How the Big Apple Can Go Local

New York City is known worldwide as “The Big Apple.”

But we might have to start calling it “The Big Locally Grown Apple” if the City Council adopts important new legislation that would help bring more locally produced food into the City.

One proposal would encourage City agencies to purchase food that is grown, produced, harvested, or processed in the state and would hold agencies responsible for reporting how much of the food they buy is local. Another would call on the NYS Legislature to amend state law to extend local buying preferences to food from “the New York region,” including New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire. (For complicated reasons, NYC’s purchasing authority comes from state law.)

I had the opportunity to testify before the Council, both to show NRDC’s support for these kinds of initiatives and to make a few recommendations for how they could be stronger. In short, we suggested that the Council amend the proposals to help make sure the food purchased is not only local, but also sustainably grown, and that there are concrete targets for how much local food the City must buy (assuming it's cost competitive) in the coming years.

The local food issue is one of the hottest environmental issues regionally and nationally – and these bills come on the heels of Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s well-received “Foodworks” plan, which emphasizes the need to launch a new full-blown strategy to strengthen our regional food supply.

And rightly so. If New York reforms its food system, the environmental, economic and public health benefits would be enormous. Here are a few reasons why:

New York’s farmers need a boost. Less than 20 percent make more than $100,000 per year, and they earn roughly half as much per acre as farmers do nationally. Increasing demand for local food would promote agricultural growth (which would raise farmer salaries) and have a multiplier effect on job creation. For example, for every job on New York’s dairy farms, an additional 1.24 jobs are created elsewhere.

Local food systems help protect the environment. The sad truth is that nearly 70 acres of farmland in the state are lost every day to development, meaning a million acres have been buried under cement and asphalt over 60 years. The rapid loss of farmland could be particularly devastating to New York’s unfiltered drinking water, since well-managed farms can help buffer our precious watershed from inappropriate development. 

We need access to fresher, more nutritious food.  Nearly 3.3 million New Yorkers lack access to healthy foods, and those living in low-income areas are disproportionately affected. This problem is most visible in the New York City school system, where almost half of the children in kindergarten through eighth grade in 2008 were found to be overweight or obese. Studies show that produce loses about 40 percent of its nutritional value only three days after it’s harvested – thus, a piece of fruit farmed in the Hudson Valley and eaten shortly after on Hudson Street in Manhattan would likely have more nutritional value than one that takes days to be shipped from Oregon.

New York has enormous potential to become a leader in providing sustainable, local, healthy food to people who need it most, and we’re excited that the City Council is taking steps to improve our food system.