If I told you that the top problems facing our country today are unemployment, global warming, the cost of health care and terrorism, few people would bat an eye. But what if I said that we could make strides toward solving each of these problems simply by changing the way we eat and where we get our food from? Now that might spark more of a discussion.
By stocking our kitchens with more food that’s grown within a 200-mile radius of New York City, we can create jobs, reduce the city’s carbon footprint, lower health insurance premiums and make the United States less vulnerable to bioterrorism. Yet for decades we have paid no attention to the importance of eating fruit and vegetables grown in New York City’s “food shed,” the region surrounding the city where fresh produce can quickly and easily be transported to city markets.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto , and one of the leaders of a quiet revolution in America centered on regional food systems. According to Pollan, adolescents get 15 percent of their caloric intake from soda, and all those sweetened soft drinks vastly increase the incidence of childhood obesity and diabetes. Add in the fact that a type 2 diabetes patient faces annual health care costs of $6,600, and the link between diet and health insurance premiums quickly becomes apparent.
With national health care spending running at $147 billion a year to treat obesity and $116 billion a year to treat diabetes, we can see the urgency of substituting pears for Pepsi. Researchers from Columbia and MIT agree, having concluded in a recent study that the best long-term solution for reversing childhood obesity is to improve diet by developing regional food sheds.
The food shed’s other benefits are no less real. Seventy years ago, when regional food systems were dominant, a single calorie of fossil fuel produced two calories of food. Today, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of the processed food found in supermarkets. The implications for carbon emissions and the environment are enormous.
With respect to jobs, food manufacturing is New York City’s most stable industry. But it employs only a fraction of the people who would be employed if we maximized the capacity of our food shed and joined it with modern, efficient distribution systems to bring regional produce into every corner of our city.
And, yes, there are even national security implications. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a great advocate for New York State on these issues, points out that if we rely on just a few parts of the country for the lion’s share of our food, we are much more vulnerable to bioterrorism. Numerous regional food systems located throughout the country minimize that threat.
The biggest transformation in the United States during the next generationmay well come in the way we feed ourselves. In the White House, the president has floated the idea of a soda tax, and the first lady is opening eyes with her garden. In City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing creative ways to increase the number of supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods. Everywhere there are unmistakable signs of new thinking about food.
For much of the past year, I have been working with a terrific team from Columbia University and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture to create a blueprint for developing the New York City food shed. We are making progress, and on Dec. 12 the food shed movement will get another boost. Along with Just Food and New York University, I will be hosting a daylong conference, complete with workshops and planning sessions, called the New York City Food and Climate Summit. Come join us and become part of the only grassroots movement in town that promises to make you healthy, wealthy and wise.
Scott M. Stringer is Manhattan borough president.
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