Welcome to a new feature, Eating with the Pols, in which we talk to local politicians about New York food issues.
Meet City Council member Eric Goia, who has been serving since 2002. Not only does he represent one of the most delicious districts in the city–District 26 encompasses Woodside, Sunnyside, Long Island City and Astoria–but he also recently made news by reportedly supporting the Los Angeles fast food ban, sparking speculation that a similar measure might take root here. We asked him to clarify, and it turns out that Gioia has a lot of interesting things to say about the state of food and poverty in New York.
What’s the most pressing food issue in New York today?
Food stamps have been a big issue for me since 2002, when I started looking into how the city allots them. The basic breakdown is that about 1.9 million people qualify, and just over a million receive them, so about half of the people who qualify for food stamps don’t sign up for them.
In studies, we found that it’s working people, people who are not on other forms of public assistance, and there are two reasons they don’t apply. One is: ‘I didn’t know I qualified,’ and the other is: ‘I know I qualify, but the red tape is so thick, that I can’t take time off work to go get it.’
The food stamp program is fully funded by federal government, so it’s inexplicable that the city wouldn’t make it more accessible, when there are literally billions of dollars to feed hungry children available, that’s billion with a ‘B.’ I’m happy to say that, in part because of my advocacy, the food stamp application has been reduced from 24 pages to 4 pages, and the application offices are kept open later. I’d like to see the application fully online, so that people can do it at work, or go to into a library and fill it out.
Last year, I lived on food stamps for one week to see how it was–I thought it would be difficult but it was even more difficult than I thought it would be. For one thing, no coffee, so two or three days later, I got a headache. And what was fascinating were other things you take for granted. If you’re working a 12 or 14 hour day, and you’re not going to be close to home, you’ve got to think about what to pack to bring from home to eat. So you end up lugging around a PB and J, and that’s your dinner. And it’s far more difficult for those who do this everyday.
There’s a misconception, spread by the radical right, that if only poor people knew how to eat better, they’d be healthy, and heart disease, obesity and diabetes wouldn’t be the terrible problems that they are. But when I was on the food stamp diet, I could only afford the less healthy choices, like ramen and processed cheese. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s only about education, we have to allow people to help themselves, and give them the options to eat healthy. That means signing up more people for food stamps, which will increase the federal funds coming to New York, and increase the purchasing power in less affluent neighborhoods. If you drop 10 million dollars of money to buy food into a neighborhood, a smart grocer is going to open a store there.
And we need to encourage greenmarkets, food co-ops to expand accept foods stamps. The biggest offender is Costo–they don’t accept food stamps, in part because they think that people on food stamps can’t afford the Costco card. There’s this misconception that everyone on food stamps is destitute. If you have a family, and make under 24 thousand dollars a year, you qualify. That’s a school crossing guard’s salary.
What about LA’s fast food ban–you were reported as being in favor of similar measures in New York. Can you explain your stance on that?
Look, I think that’s extreme. That being said, when you look at the long term health consequences of these terrible diets, the heart disease, the cost for public hospitals, the lost productivity, I think everything should be on the table, and we should applaud creative thinking. I don’t blame them for thinking out of the box.
I think it’s hard for people to fathom that hunger is a problem. But hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin.
Can you explain how hunger and obesity are related?
When you’re poor and hungry, and your kids are hungry, you’ll do anything you can to put food in that belly, the more the better. You’ll go for big, processed cheese-like strips, the lightest, cheapest bread, whole milk rather than skim milk. You can buy a two liter bottle of coke for a dollar, but milk costs 5 bucks. It’s not that people don’t know the healthy choices, the decision is made for them by the prices on the foods.
How do you respond to people who say that it’s patronizing to say tell certain segments of the population what to eat?
I think that’s partly right. But I also think that predators often wrap them in the liberty of their victim. You talk to folks who lost their home: It was their right to sign those documents. You have to balance liberty and governance. We really do have to be creative.
I think of your district as being a particularly good place to eat. Where do you like to go out to eat?
I grew up in the neighborhood, and my family been there 100 years, but I’m still finding new places. We found a place on Saturday called My Thai [8347 Dongan Avenue, Elmhurst]. That was fantastic, really good Thai food.
Then there’s Manetta’s [10-76 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]. If you like non-fancy Italian, like grandma would make on Sunday, that’s the place. They were closed for two weeks. I almost starved! My wife is Cuban and she thinks El Sitio [68-28 Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside] is the best Cuban in the city.
There are great Indian places…and Donovan’s [5724 Roosevelt Avenue, Woodside] has great pub food. You can’t go wrong in my neighborhood.