The December Food Policy for Breakfast Forum on Beyond Bloomberg: What is the Role for Food Policy Advocacy in the Next Mayoral Administration? considered how food activists can chart its priorities for the next few years.. The forum featured two speakers, Nancy Romer from the Brooklyn Food Coalition, one of New York’s largest and most vibrant food justice organizations, and Kim Kessler, former Food Policy Coordinator in the Office of the New York City Mayor, and now Director of Policy and Special Programs at the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law. The moderator was Nicholas Freudenberg, faculty co-director of the Food Policy Center and Distinguished Professor of Public Health at Hunter College and the City University of New York School of Public Health.
Romer noted that the New York City food justice movement speaks in many voices, representing the various constituencies engaged in food work. The Mayoral election, she said, had served as a focal point for bringing these diverse groups together and identifying both common ground and divergences. Among the priorities for the next period, she observed, were to present food policy as a useful tool for solving a number of problems: creating good jobs, boosting economic development, promoting health, and increasing sustainability. She urged participants in the session to strengthen the links between grassroots organizing and policy advocacy, two spheres that have sometimes worked independently in the food movement.
Romer also recommended that the movement identify a few unifying issues that could bring together the diverse strands of the food movement to speak not in a homogenized voice but in a coordinated choir. She recommended that improving school food and enrolling more children in school food programs was one such issue. It had the potential to bring together people working on reducing food insecurity, parents concerned about their children’s health and education, health professionals alarmed by high obesity rates, those seeking to create more food jobs. and others. Romer described some of the strategies that Brooklyn Food Coalition has used to organize parents, young people and others around school food and enumerated some of their successes in persuading elected officials to join the campaign for better school food.
Kessler provided a brief overview of some of the successful food initiatives of the Bloomberg Administration. These included increased enrollment of low income people in SNAP, creation of the Green Carts Program, assistance to super markets and bodegas to offer healthier food in low income areas, the creation of nutrition standards for city institutional food programs, calorie posting in chain fast food outlets, and many others. Kessler credits food advocates and the food justice movement with being sources of expertise and instigators of change. She encouraged advocates to identify precisely what they bring to the policy table. The city needs more than ideas, she observed, it needs to know “how” to bring about specific changes in food policy and why. Success in communicating these messages will increase the influence of the food justice movement. Kessler also noted that many of the successes of food policy in New York City in the last few years were the result of complicated teamwork that included different types of organizations, the use of different strategies, and an ability to coordinate activities within the political and policy arenas.
In the Q and A after the speakers, a few participants asked the presenters’ opinions about a city food department and food policy councils. Kessler noted that making a separate food department or agency might not be helpful. She feared it might discourage the kind of intersectoral collaboration that is now occurring. She also opined that there is already a sort of “virtual” food policy council that through dialogue, activism and involvement in city politics already influences food policy.
Romer agreed that a formal NYC Department of Food may not be necessary but she thought that the city could find new ways to get advice and suggestions from the many constituencies who care about food.
Freudenberg closed the session with an observation that in some cities, food policy councils have become a static entity where disputes get aired rather than action planned. He asked how can we get the benefits of coordination and engagement that a food policy council may bring without creating more bureaucracy and more conflict? How can the food movement contribute to strengthening democracy and engaging more people in shaping the decisions that affect their lives, their health and their diet?
Videos of the event are available here.