Food fanatics and environmentalists have been singing the praises of a local diet for years: The food travels fewer miles to your table (compared with the national average farm-to-plate distance for industrial produce, a whopping 1,500 miles), keeps dollars in your locality, and may even make you healthier. In New York, a city where residents are used to being able to get what they want when they want it, finding locally grown or produced food is hardly a challenge, especially if it’s summer and you live in the right neighborhood.
So then why, according to a 2010 report released by Mayor Bloomberg’s office, is more than half of our food trucked in from hundreds of miles away?
To begin, as Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Paulette Goddard Professor in the New York University Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health says, “This is not California, alas, and we do have winter.”
That the region spends a good chunk of the year under snow and ice is part of the answer, as does NYC’s urban nature and location in the southeast corner of New York state, according to a 2008 study of the city’s food supply. Compared with non-urban areas, “food shipped to urbanized areas traveled twice as far, and food shipped to NYC traveled ten times as far.” The study’s researchers also came to a conclusion that could depress the locavore: Because of the massive population of the five boroughs, the report found that even if the entire state’s agricultural products flowed only to us here at the Center of the Universe, that food supply “would meet just 55% of [NYC’s] total food needs.”
What about the city’s urban gardens and farms, popping up in vacant lots, on rooftops, and, in one case, the bed of a 1968 Dodge pickup? Add food cultivated there, and the percentage of the population fed would go up–but not by much. A 2012 Harvest Report tracking 106 gardens found that the beds provided a “very conservative” estimate of 87,000 pounds of food per year, but the average American consumes 1,996.3 pounds of food per year. Based on those numbers, those gardens would feed only 43.5 people per year. If you multiply that number by eight to account for the over 800 school and community gardens in the city, you’ll get to 348 people-that’s not even enough food to feed the residents of a single high-rise building.
If we’re to feed ourselves locally, we need a better approach. And fear not, Pollanites, for there may be greener days ahead. With the mayoral campaign in high gear, and an entire forum last month dedicated just to food issues, several candidates have voiced an interest in upping the city’s local food production potential.
I’ve examined their track records, goals, and plans to improve New York’s food supply to answer the question of which mayor-to-be will best increase access to the tri-state area’s best carrots, lamb chops, and my personal favorite, pickled ramps.
And just in time for the democratic primary, you’ll be able to read my assessment in tomorrow’s Village Voice.