Scott M. Stringer, Mayoral Candidate 2021 Food Policy Interview

by NYC Food Policy Editor

In New York City, 1.2 million residents were food insecure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that number has increased to around 2 million. How would you decrease poverty and end hunger in New York City?

There is no excuse for a single person to go hungry in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, yet nearly 2 million New Yorkers need assistance to consistently access the food they need. The pandemic has only heightened our hunger crisis — layoffs, low-wages, a lack of workplace protections, and high rent have pushed hundreds of thousands into the impossible position of making choices between putting food on the table and paying down the bills. We have to tackle the affordability crisis head-on and make it easier for working people to gain a foothold and thrive in our city. 

I’ve laid out a vision and detailed plans to do just that, starting on Day One. From building the next generation of affordable housing to launching the largest universal affordable child care effort in the country, to investing in workforce development, my approach is about breaking the City out of its silos and taking on the roots of our challenges.

When it comes to food security, as Manhattan Borough President, I was one of the first city officials to see food as a critical citywide issue and offered a roadmap to eradicate hunger. I issued landmark plans including “The Politics of Food” in 2008 and “Food NYC” in 2010, worked with community-based organizations to publish a cookbook promoting healthy recipes from local chefs, launched “Go Green” programs to encourage the growth of farmers markets, and invested in “Veggie Vans” which delivered $10 bags of fresh produce to under-served neighborhoods — starting in East Harlem, and expanding to the Lower East Side and Washington Heights. And as Comptroller, my office also proposed and outlined a pilot program to bring kosher and halal school lunch to New York City schools in partnership with stakeholders, and got the program up-and-running.

To address soaring rates of hunger, in May, I joined with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to demand the City immediately ramp up and streamline emergency food programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This month, I laid out a roadmap to combat hunger in New York City, which includes proposals to:

— Create an emergency food program to serve undocumented New Yorkers. The City should direct at least $25 million of the estimated $1 billion in FEMA reimbursements released by the Biden administration to create food security programs for immigrant New Yorkers who have been left out of other safety net programs due to immigration status.

— Expand, streamline and improve outreach to ensure all eligible New Yorkers are receiving SNAP benefits and other social supports. The City should create a comprehensive, coordinated, citywide outreach campaign, increase funding for community-based organizations, and create one central online portal to support New Yorkers applying for multiple benefits.

— Increase where and how EBT cards can be used. The City should create a “shared delivery zone” program that allows neighbors to accept food deliveries from online retailers at a central location, leveraging purchasing power to share costs; and the City should support expanded use of SNAP benefits at green carts, bodegas, and local merchants like halal and kosher butchers by working to subsidize the cost of EBT terminals and transaction fees. 

— Fill gaps in the City’s food pantry network. The City should be taking immediate steps to provide emergency food in the City’s food pantry desserts while planning for more permanent investments. 

— Create borough-based councils of emergency food providers, advocates, community and faith-based organizations, and mutual aid networks to partner with the City on improving food access. Advocates that work in local communities have on-the-ground knowledge of where food system gaps occur, how their communities best receive and respond to information, and how City programs could be shaped to ensure they reach the residents they are intended for. Creating borough-based councils that could regularly advise the City on its food programs and policies would strengthen the City’s work. 


What specific steps will you take to increase the participation of eligible New Yorkers in federally-funded programs such as SNAP and WIC?

Even as the number of New Yorkers going hungry climbs, the most recent HRA data indicates that 42,000 fewer New Yorkers are receiving SNAP benefits today than in 2015. My office laid out a comprehensive food security plan earlier this month which outlines tactics the City can take to ensure all eligible New Yorkers are receiving SNAP and other benefits. The Biden Administration has authorized the increase of SNAP benefits — now it’s on the City to deliver this critical benefit to more New Yorkers.

Outreach should be combined with efforts to promote the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), senior meals, and summer meals to ensure New Yorkers are using the programs they are eligible for and entitled to. We also should provide more funding for community-based organizations (CBOs) to conduct SNAP outreach and enrollment, particularly ones with linguistic and cultural competence to reach New Yorkers across our city’s diverse neighborhoods, and ones that work with immigrants and survivors of domestic violence who may have greater barriers to accessing services due to data sharing sensitivities.

We should also increase coordination between City agencies that could identify New Yorkers as being eligible for SNAP, and use that data to inform direct outreach efforts via mail, text, or phone. On a similar note, it’s time to streamline the process of applying for multiple benefit programs by creating one online portal and simplifying the interview and paperwork processes as much as possible.  

Would you increase the administrative power of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy or would you provide a different structure for New York City food oversight? Please specifically include how your plan would a) enhance mechanisms for community engagement and direct democracy and b) unify the City’s public policies related to food (that are currently split among many different agencies and many massive, private, non-profit groups)?

The City must be more proactive when it comes to food equity and justice. When I was Manhattan Borough President, I proposed creating the Mayor’s Office of Food and Markets to build out community-based linkages and a citywide network for food growth, distribution, and waste. We need to bring that approach to ending hunger in New York City. The Mayor’s Office of Food Policy must go neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough and take the model we pioneered through “Go Green” to bring together stakeholders from markets, to growers, to community-based food pantries, health centers, schools and small business leaders to envision and execute a plan that addresses the whole cycle of food. That’s why, in my plan to address food insecurity, I’ve called for the creation of borough-based councils of emergency food providers, advocates, community and faith-based organizations, and mutual aid networks to partner with the City on improving food access.

The Mayor’s Office should also use the City’s procurement power to advance citywide food equity, and hold City agencies accountable for their spend to ensure we leverage City dollars to buy from regional farmers and create good food jobs.


How will you ensure the lived-experiences and expertise of communities of color are incorporated into the development and implementation of policies to build a more equitable food system? How will your policies approach the structural racism that exists in our food system?

To create a truly equitable food system that addresses existing disparities in access to healthy, fresh, affordable food, we have to take a holistic approach to dismantle systemic racism in food policy that shapes how people grow, sell, and eat food — as well as across all our public health policies from housing to jobs and small businesses, transportation and public safety. Safe, healthy housing that ends segregation around highways and peaker plants should be part of our food policy plan, just as healthy school food is part of our education and jobs plans. 

It starts at the outset with who is around the table. As mayor, I will bring stakeholders from around the city, particularly community-based organizations with experience in addressing racial disparities in food access, before January 1st, 2022, so we can get started on Day One. We already know which neighborhoods lack access to healthy and fresh food; we know where New Yorkers have the highest rate of diet-related disease; we know where environmental racism and housing segregation have depressed life expectancies for New Yorkers — it’s time to get to work.

One of the largest and most immediate challenges is in filling the gaps in our emergency food supply system, which currently leaves many communities of color out of the food network. We must work with community based organizations already on the ground to develop solutions in partnership. It’s time for the City to target investment in deeply underserved communities that need it most, and take a citywide approach to ensuring that no New Yorkers go without access to healthy, affordable food, by supporting urban farming, mobile markets, farm stands, and small businesses and restaurants who want to provide healthier food, and more. In addition, if we’re going to encourage uptake of food programs in areas that have historically lacked access to them, the first step is engaging with the communities we hope to support. Deep consultation with communities is a core practice of my office, from working with Muslim and Jewish stakeholders to develop the City’s first-ever Halal and Kosher school food pilot program, to my housing and child care plans.

How do you plan to invest in long-term food sovereignty in NYC that moves away from the current investment in Emergency Food as a response to systemic and long term food insecurity?

Emergency food shouldn’t just get New Yorkers to the next day, it should be a door to helping New Yorkers get stable food and other services for the long-term. The first step is changing the City’s food policy approach because the hunger crisis requires long-term, systemic, and holistic investments.

It’s unacceptable that during the COVID-19 pandemic, one-third of food pantries have closed citywide, with the Bronx losing half of their pantries. It shows that our emergency food system needs stronger, more sustained support — and we need to think ahead to the next big crisis to ensure we have a food system that can withstand an emergency. Most importantly, we need to invest in solutions that tackle the roots of food insecurity — low wages, poor workplace protections and benefits, unaffordable housing and child care, and environmental health factors as well — to reduce the pressure on the emergency food system and turn resources to eradicating hunger. That’s why we also have to expand access to benefits to help New Yorkers not just in emergencies, but over the long-term. We need a comprehensive, citywide SNAP outreach and enrollment campaign.

Approximately 230 million meals are served annually by our NYC agencies. The Good Food Purchasing Program, which is currently in the early stages of implementation here in NYC, uses the enormous strength of our City’s food procurement power to improve the local and regional food systems in the areas of workers’ rights, environmental sustainability, local economies, nutrition, animal welfare, and meaningfully infuse racial equity and transparency practices into the food system. We want to understand your commitment to maximizing the impact of the Good Food Purchasing Program in your administration. Can you speak to the resources that you would harness to make this happen?

I am deeply committed to maximizing the impact of the Good Food Purchasing Program to support local agriculture and increase healthy food sources in our schools, jails, senior centers and other city-run facilities that provide food on a regular basis. New York City buys more food every day than any other entity outside of the U.S. military, and we should be leveraging that buying power every day to move markets and create healthier options for our kids, our seniors and everyone in between. The Good Food Purchasing Program provides a transparent, metrics-based framework that will help us consolidate our buying power while centering five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. I am glad the City has started down this road, but we need to go further.

Leveraging City dollars to build up communities and improve outcomes, especially in communities of color, is something I have done in other areas. As Comptroller, one of my first acts was to appoint a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) charged with evaluating and improving the City’s M/WBE contracting. Our Chief Diversity officer has issued an annual report, “Making the Grade: New York City Agency Report Card on M/WBEs,” which assesses how well the City is creating economic access and opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses. Every report letter grades city agencies on MWBE spending and offers recommendations meant to reduce barriers and increase opportunities for M/WBEs. We also looked inward, and the Comptroller’s Office CDO helped bump our office’s spend with M/WBEs from 13% to 50% over 7 years since 2014. By comparison, the City increased its spending from 6% to 16% during this time. 

The Mayor has recently adopted our recommendations to appoint CDOs in City Agencies. In a Stringer Administration, we’ll apply these lessons to Good Food purchasing across city agencies to ensure our purchasing power supports local agriculture, invigorates the local economy, and creates better health outcomes.

It is important for students to have access to food that fuels them and helps them succeed in school. Students deserve school meals that are a respected, valued part of the school day as well as a wide range of food options, including Halal, Kosher, and options for people with extreme allergies. How important is school food to you? What would you do to improve the school meal quality, experience, and options?

The Department of Education spends more than $200 million annually on food—serving more than 172 million meals and snacks each year to 1.1 million students. I’m a public school dad of two young boys — school food is deeply important to me. 

I have long been an advocate for Halal and Kosher food programs in schools. Thirty-eight percent of students are Muslim or Jewish, and approximately 72% of New York City students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which indicates that many students may experience food instability and cannot rely on a packed lunch each day. Children shouldn’t be forced to choose between their religion and going hungry. And parents shouldn’t need to choose between spending extra money on school lunches and paying the rent. 

That’s why in 2018, I brought together a diverse coalition of Jewish and Muslim leaders, community advocates and students to organize around expanding universal free school lunches to include kosher and halal food. My office also proposed and outlined a pilot program to bring kosher and halal school lunch to New York City schools in partnership with stakeholders, and got the program up-and-running. And we need to increase participation and uptake beyond school lunch to school breakfast and after-school meals.

We can also connect local schools to local farms and food producers, working both to bring healthier food to our schools, while reducing our carbon footprint and using procurement power to uplight local producers. 


What would you do to improve the quality and nutritional value of institutional meals provided by City agencies (e.g. school food, senior meals, etc.)?

At a time when Covid-19 has exposed deep health disparities across our city, the Good Food Purchasing Program offers a smart, strategic approach to improving the food we serve in all our agencies, and especially our schools. Rather than using our extraordinary buying power to prop up today’s wasteful, archaic system that too often serves nutritionally deficient meals, we can use that power to create healthier, more sustainable food programs, and connect our city agencies to upstate farmers.

We need to fundamentally re-think our food programs that put more emphasis on meals than money. I am encouraged by the progress being made in other cities to advance Good Food Purchasing. In Los Angeles, for instance, the school district has shifted more than $30 million in its food budget annually to purchases of local food. This has generated jobs, increased wages and reduced the school’s carbon footprint, all while exceeding federal child nutrition standards. New York City should be a leader in advancing the goals of Good Food Purchasing, and under my watch it will be.

How will you work to better support and expand the capacity of non-profit community-based organizations and their staff who are serving meals to older adults through the Department for the Aging, including Senior Center and home-delivered meal providers? (For context, in normal times, these chronically underfunded systems serve roughly 20,000 and 30,000 older adults respectively, and could be better utilized to expand their reach.)

As Mayor, I’ll work to maximize the participation of t non-profit community-based organizations and senior service providers in the emergency food network. These are organizations and providers that understand their clients and are best positioned to deliver both health meals and wrap-around services. Our nonprofits are the City’s partners — on the frontlines of providing for New Yorkers in need — and they must be treated as such, not overlooked for the cheapest bidder. As Comptroller, I’ve consistently advocated for procurement reforms that would fix the City’s broken approach to non-profit contracting. 


What would you do to ensure food workers are treated equitably?

Our City’s recovery depends on the food sector’s recovery. Pre-pandemic, our city’s restaurants and bars employed 325,000 people. Over the last year the industry has lost more than 160,000 jobs. The next mayor has the responsibility to not just bring back these jobs — but to make sure these are good, family-sustaining jobs. That’s why as mayor, I will support legislation to increase wages, benefits, and protections for food service workers and enforce our hard fought labor laws including the Fair Workweek Act and the Earned Safe and Sick Time Act. 

Under my watch, the City will support partnerships between local organizations and academic programs at CUNY that offer credit-bearing courses and certificates related to the food sector, helping to develop a sustainable network between higher-education and jobs. We can also support the creation of more Food Business Incubators to help foster entrepreneurship by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, professional equipment, and business guidance.

How would you fortify and expand community-driven efforts towards an equitable, sustainable and resilient food system?

As Mayor, I’ll work with community and grassroots groups to invest in needed infrastructure, while centering communities of color. That includes using the City’s procurement power to ramp up and expand initiatives that support urban and regional agriculture — replicating the model of the Hunts Point Greenmarket to create micro-hubs in every borough. This will increase equity, sustainability, and resiliency while creating new market opportunities, jobs, and combating food swamps. Moreover, a deeper network of community gardens and markets can help to expand composting, and play a role in fighting against climate change by mitigating environmental damage from poor air quality, flooding, and heat.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Coffee and a bagel.

One word you would use to describe the food system?


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