New Yorkers and Food Politics


Manhattan Borough President Stringer telling it like it is
photo via the Observer

I was surprised the other morning when Brian Lehrer, on his eponymous WNYC radio show, stated that he had received 600 comments suggesting Michael Pollan as President-elect Obama's Secretary of Agriculture. Who knew New Yorkers cared so much about agriculture and food? But the interest was evident yesterday, as five hundred food and community activists, students and researchers, gathered in Columbia University's Lerner Hall to share ideas and to listen to government officials speak about the "Politics of Food."Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer hosted the conference along with Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Columbia University President Lee Bolinger and MBP Stringer began the proceedings with rousing speeches. "You can no longer talk about health policy, or energy policy, or environmental policy without talking about food policy," said Mr. Bollinger.

Manhattan Borough President Stringer
Food is also a pet project of Stringer's, who noted that several hundred thousands of New Yorkers live in "food deserts" where there are no grocery stores within walking distance. He also commented on the irony of New York State producing more than ten times the apples that New Yorkers eat, while many New Yorkers are munching on imported apples from the state of Washington. Stringer stressed the need for both local food production and distribution, and for healthier meals in hospitals and schools. He noted how the present arrangement is "good at delivering lots of calories to American families at a relatively low cost, but very bad at caring for the quality of food or for our health." Stringer exhorted attendees to "start a revolution in regional farming" by focusing on local agriculture.

U.N. General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann
Other speakers included United Nations General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Center for Social Inclusion Director Maya Wiley. President Brochmann, an ordained Catholic priest and former Nicaraguan foreign minister, spoke against corporate food giants and top-down development programs, calling the prevalence of hunger, malnutrition, exclusion, and poverty "downright sinful." Food equity and democratization are a top priority of Brochmann's at the U.N. He said that he would be honored to showcase New York City as an example of a city with an urban food agenda in 2009 and he would take advantage of being near those New York City activists and scientists who insist on the right to food. There will, he warned, be difficult political and ethical decisions to come having to do with the right to food.

Mayor Bloomberg
Stringer introduced Mayor Bloomberg by saying that Bloomberg "gets it;" a popular refrain from the 2008 Presidential race. New York City, Mayor Bloomberg told us, serves more meals each day to school children and other residents than are fed by any other organization in the nation aside from the Department of Defense. How New York City schoolkids learn to eat, Bloomberg noted, affects them for the rest of their lives. The City has imposed new meal standards for schools: deep fried is out, produce is in. Protecting the health of New Yorkers, Bloomberg said is his "#1 priority." If he died tomorrow, he said, he would be proud that New Yorkers' life expectancy has now exceeded the nation's. Bloomberg may be best known for his smoking ban, and that is what he spoke about for the majority of his speech. He told attendees that a good way to prepare onself for anything in life would be to first, impose a smoking ban, and then, walk in a parade on Staten Island that passed by many bars. "It builds character," he said. After the smoking ban, Bloomberg moved on to banning transfats and to making calorie listings public. The Mayor's proposed next target is lowering salt content in packaged foods. But Bloomberg did admit to enjoying steak, and he assured one concerned citizen that he does not plan on banning meat or junk food.

Maya Wiley
The Center for Social Inclusion's Director Maya Wiley greeted the crowd with: "Happy Black President's Day!" a line, she told us, she stole from her eight-year old daughter. We are, she said, living in a unique political moment in the world, when some are debating whether discussing race is still relevant. Then she said she was bringing this up at a food conference, because communities of color are still ground zero for food problems. New York City is officially made up of 62% people of color, and that is likely an undercount. Like Stringer, Wiley was particularly interested in talking about the problem of neighborhoods that lack supermarkets. Where supermarkets locate, she commented, has nothing to do with rational decision making. If developers looked at purchasing power, they would see viability in communities of color that need more supermarkets. Wiley recounted how she had recently spoken with Upstate New York farmers who want to sell their meat in New York, but can't, because there is no local meat processing plant. And yet, Wiley said, there are plenty of people who need work. A meat processing plant, she offered, would link poor inner city communities of color and upstate white rural workers.

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