authorities. Attempting to eliminate food deserts in low-income areas by creating “Food Enterprise Zones” and reducing red tape in the permitting of food processing companies is exactly the kind of thing that zoning and licensing reforms can address.
Interestingly, the report’s conclusions on food deserts align with a recent study by two SUNY-Buffalo researchers. They suggest the solution may lie in thinking small (increase the number of neighborhood grocery stores) rather than big (spending tax money on attracting chain supermarkets). Indeed, the same focus on local regulations applies to the expansion of urban agriculture (first step: overturn New York City’s beekeeper ban!) and to the development of a wholesale farmers’ market and food storage network (so that industrial and commercial buyers can better take advantage of local agricultural output).
Of course, given the complexity of urban food systems, there are still far too many unknowns to expect quick action, which may be why several of the report’s top recommendations involve calling for further studies. A particular need is for a “foodshed analysis” that would determine:
where New Yorkers’ food comes from and how it gets here, the amount of food produced in the foodshed across all commodities, and the extent to which the foodshed can serve the needs of local residents.
Also required, according to the report, is the creation of “a comprehensive map of the city’s distribution food system, with the aim to establish the infrastructure necessary to encourage local sourcing and processing.”
But scaling up local sourcing of food is not without its downsides. The most significant might be the paradoxical increase in carbon emissions and particulate pollution that would result from the fleets of trucks required to transport all this local food from the periphery to the center of the foodshed (for more on the great food miles debate, see Dave or me).
So a central component of Stringer’s plan involves incentives for the use of biodiesel or hybrid-powered trucks in any new local food transportation system to minimize any environmental impact. What the report doesn’t mention is the potential for returning to service some of New York’s network of unused and underutilized upstate rail lines. And don’t forget about the Erie Canal — still one of the most efficient means of transporting goods from “out West.”
There’s a lot more to this report: it includes over fifty discrete recommendations across a span of five policy areas. And clearly, what’s appropriate for New York City won’t necessarily apply to Boston, Chicago or St. Louis. But that fact merely highlights the crucial role local governments will play in the process of food policy reform. We food policy types focus a lot on the USDA and Congress and their battles over agricultural subsidies, food labeling regimes and trade policy. Yet for all that, it may be the city governments that actually brandish the pointy end of the food policy stick.