The Big Apple’s Efforts to Get Residents Eating Healthier: Ten New York City Initiatives

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By Lauren Lindstrom

New York City is a leader in promoting healthy eating among its residents. Its efforts include historic policies, like the ban on heart-disease–causing trans fats in restaurants and mandatory calorie labeling at chains; the creation of a Director of Food Policy in the Mayor’s Office; and programs, initiatives, and campaigns to help increase not only awareness and knowledge about healthy foods, but also availability and affordability of these foods. The New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College highlights just ten of the city’s many initiatives below, and includes ways you can take action in your community.

Drink NYC Tap Water

What It Is: A newly launched advertising campaign to encourage New Yorkers to drink tap water 

The Specifics: The ads feature children talking about why they love water and being generally adorable, to promote tap water as free, healthy, good-tasting, zero-calorie, and “green” (compared with bottled water) 

Year Launched: In summer 2016 by the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, PlaNYC, and Department of Parks & Recreation

Where the Ads Run: YouTubeFacebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as on television throughout the summer

What You Can Do: Share the ads with your social networks to spread the word; learn more about what has lovingly been referred to as ”the champagne of drinking water” that which makes a NYC bagel “a NYC bagel,” and watersheds, aqueducts, and the role of gravity; or search for “drink water” on

Eat Well, Play Hard in Child Care Centers

What They Do: Provide nutrition and physical activity classes in child care centers to help improve the health of the littlest New Yorkers

The Specifics: Health Department dietitians provide hands-on workshops on nutrition education, cooking, and physical activity at select child care centers throughout the city — for children, their parents, and the center staff

Year Established: In 2008 at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (established by the New York State Health Department in 2005)

Where the Program Runs: East and Central Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn

Annual Reach: More than 7,000 children, parents, and center staff participated in the program (Oct 2014-Sep 2015)

What You Can Do: Check out EWPH’s free online resources, including a monthly newsletter, nutrition education curricula, and a physical activity curriculum that integrates movement into all areas of classroom academics, and more

Farm to Preschool

What They Do: Bring fresh, local produce, nutrition education, and on-site food demos to select city preschools, to increase access to and knowledge of healthy foods
The Specifics: Produce boxes that contain a variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables are delivered each week during the season to participating preschools; parents, staff, and community members can pre-order a box one week in advance for $12-14 using SNAP benefits, Health Bucks, cash, credit, or debit

Year Established: In 2014 as a collaboration among the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Corbin Hill Food Project, and GrowNYC; see this ABC news clip of the program’s launch as the first of its kind in the city

Where the Program Runs: Select sites in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens

Annual Reach: More than 4,700 adults attended workshops and more than 1,500 children were reached in center classrooms; the program sold approximately 58,000 pounds of fresh, local produce, resulting in more than $73,000 in sales (Jul-Nov 2015) 

What You Can Do: Check out where the boxes are distributed and promote nearby locations to community members; visit the USDA’s Farm to Preschool website to download a variety of resources, including lessons plans for garden education

Farmers’ Markets for Kids

What They Do: Provides free, bilingual food-based activities for children at select city farmers’ markets, to encourage and empower children and their families to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables 
The Specifics: Classes engage kids in fun, hands-on activities, allowing them to explore fruits and vegetables using their senses and to taste recipes; at the end of the workshop, the kids receive a $2 Health Buck to shop for their favorite foods at the market

Year Established: In 2013 by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Where the Program Runs: Two farmers market in the South Bronx: Mott Haven Farmers’ Market and South Bronx Farmers’ Market

Annual Reach: More than 8,100 children and their adult caregivers (Jul-Nov 2015) 

What You Can Do: Schedule a field trip for a group of kids who would benefit from this program, email  


What They Do: FRESH (Food Retail Expansion to Support Health) supports the development and retention of grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods that have high rates of unemployment and diet-related chronic diseases 

The Specifics: The initiative provides zoning and financial incentives to grocery store operators and developers to expand or improve existing stores or develop new ones — to ensure residents have convenient access to a full range of grocery products, including fresh meat, fruits and vegetables, and other perishables 

Year Established: In 2009 as a response to a citywide study, which showed many city neighborhoods lack a full-line grocery store; FRESH is a collaborative effort between the NYC Economic Development Corporation, Department of City Planning, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services

Where the Program Runs: See the map of eligible areas

Reach: FRESH has helped build or revamp 11 stores and additional projects are in the works; see the list of projects (plus one new addition: a 16,000–square foot Western Beef Retail in Cypress Hills)

What You Can Do: Learn more about the city’s Disappearing Grocery Stores, including high-profile closings like Pathmark in Harlem, with potential for more to come in that neighborhood, and read more in-depth on the FRESH project in the FRESH Impact Report

Green Carts

What They Are: Mobile food carts that sell fresh produce in underserved neighborhoods with low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption, to increase access to healthy foods 

The Specifics: Green Carts are permitted to sell only fresh, raw, whole fruits and vegetables within certain zones of the city; some carts accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT; ie, food stamps) benefits

Year Established: In 2008 under Local Law 9 signed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that established 1,000 permits for the mobile carts

Where They’re Located: See the map of designated areas 

Reach: There are currently approximately 320 active permits for Green Carts

What You Can Do: Promote the nearest Green Cart at your workplace or organization to support our city’s mobile fruit and veggie vendors; hang maps and flyers — and be sure to highlight Carts that accept SNAP; rent Apple Pushers, a documentary film that follows the personal stories of five Green Cart vendors

Health Bucks

What They Are: Two dollar coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets in NYC, designed to help low-income residents afford healthier food

The Specifics: All shoppers who spend $5 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; food stamps) benefits at a participating farmers market receive a Health Buck to spend on market produce; community-based organizations may apply to receive Health Bucks to distribute to their clients as part of nutrition and health programming

Year Established: In 2005 by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as a pilot program in handful of markets in the South Bronx; today, Health Bucks is the largest city-operated SNAP incentive program in the country

Where They Can Be Used: At more than 140 farmers’ markets in all five boroughs; see the city’s 2016 market map for a location near you

Annual Reach: In 2015, more than 400,000 Health Bucks were distributed to low-income New Yorkers at more than 120 farmers’ markets and through 350 community groups

What You Can Do: Text “SoGood” to 877-877 to find the nearest farmers market and whether it accepts SNAP benefits (this is just one of the Health Department’s text campaigns). If you work at a community organization, apply for Health Bucks to distribute to members as an incentive to participate in farmers market walking tours, cooking demos, nutrition classes, or other health-related workshops (applications will be accepted until this season’s Health Bucks run out)

NYC Food Standards

What They Are: A set of nutrition standards for all city agencies, designed to improve the health of residents by decreasing the risk of diet-related chronic diseases

The Specifics: The standards include restrictions on fats, sodium, and sugar, and minimums for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains for all foods purchased and meals/snacks served by city agencies — whether cooked in the cafeteria, purchased from a caterer for a meeting or event, or sold in a vending machine

Year Established: The standards went into effect in 2009, following an Executive Order signed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008, which made New York City the first major city to set nutrition standards for all foods purchased or served

Where the Standards Are Implemented: At NYC agencies and their program partners — from city-run schools to senior centers and from public hospitals to jails

Annual Reach: The standards apply to approximately 250 million meals and snacks served annually
What You Can Do: Tired of trying to resist the Doritos in your office vending machine every time you refill at the water cooler? Remove temptation by bringing the Food Standards to your workplace: download the standards, corresponding guides to help you with their implementation, and healthy eating posters and fact sheets from the city’s Healthy Workplace Initiative site

Shop Healthy NYC

What They Do: Work with neighborhood residents, food stores, and food suppliers and distributors to increase access to healthier foods in areas with high rates of obesity and limited availability of nutritious foods

The Specifics: The program supports stores to increase their stock and promotion of nutritious products (like fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, and low-salt canned goods); suppliers/distributors to facilitate wholesale purchase and promotion of healthy items; and community members to support retailers that make healthy changes

Year Established: In 2012 by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as an expansion of the Adopt a Bodega program that was launched in 2005

Where the Program Runs: East and Central Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn
Reach: They’ve worked with more than 670 shops since 2012

What You Can Do: Do you wish your bodega sold more fresh fruit? Do you work with a group who wants better food options in their neighborhood? Check out the Adopt a Shop toolkit, a guide that helps people work with their neighborhood shop to make healthy changes

Stellar Farmers’ Markets

What They Do: Provide free, bilingual nutrition education and cooking demos at select city farmers’ markets, to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and food knowledge

The Specifics: The program uses the New York State Health Department’s Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables curriculum, teaching participants how and why to prepare healthy meals using fresh, seasonal produce; participants receive a $2 Health Buck

Year Established: In 2009 by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

Where the Program Runs: Look for the carrot symbol on the city’s farmers’ market map to find a Stellar Farmers’ Market location near you
Annual Reach: More than 42,400 people: Approximately 25,800 through workshops and 16,600 through education (Jul-Nov 2015)

What You Can Do: Download more than 100 Stellar recipes — fast, fresh, and affordable ideas for yourself or the groups you work with (bilingual in English & Spanish!); schedule a group visit for ten or more community members during the market season (email for more info)

Photo credit: Peggy Leggat

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