Build The Strong Bones Of A City Food System

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On April 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – a.k.a. the stimulus bill – will give Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients a 13.6 percent increase in their monthly food stamp benefits, enhancing this small but critical cushion against hunger during the current recession. For the 1.3 million New Yorkers who rely on SNAP benefits to make ends meet, the increase will mean an additional average $18 per month per person on top of the current average monthly benefits of $135, easing the burden of putting food on the table while paying for rent and other necessities.

Increasing SNAP food payments is a time-tested strategy for priming the economy during downturns because recipients spend the dollars immediately. Unlike stimulus projects that involve infrastructure, no blueprints need to be drawn up or construction permits obtained before money flows into the economy. And the multiplier effects are substantial. The Department of Agriculture estimates that every additional dollar in food benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity – and that every $5 billion in new SNAP dollars will create some 82,000 jobs. (For those who don’t recognize SNAP, that’s the new name for food stamps, which took effect in October as part of the updated Farm Bill.)

There is no question that low-income residents need more resources to feed their families, but those dollars should flow into a redesigned food system. With the right local policies that enable SNAP recipients to spend their benefits on healthier, locally produced fare, these food dollars can become another “stimulus” toward building an urban food system for the 21st century. Across New York City, we have too many neighborhoods where nourishing food is simply unavailable – at the same time that we have many enthusiastic food pioneers who want to plant (not pave) our route to a fresher future.

Now’s the time to redouble our efforts to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which not only improves the nutritional status of low-income families who suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease – but also supports local farmers throughout the region, helps to sustain agricultural communities, and protects ecologically sensitive areas (like NYC’s own Catskill watershed) from harmful development.

In the short run, these policies should include steps to make locally grown fruits and vegetables more accessible to SNAP recipients and others living in low-income neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods in New York City lack even the most rudimentary food stores. In a recent survey of supermarket density in New York, the Department of City Planning has found that an estimated three million residents – more than one-third of New Yorkers – live in neighborhoods with insufficient supermarkets or groceries that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

Farmers markets can help to fill this gap during the growing season, and their popularity in even the poorest neighborhoods demonstrates strong unmet demand for fresh produce in a wide range of communities. By enabling producers to sell directly to consumers with no middlemen, these markets often sell produce and fruits that are fresher and less expensive than food sold in supermarkets and bodegas.

More SNAP recipients would shop at farmers markets if they could spend their food dollars, disbursed through electronic benefit cards, in more of the existing markets. In about a third of the city’s farmers markets, support from city and state officials, particularly the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Council on the Environment of NYC, has enabled the purchase of handheld wireless electronic benefit transfer (EBT) readers so the markets can accept food stamps. Funding an expansion of the farmers market EBT program to buy more card readers and provide wireless access, along with bookkeeping staff to process payments, would help more SNAP recipients stretch their benefits and incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets. And every additional federal dollar captured at a farmers market supports local farmers instead of growers thousands of miles away.

In addition to farmers markets, mobile carts are an inexpensive and flexible model for retailing fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimates that only 10 percent of New York’s mobile vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, but under a new program being rolled out by DOHMH this year, the city will issue up to 1,000 new vendor licenses to “green carts” that sell only fresh fruits and vegetables in the neighborhoods with the lowest reported produce consumption. The green carts will not only make buying produce convenient in neighborhoods underserved by storefront green grocers or supermarkets, but they will help support a network of a thousand entrepreneurial retailers.

Bodegas are ubiquitous throughout the five boroughs, but they typically sell unhealthy beverages and processed food. The city has reached out to 400 bodegas to help them identify, stock, and promote the sale of fruits and vegetables that are in demand in their neighborhoods. For a pilot sample of bodegas, the Department of Health has even provided free local produce to demonstrate the viability of marketing fruits and vegetables. Some bodegas are receiving help in carrying produce from local farmers markets. Expanding this marketing assistance, as well as providing financing for the refrigeration infrastructure they need to stock fresh produce, is critical to ensure that bodegas are able to profit from selling healthier foods, potentially transforming them into full-fledged green grocers.

Encouraging the development of medium-size grocery stores and supermarkets in neighborhoods with low-income residents would increase access to fresh foods and reduce costs to consumers. Proposed policies that support supermarket development include density bonuses to allow developers in targeted neighborhoods to build larger supermarkets than permitted by existing zoning, or allowing supermarkets as of right in districts zoned for light manufacturing. Supermarkets could be exempted from property or business taxes or be allowed abatements under commercial abatement programs. Public agencies could also be directed to design space for food retailers into apartment buildings, office buildings, and other projects. These efforts to advance supermarket-friendly land use and economic policies are being advanced by a coalition of advocacy groups brought together under the Building Blocks project of Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, as well as the planning and policy staff of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

As we look to the next round of stimulus funding, one critical bricks-and-mortar project would make a huge improvement to our food system. A wholesale farmers market located adjacent to the city’s existing produce market in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx would make it dramatically more profitable for midsize farmers to sell their fresh products in New York. By one estimate, the market would enable some 250 farmers to distribute their products in the city, making it economically viable for grocery stores, schools, hospitals and restaurants to buy a reliable supply of local food. The economic benefits of this project are significant. Market studies predict that a New York City wholesale farmers market would sell $85 million worth of local farm products, generating $142 million a year in total economic activity and 1,650 new jobs. The project was a priority for former Gov. Spitzer, and the Paterson administration should similarly commit future recovery dollars to this essential facility.

Much of the current federal stimulus package has been directed towards rebuilding highways and federal buildings. But investing in our neglected urban food system is critical for cities like New York facing hunger and food insecurity, high rates of diet-related diseases, and a struggling regional agriculture sector. Policies to direct federal food dollars to local food producers, distributors and retailers, and new infrastructure, like a wholesale farmers market, will make it economical for small and medium-size farms to compete in the global food market. Together with the robust network of grassroots organizations working to create community gardens and urban farms, community supported agriculture programs, and educational programs to rebuild culinary skills, these steps will result in sustainable urban food systems that make our cities fairer, more environmentally sound and healthier.

– Nevin Cohen

Nevin Cohen is assistant professor of environmental studies at The New School.

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