Mayoral Candidates Vie for Food Cred


For those living near one of New York City’s 54 Greenmarkets or with access to one of the 800-plus school and community gardens or dozen-plus urban farms, you can hardly swing a reusable tote without knocking over some kind of “local” food. But most of what New Yorkers eat doesn’t come from nearby. According to a 2008 study of the city’s food supply, even if the entire state’s agricultural products flowed only to our concrete jungle, it would meet just 55 percent of its total food needs.

With more than 1 million food-insecure New Yorkers and a $30 billion food economy, food matters in this election.

Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio both stand out from the pack on the local food question, and their different approaches point to the general distinctions in their would-be mayoral styles. While Quinn’s tends to be top-down, with achievements in tracking food and proposals for better procurement, de Blasio offers a more bottom-up alternative, pushing local agriculture, urban gardens, and even dropping the word “foodshed.”

Meanwhile, John “Gristedes” Catsimatidis, the self-proclaimed “most experienced” candidate on food issues, summed up his plan at the first-ever Mayor’s Forum on the Future of Food in New York City: “It comes down to getting product cheaper.” (So why do his stores tend to carry expensive, low-quality produce from far away? If his campaign had answered my e-mails, maybe I could tell you.) Dani Lever, spokeswoman for Bill Thompson, who did not attend the forum, says only that Thompson would “expand tax credits to make it easier for supermarkets to operate in neighborhoods that do not have access to quality, nutritious foods.” And, perhaps surprisingly—cucumbers, zucchinis, sausages? Come on, Carlos Danger!—Anthony Weiner was largely at a loss, swinging every question back to SNAP and health insurance.

As City Council Speaker, Quinn’s achievements include creating FoodWorks, the city’s first comprehensive food plan, upping the number of food stamp-accepting Greenmarkets from six to 51, and passing Local Law 50 in 2011, a bill establishing preferential treatment for farmers bidding on city contracts. Quinn sees the city’s purchasing power as key to changing its food system. According to her campaign, “Working within the legal procurement boundaries, her administration will continue to make it easier for local farms to get contracts with the city.” Quinn would like to see 20 percent of the city’s food locally sourced.

What Quinn may lack in passion she more than makes up for in academic rigor. Her 90-page FoodWorks plan includes steps for upping local agricultural production, localizing processing, improving distribution, changing consumption habits, and tackling the oft-forgotten post-consumption links in the city’s food chain. Benzi Ronen, founder of online farmers’ market Farmigo, says that what the city needs is more covered, weatherproofed “community spaces” to “really encourage more food entrepreneurs.” With her support for food startups, it’s easy to imagine Quinn assigning her brain trust the task of finding these spaces and figuring out the best ways to use them.

De Blasio’s food cred goes as far back as at least 2009, when he introduced City Council Resolution 2049, aka FoodprintNYC, “to create greater access to local, fresh, healthy food, especially in low-income communities as well as city-run institutions.” Citing both environmental and economic benefits, de Blasio wants to bring local goods to Hunts Point Produce Market—where two-thirds of produce enters the city—and integrate them into government contracts as “part of an overall effort to wean us off produce grown 3,000 miles away.” Food justice fits snugly in de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme. “As mayor,” he promises, “my No. 1 priority will be addressing our city’s crisis of inequality, which manifests itself in myriad ways, including access to healthy, local nutritious foods.”

More than any other candidate, de Blasio recognizes that the availability of locally grown food is tied up with economics—an especially important understanding when it comes to urban gardening, trends in which, according to Mara Gittleman of Farming Concrete, closely track economic circumstances. “There is a stark geographic pattern of community gardens in NYC,” she told me. “They mostly exist in neighborhoods that burnt down in the 1970s and ’80s, since these neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of vacant lots.” In more moneyed neighborhoods, urban agriculture is “less of a community effort because people have their own space.” Different neighborhoods require their own unique solutions, and de Blasio’s on-the-ground credentials and man-of-the-people reputation make him well suited for finding them.

Catsimatidis, Weiner, and Thompson are less encouraging. Catsimatidis sees his stores as a testament to his abilities instead of an Achilles heel. Food barely seems to register as an issue at all for Weiner or Thompson. Weiner seems to think the answer to “why local food?” is “universal healthcare,” and Thompson has even less to say on the topic.

A de Blasio or Quinn win should excite locavore New Yorkers. Though their methodologies diverge, both see increased access to local food as an important facet in governing our city.