A New York State of Mind on Food and Farms

One in six Americans struggles with hunger. More than one-third of Americans are obese. And our current agriculture is a major contributor to climate change.

These are just a few indicators that our national food system is broken. Or as Mark Bittman put it this week "the state of the union, food-wise, is not good."

Fortunately, leaders at the state and city level are beginning to take the lead on establishing new policies and programs to help rebuild our food systems.

And on Wednesday here in New York, Governor Cuomo delivered his State of the State speech where he made a number of exciting announcements on food and farming.

This local leadership is one of the many important reasons my colleagues and I work on regional food issues--as part of NRDC's overall national efforts to reform food policies.

Indeed, we have found that local and state leaders are often more open to, and effective at, making change on food policy than leaders in Washington.

Of course we also work on regional food because it can increase access to fresh food (especially in disadvantaged communities), it can allow for greater transparency in how our food is grown, it can help preserve at farmland, and it can help grow green local economies. All important benefits that many governors and mayors recognize.

Governor Cuomo has started to become a national leader on food issues. From passage of the local food metrics bill in 2013 to impressive encouragement of our local breweries and wineries, he has shown he understands the opportunity of strong regional food systems.

And the Governor's State of the State reaffirmed his commitment to forge a long term strategic food plan for the state and build a stronger agricultural economy.

First, the Governor committed $50 million to farmland protection--$30 million in the Southern Tier and $20 million in the Hudson Valley. This forward-thinking investment will help protect our seven million acres of farmland, the 36,000 farms across the state, and secure a local food supply for more New Yorkers. For years, New York State has lost a farm every three days. That is a staggering statistic and one the state should work hard to stop. Allowing farmers to protect their land helps them stay in business and eventually makes it easier to pass the land to other farmers when they retire. This is good news for farmers and eaters statewide.

The Governor also recognizes that many New Yorkers struggle with hunger and committed $4.5 million to expand emergency food access. We need to do more to solve poverty and hunger--people shouldn't depend on "food banks" to eat. But while we work to solve these broader issues these impressive emergency food organizations do so much to help hungry New Yorkers and we are happy that NRDC is now beginning to work with them to help them source local fresh food.

Governor Cuomo also alluded to his Administration's recent announcements on building a downstate wholesale farmers' market that could help struggling farmers around the state. The current produce market in Hunts Point section of the Bronx currently serves 22 million people, or 7 percent of the entire U.S. population, but only about 4 percent of the fruit and vegetables sold there are from New York farms.

And the Governor recognized that a downstate wholesale farmers' market "will enable the upstate agricultural industry to increase access to metropolitan markets for producers, while providing an array of healthy, affordable food for communities." He also promised to establish downstate regional food hubs task force--and NRDC and others are eagerly awaiting the official launch of this important new endeavor. We hope 2015 will be the year we finally secure a wholesale farmers' market in Hunts Point.

In addition to these exciting announcements, we are hopeful that Governor Cuomo will connect the dots on another important food issue--protecting bees and other pollinators across the state. As my colleague Rich Schrader wrote recently, bees are critical for our agricultural economies. Bees pollinate $15 billion worth of the crops grown in the U.S. every year, including New York's $250 million industry apple industry. But the use of neonicotinoid or "neonic" pesticides and loss of habitat are wiping out their populations en masse--more than 25 percent of the managed U.S. bee population has disappeared since 1990 and the number of hives is now at its lowest level in 50 years. Protecting bees and other pollinators is vital to continuing to grow the agricultural economy of the state.

So we applaud Governor Cuomo for his growing leadership--especially in the face of federal foot-dragging--to advance new, precedent-setting state food policies.

In the words of Billy Joel, "I know what I'm needin', and I don't want to waste more time. I'm in a New York state of mind."

About the Authors

Mark Izeman

Director, New York program and Senior Attorney

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