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Attention Food Lovers: Eco-Conscious Eating Isn’t All About Distance

Want to make a real difference with your grocery money? Find out where and how your food is produced.

How to get a better school lunch for your kids

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Action Figure
The Concrete Farmer
A farmer’s daughter turned marketing exec tries something in-between: community gardening—where the business of “knowing your audience” applies just as well.
Sheryll Durrant

Keka Marzagao/Sustainable Flatbush

Most people don’t move to New York City and become farmers. Sheryll Durrant certainly wasn’t planning to when she left Jamaica for Manhattan in 1989. She got her undergraduate degree in business from the City University of New York’s Baruch College and spent the next 20 years in marketing. Then, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Durrant decided to leave her job and try something new: volunteering at a community garden in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

It wasn’t exactly uncharted terrain for this farmer’s daughter. Growing up in Kingston, Durrant regularly helped her parents harvest homegrown fruits and vegetables. “But it didn’t dawn on me that that was what I wanted to do,” she says. Volunteering in the Brooklyn garden reminded her of her roots. “I would plant flowers or melons, and that sense of putting your hand in the soil and becoming a part of that green space flooded back to me.”

Kelly Street Garden

Craig Warga

Fast-forward to today. Durrant is a leader in New York’s flourishing urban farming movement, which includes more than 600 community gardens under the city’s GreenThumb program, plus hundreds more run by other groups across the five boroughs. A food justice advocate with a certificate from Farm School NYC, she’s also a “master composter” and a community garden educator, and she does outreach work for Farming Concrete, a data collection project that measures, among other things, how much urban farms and gardens produce.

Durrant’s early work at the Sustainable Flatbush garden taught her the crucial first step in initiating any community project: Know your neighborhood’s needs.

“We started by asking people in the community, ‘What do you want to see?’” This market-research approach turned out to serve her goals—and her neighbors—well. When community members, many of whom were immigrants, expressed a desire to grow the plants and herbs of their native countries, Durrant and her fellow green thumbs collaborated with a local apothecary to establish a medicinal and culinary herb garden and to organize free workshops on how to use the herbs. These garden sessions—which covered women’s and children’s health, eldercare, and mental health issues like depression—at times drew more than 100 attendees.

After Brooklyn, Durrant relocated to the South Bronx, a neighborhood that’s notoriously polluted, underserved, and disproportionately malnourished, with more than one in five residents considered food insecure. The borough’s gardens, says Durrant, help fill a void, serving as “one way we can bring fresh fruit and vegetables to a community that doesn’t normally have access.” At the Kelly Street Garden, a 2,500-square-foot space on the grounds of an affordable housing complex, she serves as garden manager. And at the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Community Farm, a half-acre garden whose members include resettled refugees from countries like Myanmar and the Central African Republic, she works as a seasonal farm coordinator.

Keka Marzagao/Sustainable Flatbush

Last year, the Kelly Street Garden produced 1,200 pounds of food, available to anyone in the community who volunteered at the garden (and even those who didn’t), free of cost. It was one of the few purveyors of healthy food in the neighborhood, where local stores often carry produce that’s neither affordable nor fresh, due to lack of turnover. “If I have a limited amount of income, why would I waste my money or benefits on food that is going to perish in no time—that’s already rotted when I get there?” Durrant says. For this reason, she explains, people often resort to purchasing processed foods that come in cans and bags. The longer shelf life stretches a tight budget. It also demonstrates why hunger often goes hand in hand with obesity—a problem particularly prevalent in the Bronx.

“I’m not going to say that community gardens and urban farms can feed New York City. Please, it’s a city with over eight million people,” Durrant says. “But they can provide some relief.” What’s more, she adds, “They give you access to grow the food you want. That’s where the food justice part comes in.”

Margaret Brown, an NRDC staff attorney who works on food justice issues, echoes Durrant’s words. “One garden isn’t going to fix hunger in your neighborhood, but community gardens are a way for people to take ownership over the food system in a very tangible way.”

Of course, community gardens give rise to much more than fruits and vegetables. Durrant explains that the Kelly Street Garden serves as a space for cooking workshops and on-site art projects and hosts its own farmers’ market. Meanwhile, the New Roots Community Farm has helped some of its neighborhood’s newest arrivals find one another. “It’s a means of engagement that a lot of our refugees are familiar with,” she says. “It’s welcoming, safe, and a place where people can learn at their own pace and get involved in the country where they now live.” Participants practice English (“Food is an incredible tool to teach English—a great entry point,” says Durrant); plant hot peppers, mustard greens, melons, and other edibles from their native homes; and exchange recipes.

Keka Marzagao/Sustainable Flatbush

Urban gardens also play a role in nutrition education. “Anecdotally, we’ve seen that when kids go to a community garden and get exposed to fresh fruits and veggies, they’re much more likely to eat them when they’re offered on the school lunch line, salad bar, or at home,” Brown says.

Perhaps most important, the community garden movement and its focus on food inequities help advocates raise awareness of broader, interconnected environmental justice issues—like low wages and lack of affordable housing—that get to the heart of why people struggle to access healthy food to begin with. “Community gardens form a good space for people to come together around those issues,” Brown says, “and hopefully find great organizing allies.”

Durrant is clearly one of them. As part of her community outreach work, she arranges events to bring new audiences (whether corporate employees on volunteer workdays, or visitors on a Bronx Food & Farm Tour) directly through the garden gates. These visitors get a glimpse of the power of a small green lot in a sea of concrete—and if they’re lucky, they leave with a taste of it, too.

Melissa Denchak
Action Figure

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Personal Action

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The state’s lawmakers have cut funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, leaving rural farmers in the lurch.

Action Figure

Sean Sherman wants to show the world another type of North American cuisine: indigenous food.

A Jobs and Infrastructure Program to Arrest Climate Change
David B. Goldstein

Job creation was a decisive factor in the recent election. But the question of how to create jobs rarely has been answered well.

Republicans and Democrats both value job creation and retention. If broad new programs were known they could have been implemented any time since the recession of 2007-9 (or even earlier when job creation tanked in the years 2000-2007 and manufacturing jobs were disappearing at their fastest rate ever [or since]). The fact that they mostly were not shows that good ideas were lacking.

Energy efficiency policies are much narrower in scope than the ideas that most economic policy analysts have considered to create employment. But they have the potential to produce new jobs at scale. I published a paper in Electricity Policy that sets forth new policy initiatives for infrastructure investment that will increase economic growth and reduce costs, especially for middle-class working households and for the poor. I wrote the paper with the goal of limiting climate change to a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet this suite of policies is also the most effective economic development proposal that has been set forward.

The first step is to continue and accelerate clean energy investment policies that are working well: energy efficiency policies that already are responsible for over 2 million jobs, and renewable energy promotion policies that have already produced 400,000 jobs. And efficiency policies have produced over $5 trillion in net savings.

The next step described in the paper is to adopt six new programs for enhanced energy efficiency and reducing of emissions of other greenhouse gases:

  • Fast, deep energy retrofits of all buildings
  • Smart growth and shared mobility
  • Strategic Energy Management in industry
  • Saving emissions in the supply chain
  • Improving forestry
  • Reducing methane leaks

The first efficiency policy alone is capable of generating some 500,000 new permanent jobs, focusing on the weakest sector of the American economy—construction.

Other new policies are designed to improve manufacturing competitiveness, helping us increase manufacturing jobs by accelerating the deployment of  new technologies in manufacturing that reduce costs and increase productivity while cutting pollution. This sort of increase in manufacturing competitiveness leads to expansions of manufacturing as well as keeping existing plants open.

I grew up in what we now call the Rust Belt so I witnessed, beginning in the 1970s, the shuttering of manufacturing plants that for decades had employed thousands at high wages. The reason for the closings was evident even to a teenager: the plants suffered from obsolete technology that had not been updated for at least 40 years. They had become increasingly uncompetitive over the years, all the while polluting the air so badly that I could never see things farther than a few miles away. We used to joke then that it was a shame American industry wasn’t bombed into oblivion like German and Japanese factories so that we could have rebuilt them with cleaner and more productive technology.

Increasing energy efficiency through better management systems and new technology, along with better operations, could have preserved the steel and oil refining and car manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of the local economy in the 50s, while cutting costs and pollution. They could have done this by requiring the plants to improve their operations continually, investing in efficiency of energy use as well as overall efficiency of production.

Now we have the opportunity to do this on an economy-wide basis, increasing economic choices for the middle class while reducing costs.

We have the technology and know-how to rein in climate change at a profit. In so doing, we can put millions of Americans to work where they live, with good middle class jobs, while making America stronger and more competitive globally. We just need to choose to do so. And environmental motivations might be just enough to get the ball rolling. 

Farm to Food Bank Coalition Letter

Coalition letter of more than 150 farm, hunger, and environmental organizations calling on Governor Cuomo to sign the Farm to Food Bank Bill into law. The bill, which passed both the state assembly and senate unanimously, would allow New York farmers to receive a refundable tax credit for donations made to food banks and other emergency food programs serving low-income New Yorkers.  

NRDC and Schools Call on USDA to Lead on Antibiotic Use
Margaret Brown

Urban School Food Alliance

Schools across the country have led the way in calling for chicken raised without the routine use of medically important antibiotics for their students. In fact, in late 2014, the Urban School Food Alliance, six of the largest districts in the country who serve nearly 3 million kids a day, committed to purchasing only responsibly raised or no antibiotics administered chicken.

This commitment, which came before similar announcements by McDonalds and others, helped to drive the market for responsibly raised chicken—and get better food to millions of kids. The impact is even more striking because in Alliance districts, 70% of kids rely on school meals for more than half of their food each day—something not uncommon in many other districts across the country.

Together, and with the support of more than 30 schools, health and environmental nonprofits, and others, we petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asking that the agency provide certified responsible antibiotic use chicken to the schools through the USDA Foods program.Today, NRDC, the Urban School Food Alliance, and School Food Focus are building on this and other great work and calling on USDA to help get better chicken into schools nationwide.

Urban School Food Alliance

So why is this important?

First, reducing the routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is critical to addressing the growing public health threat of antibiotic resistance.

The vast majority of antibiotics in this country are used in animal agriculture to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions common at industrial farms. This misuse in meat and poultry production contributes to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which travel off of farms and into our communities — not just on the meat itself, but also in our soil, air, water, and farmworkers.

And leading health experts warn that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics is contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and harm to human health. They caution that the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases the numbers of infections in people that may be more difficult to treat, require longer and more expensive hospital visits, and pose more fatal and non-fatal health risks.

Second, the USDA Foods program is a significant source of chicken for schools across the country.

USDA Foods buys food in bulk and offers it to schools nationwide, generally at a lower price than the commercial market. Many schools have long relied on this program to purchase much of their chicken.

However, the current program doesn’t offer no antibiotics administered chicken or chicken raised without routine use of medically important antibiotics. Including chicken raised with better antibiotics practices in USDA Foods would make it more accessible for more than 14,000 schools nationwide.

By offer certified responsible antibiotic use chicken through their USDA foods program, USDA can simultaneous help drive the market for responsibly raised chicken and get better food to kids across the country.  

Join us in asking USDA to lead on this critical issue and offer certified responsible antibiotic use chicken through their USDA foods program. 

Cuomo Commits Critical Funds to Advance Regional Food Hub
Margaret Brown Mark Izeman

Late last week, Governor Cuomo made what could be a game changing announcement for our regional food system.

Standing on the Hunt’s Point Peninsula in the South Bronx—the epicenter of food distribution for New York City and indeed much of the Northeast—Governor Cuomo announced that New York State is investing $15 million in the construction of a new Greenmarket Regional Food Hub. He also announced the release of a New York State-New York City food hubs task force report that identified the building of the new Regional Greenmarket as a top recommendation. 

Final details are still being ironed out. But based on recent plans, the roughly 120,000 square foot market would be located near the New Fulton Fish Market in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. There would be both indoor and outdoor spaceincluding critical cold storage capacity. The final design will likely also provide space for light processing (washing, chopping, bagging of veggies, for example) of regional produce—increasing opportunities for institutional procurement.

“The new food hub will work with a range of small- and mid-sized farms, providing unprecedented access to New York City’s wholesale marketplace,” Governor Cuomo’s press release states, adding, “the food hub will facilitate the expansion of farmers’ markets and youth markets in underserved communities.”

Having advocated alongside a diverse coalition of partners for a Wholesale Farmers’ Market and mission driven food hub in this area for many years, NRDC is thrilled to see the Governor make this important commitment.

NRDC believes that building this first regional food hub in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx may well be the single most important step New York can take to fix our broken regional food system.

Why? Stated simply, as things now stand, it is extremely difficult for regional farmers to sell their food into the massive New York metropolitan marketplace.

While some small and mid-sized farmers can sell their goods through popular “farm share” programs or retail farmers’ markets, 99% of the food sold in this country comes through wholesale channels. This means that, despite the enormous regional growing capacity, very little fresh, local food makes its way onto our stores, schools and homes. 

There are of course existing wholesale markets in the region, including perhaps the largest concentration of wholesale sellers in the nation on the Hunts Point peninsula—right where Governor Cuomo made his announcement. Indeed, the current Hunts Point Produce Market supplies 22 million people, or 7% of the US population, with fruit and vegetables every day.

But this Produce Market, along with many other traditional wholesale operations, largely shut out regional growers. For example, only a small percentage of the produce sold at the Hunts Point Produce Market is from New York farms. As a result, farmers are struggling economically and we are losing farmland at an alarming rate throughout the region.

Additionally, with a few exceptions, the current wholesale distribution models in New York City are not providing our most vulnerable communities with healthy, sustainable food. Walk into any bodega in the city’s disadvantaged neighborhoods and you can easily see how our existing wholesale food system is failing. And the results are devastating: like many other cities, obesity and diabetes rates are epidemic in New York, with a growing percentage of kids being diagnosed with food-related illness. In a sad irony, the residential neighborhood in Hunts Point is home to high proportion of adults with diabetes and obesity, in both cases higher than the citywide average.

The proposed, innovative Greenmarket food hub has the potential to address this distribution bottleneck by servicing and supporting small and mid-sized regional farmers—and getting more fresh healthy food into the city.

Of course, as NRDC and other stakeholders have emphasized, a single new wholesale farmers’ market in the Bronx cannot fully address New York City’s regional food distribution challenges—and that additional smaller community-based hubs are also important. Fortunately, the new state-city food hubs task force report released last week made exactly this point: “While an anchor food hub in the Bronx would serve as a nexus of connectivity between NYC and the regional food system, it cannot alone meet the City’s total demand for regional food distribution and economic opportunity. Neighborhood food hubs could streamline distribution and supply chain logistics, create local jobs, encourage entrepreneurship in the food sector, and support food access by increasing the availability of fresh, healthy food in New York.” 

It is absolutely critical that both the building of the new Greenmarket Food Hub in Hunts Point and any other new markets be advanced with full input from the local community and other key stakeholders. It is also important that these regional food centers are developed in a way to help drive local economic development so that everyone in our communities can afford to buy fresh local food.

We look forward to seeing the new Greenmarket Regional Food hub finally become a reality. And we look forward to working with officials, farmers, food revolutionaries and others to ensure that in the next few years we develop additional capacity of both city and rural food hubs to meet the growing demand for healthy and affordable New York State food.

A Path-Breaking Law Clinic for Farmers, Food Revolutionaries
Margaret Brown
Mark Izeman

Today the Haub School of Law at Pace University in New York (formerly known as Pace Law School) announced the creation of a two-year pilot of a new law clinic that will provide much-needed legal services to farmers, community and grassroots groups, and mission-oriented food and beverage entrepreneurs. This new clinic is part of a larger partnership between Pace and NRDC to strengthen the fast-growing field of food law.

This establishment of a new Pace Clinic is a significant step forward for the food movement—serving as the first, full-time transactional clinic in the country dedicated to providing direct legal services to food-related clients. Providing this on-the-ground legal help is critical because in order to implement innovative practices and make change in the food system, farmers, food entrepreneurs, micro brewers and distillers, and other activists must navigate a complicated legal landscape governing everything from labelling to estate planning. This clinic can also create a national food law model that other states and regions can replicate across the country.

In the official press release, the Dean of the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, David Yassky, said: “Many businesses in the growing ‘farm to table’ economy start out in someone’s kitchen, backyard or even roof garden. When these business grow, new legal issues emerge and often these entrepreneurs can’t afford the legal help they need.” 

In addition to this new Clinic, formally named the Haub Food and Beverage Law Clinic, and which will be operated by Pace, there are three other key components of the Pace-NRDC Food Law Initiative.

First, each semester a Pace law student will work at NRDC on regional food. We hosted our first extern in the spring of 2016. 

Second, the initiative will also host an annual lecture focusing on critical food law topics. The first annual lecture took place on January 2016 at the NRDC offices in New York City. You can read more about the event in Edible.

And third, there will be a Workshop Series for law students and lawyers to build the capacity of the legal community to deal with food and agriculture issues. We hosted a small preview of one of these panels at the 2016 Food and Enterprise Conference in Brooklyn, NY. In partnership with Shearman & Sterling, LLP, the Food Law Initiative put on an interactive panel covering three core areas critical to food entrepreneurs operating on the farm, in the factory, or at the office. We look forward to doing more workshops with Pace and Shearman & Sterling over the next year.

NRDC is excited to partner with Pace and Shearman & Sterling on expanding food law work throughout the New York region—including training a new generation of lawyers that will help rebuild our broken food systems, and cultivate stronger sustainable farming economies. 

Five Ideas we'd like to see in Mayor Bill de Blasio's State-of-the-City Speech
Eric A. Goldstein

Bill de Blasio's 3rd State-of-the-City speech tonight will be a perfect opportunity for the New York City Mayor to build upon the new environmental framework he unveiled in his ambitious OneNYC sustainability plan last April.

The Mayor's speech, like his previous major pronouncements, is likely to focus on inequality and the glaring economic disparities in the nation's largest city. But the beauty of de Blasio's approach to sustainability issues is that so many of New York City's longstanding environmental challenges fall squarely within the equity frame.

Here are five topics we'd like to see included in the Mayor's speech. Each one attacks an environmental problem and addresses inequities that have weighed on the City's less affluent residents over the years.

1) Scale up Energy Efficiency in Affordable Multifamily Housing

Increasing energy efficiency in affordable multifamily housing reduces the burdens on lower-income New Yorkers by cutting their energy costs and creating healthier, more comfortable conditions in their apartments. Reducing energy waste in these buildings is also essential to achieving Mayor de Blasio's ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals. The Administration has taken important first steps on this issue by, for example, having the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Housing Development Corporation advance energy and water efficiency in buildings they finance. Now is the perfect time for the Mayor to announce the creation of a task force that will define specific strategies needed to achieve 80 per cent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (with intermediate benchmarks) in the city's affordable multifamily housing sector.

2) Build a Wholesale Farmers' Market in the South Bronx

Even though New York State is agriculturally rich and a top producer of fruits and vegetables, many city residents - especially those living in lower income neighborhoods - do not have sufficient opportunities to purchase fresh and healthy food. Building a wholesale farmers' market in the South Bronx might be the most important step that New York could take to spur the flow of locally grown, healthy food into bodegas, community centers and schools throughout the city. Such a facility should be located near the current Hunt's Point Produce Market, which primarily distributes food from giant farms outside the region (and outside the country) and which has not succeeded in getting sufficient fresh, regionally grown food into the city. The Mayor has supported building this new market in cooperation with the Cuomo Administration, and highlighting his commitment to it in the state-of-the-city address could be the spark that is needed to finally turn this concept into reality.

3) Revise the City's Regressive Water Rate Structure

Under an arcane city policy, New York's water rates include the cost of a "rental payment" for "leasing" the city's water and sewer system from itself. This rental payment amounts to a regressive tax on city water ratepayers. And it diverts a portion of water rate payments to non-water uses. The de Blasio Administration wisely moved to refund a portion of these rental payments to water ratepayers last year. If the Mayor were to announce a phase-out of these antiquated rental payments, hundreds of millions of dollars could be reallocated to water-related infrastructure investments that address such problems as sewer overflows and to programs that provide reductions in water bills to qualifying low-income senior and disabled customers.

4) Reform the Broken System of Commercial Waste Collection

The city's current system for collection of commercial trash involves multiple private carter trucks driving around the city and criss-crossing each other's routes. This system is inefficient, generates unnecessary traffic and air pollution and is not sufficiently protective of the rights or health of the private sanitation workers employed by the carting industry. In contrast, an exclusive zone system for commercial waste collection, like that recently adopted in Los Angeles, would enable the city to rationalize collection routes and set industry-wide standards for truck pollution, recycling and composting, worker safety, etc. It makes so much sense for the Mayor to get behind the labor/environmental justice coalition's legislative proposal to transform the city's broken system for disposing of commercial trash.

5) Incorporate Environmental Justice into Government Decision-Making

For decades, communities of color and other politically less powerful neighborhoods have borne more than their fair share of New York City's environmental burdens. To his credit, Mayor de Blasio made redressing such inequities a cornerstone of his sustainability plan, OneNYC, which was released in 2015. There is much that city government agencies can do within their own organizations and throughout the city to ameliorate environmental justice problems. New York City Councilmember Costa Constantinides recently chaired hearings on two bills that would prod city agencies to more systematically evaluate environmental justice threats and engage community stakeholders in helping to tackle the issues. If the Mayor were to voice his support for these bills tonight, it would be music to the ears of neighborhood activists around the city.



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