Takeaways: The Future of Food Policy Collaboration in New York

by Stevie Mock and Haley Hardin, New School Food Studies

photo, Mark Winne addresses attendees

The September Open Networking Meeting of the Food Systems Network NYC (FSNYC) on the “Future of Food Policy Collaboration” was co-hosted on September 20, 2012 by the Office of Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer and FSNYC. Over 70 participants including many FSNYC members,  researchers, grassroots activists, food business owners, nutrition educators, anti-hunger groups, nonprofit organizations and public agency staff gathered for  a discussion and dialogue with Mark Winne, national food policy council (FPC) activist and author.  The event included a book signing for Winne’s book, Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin’ Mamas, also available from FSNYC for new members. The purpose of the forum, moderated by Thomas Forster, FSNYC leadership committee member and New School Food Studies faculty, was to discuss what future food policy collaboration requires between New York City government and New York’s vibrant food movements and organizations.

The afternoon began with introductions and welcome remarks from Shira Gans, FSNYC program committee co-chair and Policy Analyst for the office of the Manhattan Borough President.  Kate MacKenzie, FSNYC Leadership Committee member and Director of Policy and Government Relations at City Harvest, provided a snapshot of the food policy trends in New York City and drew attention to increased poverty figures for the city that had been released by the US Census just that morning.  With so much at stake for hungry and food insecure New Yorkers, there is an increased urgency to improve the food and nutrition security of New York, especially at a time when many federal nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are in jeopardy of dramatic reductions in funding. New York’s food system works for some, but by no means all of its residents, and solutions require a comprehensive approach and collaboration across sectors.

Mark Winne provided reflections from his history of work in food systems and his work on food policy councils (FPCs)  at municipal and state levels beginning with the Hartford Food System in the late 1970s, one the first FPCs in the United States.  He stressed that the interest of civil society (citizens) and local government in food-related issues has grown steadily over the past forty years, and especially in the past few years. The number of FPCs has grown from 111 in 2010 to 193 in 2012, with 25-30% being in or connected directly to local governments. Winne shared his experiences of successes and failures in the formation of food policy councils. He stressed the importance of examining various structures of FPCs in other states and cities in order to explore models that would be most effective in New York City.

A lively discussion followed Mark’s reflections, with questions and comments from food activists, researchers, city government staff, market actors, and nonprofits. Comments ranged from questions of how civil society can, in reality, shape and help implement food policy in NYC to suggestions for future improvements of the mechanisms for collaboration now in place. There were several themes that surfaced in the course of discussion, most of which revolved around the challenges for collaboration in such a large city. There was apparent agreement that some level of engagement is necessary between local government, different sectors and citizen groups in New York. Policy makers should rely on input from citizens about needs that different policies can address. Local government can utilize communities to help implement those policies. An ongoing challenge in a city as large as New York is the distance and communication needed between stakeholder groups in order to find and work for common goals. There are a multitude of food movements thriving in NY; the energy surrounding them is great; and they can have a powerful effect if they support each other in working with the local agencies and officials to provide food and nutrition security for all in a vibrant New York City food system.

As the exchange of ideas came to a close, Mark Winne highlighted a few possible next steps and issues to address in moving forward on food policy collaboration in New York. There are existing mechanisms in place to allow citizen voices to be heard such as community boards, hearings, and through networks and coalitions. More agencies and officials are interested in the food sector and ready to listen and learn. New York’s citizen engagement should ideally happen at every level of local government and in every step from advising on policies to implementation to existing programs.  New policy is needed, as are adjustments and fine-tuning to make existing policies work better for communities. New York’s food system is an intersection of many diverse sectors, and the benefits of a fair, resilient and sustainable food supply system for New York are far reaching. Municipal governments across the US are only beginning to recognize the importance of cities in the larger food system. Undoubtedly, cities’ interest and investment in food systems development will grow when the positive effects of a flourishing food system on economic development, health, education, environment, and neighborhood stability are better understood.

In considering mechanisms like food policy councils or networks in New York City, the size and diversity of this city must be at the fore. A single council or network for all NYC may not be adequate for all boroughs and sectors, not to mention the nearby rural areas that increasingly want to supply NYC markets. What matters most in The Bronx will probably not be the same in Manhattan. What is important to Bed Stuy residents may not carry weight with those who live in Murray Hill. The interests of counties in the Hudson Valley are not entirely the same as New York City. Anti-hunger activists might not always see eye-to-eye with environmentalists or food justice activists with nutrition educators. Engaging these varying stakeholders to find common ground can be difficult and engaging local government is not easy. Yet it is necessary to find ways to engage, in order to create the food system with access for all New Yorkers to healthful and affordable food. For one of six New Yorkers to be food insecure and hungry is simply unacceptable, now and for the future.

The following information note was distributed at the September Open Networking Meeting described above. It provides a brief overview of NYC food policy activities from 2007-2012 and a list of discussion questions that framed the conversation:

For further reading on food policy councils and networks, see:

  • Doing Food Policy Councils Right: A Guide to Development and Action http://www.markwinne.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/FPC-manual.pdf
  • Good Laws, Good Food: Putting Local Food to Work for our Communities http://www.markwinne.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/food-toolkit.pdf
  • Community Food Security Coalition List of Food Policy Councils, May 2012 http://www.markwinne.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/fp-councils-may-2012.pdf
  • Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned http://www.foodfirst.org/sites/www.foodfirst.org/files/pdf/Food%20Policy%20Councils%20Report%20small.pdf

A selection of NYC food policy documents:

  • FoodWorks: A Vision to Improve NYC’s Food System http://council.nyc.gov/html/food/files/foodworks_fullreport_11_22_10.pdf
  • FoodNYC: A Blueprint for a Sustainable Food System http://www.mbpo.org/uploads/policy_reports/mbp/FoodNYC.pdf
  • PlaNYC 2011 Report on Food http://nytelecom.vo.llnwd.net/o15/agencies/planyc2030/pdf/planyc_2011_food.pdf

Check back soon! We will be providing a link to full meeting minutes from the “Future of Food Policy Collaboration in NYC" meeting.

Food Systems Network NYC will continue to sponsor and participate in discussions to explore the future of food policy collaboration in New York.