Many years ago, I escorted some at-risk urban youth to a park. Blinged and tattooed, these kids’ gestures stiffened into armor and their faces hardened into leather expressions of defiance and danger. Then they spotted the recently picked apples that had been brought along for a snack. They lunged, giggling and pushing to get their hands on those apples first. When a butterfly passed overhead the boys tore into a chase, yelling, “A butterfly! A butterfly!”. They held onto their bitten-into apples as they ran. Can urban lives be changed one piece of fruit or vegetable at a time? Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s urban food movement is counting on it.
When Stringer surveyed the quality of life in struggling neighborhoods he expected to find asthma and other environmental problems. He didn’t anticipate that that there were hardly any places to purchase healthy food. The local fast-food chains far outnumbered the vegetable stand, a fact that was at least partially responsible for the rising obesity epidemic. A study by Columbia University and the University of California/Berkley correlated a school’s proximity to fast-food chain restaurants to rates of obesity among students. Further, a paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry links poor nutrition to behavior problems.
Stringer said of the study, “When you see the statistics in writing it shocks you.”
Of the nutritional realities he encountered when visiting local neighborhoods he concluded, “When you see it in people’s eyes, it terrifies you.”
Scott Stringer decided that he and his administration had to do “all that we could to prolong life using every tool we had, and that meant rethinking how we view the food and sustainability movement.” Even in a borough of great wealth people were suffering from malnutrition and obesity.
From that declaration in 2008 to now, the Borough President has promoted a number of initiatives that connect what’s being served at the kitchen table to everything from healthier citizens, to better parenting, to stronger education, to tighter communities and to a more robust economy.
According to Stringer, his plans are to “bring New York City to the forefront of the new national debate on food production and distribution” because “we now have the perfect storm of opportunity: a president who understands that sustainability is good economics, a grassroots infrastructure to bring sustainability into local neighborhoods, and the science to back us up.”
Stringer’s initiatives include reforming tax incentives. “There is no reason that KFC’s, Burger Kings and McDonald’s should be benefiting from tax incentives not available to those who distribute nutritious foods,” he insists. And Stringer is also supporting the creation of a “foodshed,” a network of local farms that grow healthy food from whom government food purchasers will buy a certain percent of their vegetables, dairy products and other items.
Finally, Stringer has proposed the development of a FoodStat program that monitors nutrition and healthy food availability in all our neighborhoods. Stringer implores, “It is time that we as individuals and as a community start taking more control of how and where our food is produced and distributed. We must also do more to bring healthy food choices to neighborhoods with a glut of fast food joints and a shortage of supermarkets.”
Stringer pauses, then his voice rushes out when describing one of his favorite programs, “This one I’m in love with.”
Children awarded health bucks can redeem them at the new farmer’s market in Echo park in the Bronx for bags of vegetables. Stringer almost coos, “These kids get to take brown paper bags filled with vegetables back home to the kitchen table.” Kids bringing vegetables to the table in East Harlem? That sounds like a real meal, changing lives one apple, squash, or even carrot, at a time.