Shaun Donovan, Mayoral Candidate 2021 Food Policy Interview

by NYC Food Policy Editor
Shaun Donovan

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?

At the start of the pandemic, I started a non-profit, Common Table, to distribute restaurant meals directly to food insecure families in partnership with philanthropy, food relief organizations, neighborhood restaurants and community-based organizations. Programs like this can be adopted by the city to fill the gap in the emergency food system. 

There are several mechanisms that can be used to end hunger in New York City. First, in my ‘15 minute neighborhood’ plan, we will make sure everyone has vital resources within 15 minutes of their front door. That means, a great public school, fresh food, access to rapid transportation, a park, and a chance to get ahead can all be found within 15 minutes.

Hunger comes from poverty and a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food and we have policy plans that work to actively combat poverty. This, in turn, will lift people out of hunger.

One of my biggest proposals to decrease poverty is providing Equity Bonds. In this plan, we would provide Equity Bonds of $1,000 to every child in New York City. The plan would also provide annual deposits of up to $2,000 for public, charter, and low-income private school students.

This investment would immediately begin to tackle generational wealth disparities that play a fundamental role in systemic inequality. Funds would be accessible to enrollees upon graduation from a New York City school, attainment of a G.E.D. or apprenticeship (including a grace period), for purposes like paying for college, buying a home, starting a business, eradicating debt, and other methods of achieving economic security. 

You can learn more about that proposal https://shaunfornyc.com/equity-bonds/

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

Through my deep connections with the Biden Administration, I’d work with Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack to expand access to food including SNAP and WIC. I’d partner with him to rethink what goes into the Thrifty Food Plan market basket to make sure that healthy and nutritious foods are covered in these programs. 

I’d also work with the federal and state governments to expand SNAP so that the restaurant meals program can be used to fill these needs. This would ensure that fresh,, hot meals that are culturally appropriate can be delivered to communities and ease the burden on our food pantries. It would also help restaurants get back on their feet after the pandemic. 

We’d look towards different messaging and enrollment campaigns so that the people in need of these services are able to get signed up for the programs that can serve them. 

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)?

Yes, first and foremost, we need more power in the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy. I would designate a Deputy Mayor responsible for food security that would be a comprehensive role focused on engaging the public and looking across all agencies and city partners to create a unified food security plan.

Every New Yorker should have the opportunity to live in a 15 minute neighborhood, where a great public school, fresh food, access to rapid transportation, a park, and a chance to get ahead can all be found within 15 minutes of their front door. This includes access to a park and gardens that can be used for urban food growth as well as a farmers market. We would work closely with how students and other types of community organizations interact with residents. 

I also believe that through eminent domain, the city can find unused and empty lots that we can use for urban agriculture to increase our overall food supply directly in neighborhoods. 

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?

I am committed, on the first day of my administration, to appoint a Chief Equity Officer as part of my cabinet that will oversee all aspects of racial, gender, and ethnic equity for our city. This will be a role that is driven by data to tackle the systemic and structural inequities of our city. 

The Chief Equity Officer in the Mayor’s cabinet to set goals, measure progress, and collaborate with all agencies of the City of New York to ensure progressive achievement. Two primary pillars of our equity work include:

Refocusing the New York City Economic Development Corporation around driving economic growth that is tied to economic equity for all New Yorkers
Strengthening the minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) network and infrastructure to ensure we are making the most equity-minded decisions when determining and awarding contracting opportunities

These pillars are inclusive of our city’s food plan so that we are building an equitable food system and an equitable city overall.  

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?

When I was HPD Commissioner, I partnered with community residents and leaders to host a design competition for a new housing development in the Bronx. The result of that was Via Verde, the most healthy sustainable affordable housing in the city. This included a rooftop garden so residents can grow their own fruits and vegetables that they would use for meals. We should build upon this model so that residents have easy access to their food. 

I’d also invest in local businesses and infrastructure to prevent the reliance on the emergency food system. This would support the local economy and jobs with the hope that fewer people are in need of the emergency food supply. 

Lastly, I would include food planning as part of a comprehensive zoning plan for the city that would include urban agriculture. We need to think holistically about moving away from Emergency Food and toward long-term food sovereignty and that involves thinking about how we design our neighborhoods. 

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 believe that in order to make the Good Food Purchasing Program sustainable for the city, we need to adopt it across the region and create a regional food system where neighboring cities and towns are involved in the overall food plan. I’d partner with agencies like the Regional Planning Association as well as the Governor’s office to make sure that all relevant parties – whether that’s our agriculture sector, shipping companies, or labor sector, along with many more – are coming together to create a regional food plan that ensures we are bringing nutritious, sustainable food to New York City in an efficient way. 

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 first thing I would do is mandate breakfast and grab-and-go meals in our public schools. This would provide food to any child who is in need at the place they frequent most. 

I would make sure that we have cultural and religious appropriate food in our schools by partnering with the Department of Education to oversee this. I’d also make sure that any child with dietary restrictions has food options. In my Education policy plan, I go into depth about the many ways our schools will be culturally responsive and that includes the food they serve. 

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.)?

As stated above, I’d adopt the Good Food Purchasing Plan to ensure the food that we are bringing into the city is high quality and nutritious. The city is the biggest buyer of food in the city, and much of that food is for our schools so by adopting this plan, we will improve the quality of food that schools receive. 

I’d also work with local restaurants, like I did with my Common Table program, to deliver hot, nutritious, culturally sensitive food to residents throughout the city at the start of the pandemic. This both helps keep our restaurants in business but allows for residents to get food delivered directly to them, especially for those who cannot stand in line at food pantries. I’d scale up this program so more people have access to services like this. 

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.)

Like it has with many areas, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that the city’s emergency food system was lacking, especially in supplying food to our neediest, elderly populations. In my administration, I plan to scale up the Fresh Food for Seniors program as a citywide program in partnership with GrowNYC, rather than in local partnerships with individual councilmembers. 

Throughout my administration, I will emphasize working with communities to make change happen with them, rather than to them. We will consult with advocates and community-based organizations on the design of this program, and keep an emphasis on organizations that speak multiple languages, religious knowledge, and general cultural competency to assist with delivering food to the individuals and communities most in need and difficult to reach. We will deliver food in keeping with the cultural and religious needs of these communities, not from cookie-cutter corporate catering services.

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

There are many ways I would ensure food works are treated equitably. The first of that is making sure every food worker is back on the job and on the job safely through wide-spread vaccine distribution. These frontline workers put their lives as well as their families at risk and they should be able to receive protection from COVID-19 as quickly as possible. I’d also make sure they receive hazard pay for the work they did during the pandemic. 

We also need to make sure we get restaurants cooking again. So many of our city’s restaurants have closed or at risk of closing and the longer they stay shuttered, the harder it will be for them to bounce back and more of our food workers will lose their jobs. Within our restaurants, I am a proponent of the no-tipping movement so we can pay our front and back of house equally. 

I also believe we need to raise our minimum wage to $15. Earlier this year, I stood with the Teamsters in Hunt’s Point to demand a $1-per-hour raise. I commit to continuing my partnership with the jobs sector and unions throughout the city for fair wage and employee benefits for all workers. My campaign is centered around the importance of unionized labor and its role in the recovery of the city. 

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

To fortify and expand community-driven efforts, we need to look toward technology as a way to bolster our food system. As I explained before, I did this with my program Common Table. We connected restaurants to those in need of food delivery through a phone application where residents could easily order food from partnering restaurants throughout the city. 
My administration will place importance on using data and technology to expand outreach, but as stated earlier, fully utilize community-based organizations when looking to reach individuals who are traditionally left behind by the government, such as those speaking other languages, or those without smartphones or steady internet connections.

I will also partner with CBOs to reach those who don’t have easy access to technology to make sure they are also able to get these services. As I stated earlier, I will emphasize working with communities to make change happen with them, rather than to them.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Yogurt parfait – have to keep my energy up throughout all of the zoom forums! 

One word you would use to describe the food system?

Inequitable

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