Food Print NYC: Tracing Impacts of Regulation on Food Systems

Posted: March 3rd, 2010 | Author:

On Saturday, February 27, 2010, I attended the first Foodprint NYC, “a series of international conversations about food and the city,” organized by Nicola Twilley and Sarah Rich.  The event was held in a large commercial space, Studio X, and the attendees (including me) were spilling into the corridors.

The afternoon of discussion was divided into four different panels: Zoning Diet, Culinary Cartography, Edible Archaelogy and Feast, Famine and Other Scenarios.  Each panel included a great diversity of perspectives and disciplines, including designers, scientists, advocates, and business operators.

Regardless of background, each panelist emphasized that everyone must organize to influence food politics in order to bring about change on your plate.  In each discussion, participants repeatedly drew attention to the curious and significant impact created by government policy and regulation upon the food system.

Joel Berg, Executive Director of NYC Coalition Against Hunger, spoke about NYC as the only place in the country where applicants for Food Stamps must be fingerprinted.  ”At a time when there are record numbers of people going hungry, does it really make sense to add more hurdles to accessing food security?”

Founder and Director of the Street Vendor Project, Sean Basinski, pointed to the maze of regulations that apply to vendors. He described how the government announced the creation of the Green Carts program, intending to promote the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods without wide access to markets.  Fearing competition, operators of bodegas and supermarkets lobbied against the Green Carts program, successfully limiting the number of licenses to only 1000 and imposing strict regulations. Addressing the limitations imposed by the NYC Department of Health on Green Carts, Basinski asked:

“Is it really necessary to have a stainless steel cart to sell fruits and vegetables when a plain folding table would protect the public just as much from supposed contamination? How much protection is given to the public when this same cart is inspected every two years in a Health Department approved facility in Maspeth, Queens? Should it really be necessary to have a license to sell fresh food where anyone can detect any contamination with their own eyes?”

As a result of the regulation, Basinski said the Green Cart program has not had wide ranging impact.  Lobbying and special interests strike again.

Bodegas as a special interest? Jonathan Bogarín, a teaching artist from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, told the story of the foods carried in the bodegas themselves, recorded in a film he made with local youth entitled: Bodega Down Bronx. Bogarín observed that bodegas were far from villains in the food system.  Bodegas have tight profit margins, facing high rents and high risk. For many neighborhoods, bodegas provide the only source of food available around the clock in a culturally appropriate form. Almost always, bodegas are business operated for and by immigrants.

Stanley Fleishman, President and CEO of Jetro Cash and Carry, who sells wholesale to the foodservice industry, described how bodega owners struggle to provide fresh food to their customers, often strapping goods to the roofs of their cars for the return trip to the store.

On a different note, Fleishman has endeavored to increase the amount of local and regional foods that he stocks. “Regional food is not cost competitive.  Until the price of regional food becomes competitive with food produced in Chile and California, businesses are not going to be able to afford regional products. Government can intervene on behalf of its local farmers and help them reduce costs.”

Fleishman also stated that the government should achieve its health aims with more taxation and  less regulation.  ”Taxation changes individual behavior.  Regulation just makes it harder to do business. If the government can reduce smoking through a huge tax, why not tax the hell out of fried foods, bottled water or other unhealthy, environmentally damaging products?”

Naa Oyo A. Kwate, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Mailman School of Public Health, studied the incidencence and impact of alcohol street advertising in Harlem.  She found that 25% of all street ads were related to alcohol. Significantly, almost half of these ads were within 500 feet of schools, churches and playgrounds. Kwate compared the incidence of problem drinking in the areas near the ads to other areas without ads.

Not surprisingly, she found a 13% increase in problem drinking that appeared to be linked to the ads. “The ads are placed in areas where advertisers can rely on a lack of political will to oppose them.” Contrary to the example of the street vendors above, government regulation of these alcohol ads would seem to help protect public health by curtailing problem drinking.

And speaking of alcohol, David Haskell, co-founder of Kings County Distillery, a new producers of spirits in Williamsburg, Brooklyn spoke up about the absurdity of the regulations affecting his business:

“The laws that regulate alcohol distillation are concerned with things that seem only remotely related to public health and food safety. Is there a lock on my door? Am I within X number of feet from a school or church? How many proof is my beverage, so it can be taxed accordingly. However, nowhere along the line is anyone checking to make sure that what I am making is not poisonous. I guess it is assumed that selling poison to the public is the food business as usual.”

All of these case studies reveal the power of government policy and regulation to make a positive or negative impact on the quality of the food system.  Expecting the government to take action on these issues is not the whole answer.  On the contrary, all of the panelists at Foodprint NYC suggested that ordinary people — consumers and businesses alike — should band together to request the government agencies and legislatures review all of its diverse regulations of the food system in order create the conditions necessary for a healthier and more sustainable world.

Nevin Cohen from the Food Systems Network NYC, reported that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has invited him and other advisors from the community to help her develop the details of her ambitious FoodWorks initiative.  If we all make our voices heard, perhaps FoodWorks can reflect the collective wisdom of the all the diverse and impressive perspectives assembled for Food Print NYC.

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