Here’s how researchers believe NYC can reduce food insecurity and improve access to healthy options

STATEN ISLAND, NY – Over 1 million New York City residents are food insecure, according to city data, and research shows that healthy food options in poorer areas of the city can be scarce. But experts recently put together a series of recommendations aimed at building a better food system in the city.

The policy briefs and recommendations focus on various areas, including reducing food insecurity, improving access to healthy food for all New Yorkers and reducing the promotion of unhealthy food options.

The ideas are part of a seven-part series, titled “NY Food 2025: Policy Recommendations for a Stronger, Healthier, More Just, and Sustainable Food System in NYC,” recently released by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, The Laurie M Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy and the CUNY Urban Food Policy. The work builds off the group’s earlier report documenting the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on New York City’s food system and workforce, and consequently, the communities impacted by food insecurity.

According to the NYC Mayor’s Office of Food Policy’s Food Metrics Report released in December 2021, an estimated 1.4 million NYC residents – 12.9% of the said population – are food insecure.

Food Insecurity by Borough

A chart shows the percentage of NYC residents who are food insecure by borough, based on city data. (New York Food 2025)

The NY Food 2025 series includes 28 recommendations centered around:

  • Reducing food insecurity
  • Improving access to healthy food for all New Yorkers
  • Reducing the promotion and ubiquity of unhealthy foods
  • Implementing a sustainable and equitable food infrastructure
  • Protecting and empowering food workers
  • Improving coordination and monitoring of food policy
  • Increasing community stake in and control over the city’s food system

The series particularly highlights health inequities that were exacerbated during the pandemic.

Nevin Cohen, research director for the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, recently penned an article that was published in this month’s edition of the Annual Review of Public Health in which he suggested that major disasters, such as the pandemic, present a unique opportunity for cities to improve their infrastructure.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest crisis to affect both global and local food systems,” Cohen wrote. “Problems open windows of opportunity for innovative and experimental initiatives that are advanced by policy entrepreneurs. Upended routines in the wake of major disasters can also accelerate institutional learning, innovation adoption, and political action. ”

“A key challenge for food system planners and advocates in the wake of the pandemic is to rethink the priorities and policy approaches, and the scale of initiatives, that city officials have collectively embraced over the past several decades,” Cohen added.

New York Food 2025 addresses this challenge, offering the City Council and the mayor various recommendations, such as: expanding the budget for the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy; providing more assistance to support healthy food initiatives at the community level, such as small businesses; expanding affordable food programs, such as SNAP, EBT, Health Bucks and Get the Good Stuff; improving the nutritional quality of food assistance programs by the end of 2022.

The series also includes recommendations for actions to be taken between 2022 and 2025, including:

  • Drafting new preparedness plans for future large-scale states of emergency
  • Ensuring a universal definition of healthy food for agencies and emergency food programs
  • Expanding nutrition incentive programs for providers as well as customers
  • Strengthening regional food systems – promoting local products
  • Supporting urban agriculture
  • Creating processes in which New Yorkers most affected by the food system can influence laws and policies affecting their well-being

RECENT NYC FOOD POLICY UPDATES

Both the City Council and Mayor Eric Adams have been making a concerted effort to promote healthy food, as well as improve access to it.

In December 2021, the Council approved the expansion of the said Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program to 11 additional lower-income community districts throughout the city, including a large portion of Community Board 1 – which includes St. George, Tompkinsville, Stapleton, Mariners Harbor, Port Richmond and Rosebank.

FRESH

In December 2021, the City Council approved the expansion of the said Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program to 11 additional lower-income community districts throughout the city, including a large portion of Community Board 1. (NYC Department of City Planning )

FRESH, which began in 2009, provides opportunities for new supermarkets offering healthy and affordable food to underserved communities through tax and zoning incentives for developers and property owners.

The FRESH update also tweaks zoning rules to prevent counterproductive clustering of supermarket sites, as well as changes to renovation and parking requirements in lower-density districts to make it easier for stores to open. Each new FRESH store is also expected to create 30 to 100 local jobs.

Staten Island currently has one FRESH store, a Key Food in South Beach. The NYC Economic Development Corporation lists Stapleton as a focus area in FRESH’s new expansion.

Adams, who is a proponent of plant-based lifestyles, announced in February the expansion of the NYC Health + Hospitals / Bellevue’s Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program in all five boroughs, including Gotham Health, Vanderbilt in Clifton.

The program will provide patients living with chronic disease the tools to make healthy lifestyle changes, including providing them access to plant-based diet resources.

In February, Adams also signed two executive orders emphasizing the promotion, purchasing and serving of healthy foods citywide.

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