A few years ago, a Manhattan borough president community initiative called “Go Green” was launched in East Harlem with the help of local Council Member Melissa Mark Viverito. The goal was to engage New York’s dynamic communities in the effort to bring farmers’ markets, greenspace and cleaner air back to our city neighborhoods, and to reduce the impact of environmentally driven diseases, like asthma and obesity.
Go Green was about the sustainability of our neighborhoods, but as the project continued, eventually spreading as far north as Washington Heights and Inwood, and south to the Lower East Side, we realized that the sustainability of New York goes hand-in-hand with the sustainability—i.e., the health—of New Yorkers.
We came to understand that yes, there is a link between the dinner table and the doctor’s office, and that a movement for a healthier New York starts with better access to fresh, healthy food for everyone in our city. The politics of food must become a priority, not just for New York, but for cities across the world.
Earlier this summer, we celebrated a victory for low income New Yorkers when the Costco Corporation agreed to extend its food stamps program to the store currently under construction on East 106th Street. The change will have a serious impact on the local community—30,000 people receive food stamps in East Harlem alone—and it represented an opportunity to empower the city to influence the way businesses and developers participate in the health and nutrition of the communities in which they build.
The food stamps campaign was just one part of a growing movement that places New York City at the forefront of efforts to rethink our national system of food production and distribution, beginning with looking at development through the lens of public health. One method proposed begins with a change to the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) that would require an analysis of fresh food infrastructure. Development projects that would bring new residents and visitors to neighborhoods lacking adequate fresh food access would be encouraged to provide support for new supermarkets, farmers’ markets and similar operations.
Earlier this year, the borough president’s office tested such an analysis of healthy food availability in two adjoining Manhattan neighborhoods, looking at the number of fast food restaurants per block versus grocery stores that offer fresh produce. We found that East Harlem has half as many fresh supermarkets as the Upper East Side, and double the rate of obesity. Like the city’s renowned CompStat program and its role in crime prevention, measuring healthy food availability will be a tool for directing city resources to places where they are most needed.
There is plenty more that needs to be done, of course; our food system in New York City is in need of a radical overhaul. As we saw with the growth and success of Go Green, New Yorkers across the city have brought a movement for proactive health policy to our streets. It’s time for city government to step up as a leader as well, and take on the challenge of building a brighter future for nutrition and health in New York.
Scott Stringer is Manhattan Borough President. Melissa Mark Viverto represents the 8th Council district, which covers part of the Upper West Side, East Harlem and part of Mott Haven in The Bronx.
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