Wednesday evening marked the first time in New York City history that mayoral candidates sat down for a discussion solely on the topic of Food.
Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health Marion Nestle moderated the Mayoral Candidate Forum on the Future of Food, held at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium.
One theme that quickly emerged was disapproval of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest initiatives.
“I think it’s too small-minded, these things,” said Mayoral Candidate Anthony Weiner, referring to Bloomberg’s long list of anti-obesity initiatives, including the recent attempt to restrict the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages with SNAP. Weiner volunteered to go first at Wednesday’s forum.
“There is a reason people are buying 99 cent soda. It’s because they can’t afford the organic milk I feed to my son.” Weiner pronounced.
Mayoral Candidate Christine Quinn felt marketing was to blame.
“If you’re going to market a children’s meal,” Quinn stated, “you have to meet USDA health standards for those meals.'”
Quinn was also the only candidates that touched upon physical activity, stating that asthma rates are to blame for the high rates of inactivity among City youth. Weiner was more concerned with the City’s income inequality and healthcare.
“1.2 million New Yorkers have no health insurance,” he stated, “We have closed 13 hospitals in the City in the past 4 years.”
Weiner went on to mention his proposal for a single-payer health care system for all New Yorkers, earning himself a cheer from the crowd. Quinn focused more on children, proposing to double the number of children’s health clinics in schools. Both candidates touched upon the SNAP program.
“New York City was the last city in the U.S. to do [away with] fingerprinting for food stamps.” Weiner stated, “We need to de-stigmatize the SNAP program.”
Weiner proposed giving SNAP participants greater incentive to purchase healthy foods. Mayoral Candidate Bill DeBlasio agreed on Weiner’s point, saying that getting more people on SNAP is a priority. Quinn noted that this can be accomplished by cross-referencing people who are currently getting other benefits but not enrolled in SNAP.
However, Mayoral Candidate John Catsimatidis tread in thin ice when he proposed to do something about SNAP fraud. He made a comment that the WIC program is a more economically sound program because participants are handed a predetermined list of items they can purchase.
School lunch was another major at the forum and one that received similar responses from the candidates.
“We need to remove the stigma from school lunch,” Weiner stated, proposing to double the number of summer meals, as well as introducing a unique idea to make healthy snacks available in school hallways, comparing it to the everyday hot dog stands and halal carts that plague City streets.
DeBlasio boldly proposed a Universal School Lunch system, “We have to get food into children’s hands.” However, a shock came when Quinn brought up federal restrictions that would prevent efforts to start a Universal School Lunch program. Instead, Quinn proposed a Universal In-School Breakfast program that would have school principles opt-in by default. She also suggested school dinners in high-need areas. Liu brought up a point about the taste of school lunches, boldly stating, “school food, it sucks!” He is puzzled that school food continues to lack in quality, despite the fact that schools serve as an ideal setting for early-year nutrition intervention. Liu is destined to increase school food procurement.
The forum went on to discuss urban agriculture and food procurement. Catsimatidis was easily the only attendee that had experience in the food industry, being the owner, president, chairman and CEO of Gristedes Foods. His 44 years of experience working in NYC’s food industry provided the forum with good insight from a retailer’s perspective and painted a picture of what it’s like to be a food retailer in NYC.
“The rent in New York City stores is 10% of store sales,” he said, compared to 1.5% in New Jersey. He went on to make further comparisons, such as electricity, which accounts for double the percent of store sales in NYC (3%) compared to New Jersey. Catsimatidis proposed zoning laws that would provide incentives for the inclusion of supermarkets in high-need neighborhood, similar to Bloomberg’s FRESH Initiative.
He went on to discuss other factors involved in food pricing.
“It’s all about transportation,” Catsimatidis stated, noting that it costs almost quadruple the amount ($3-4 per case) to ship food from California to NYC than it costs to ship food from New Jersey.
“I encourage more products to come from local markets and I believe it will bring the price down,” he said, in response to a question about the Hunt’s Point Produce Market. Catsimatidis noted that organic foods now make up close to %16 of store items. Quinn later mentioned that EBT purchases at City farmers’ markets have reached over $800,000, up from $1,000 during the program’s launch.
DeBlasio agreed that NYC needs to ween itself off of the culture of purchasing food from 3000 miles away. He noted his recent legislation to prohibit the use of polystyrene in City agencies and food establishments. Liu also made a point to touch upon the topic of food waste.
“40% of food is wasted before it even gets to the table,” Liu stated, recalling a Flushing-based farm run by community members that sell harvested vegetables on the sidewalk. However, Liu admitted to shopping at an H-Mart located near his apartment, regardless of better deals at a C-Town that is located much further away from his house, where he did his shopping while he was on the SNAP Challenge.
However, Mayoral Candidate Sal Albanese noted that he is the only candidate not accepting contributions from developers, highlighting his dedication to utilize City land for food procurement and food retail, not expensive housing.
The forum went on to discuss food workers’ rights.
Catsimatidis proudly noted that all Gristedes workers are unionized and he himself is one of the only mayoral candidates that has ever belonged to a union. Weiner, Quinn and Catsimatidis all agreed that rallying up food workers would spark initiative. Quinn noted that City Council funding helped facilitate the creation of 32 food start-ups through East Harlem’s La Marqueta. Albanese made the most promising suggestion to expand the living wage legislation.
“I’ve done it, I know how to do it, I will do it again,” Albanese said, referring to having drafted the City’s first living wage bill in 1996. Liu proposed setting the minimum wage at $11.50 per hour. Weiner’s proposal was more traditional – realistic immigration laws that don’t discriminate against food workers.
However, one of the most challenging questions posed at the forum was in regards to food governance, or, who would be held responsible for the Future of Food in NYC?
DeBlasio displayed resentment to Bloomberg’s recent establishment of the Office of the Food Policy Coordinator. He suggested that only a Deputy Mayor would have the power to handle the City’s food coordination. Albanese proposed a Food Policy Council for NYC.
Quinn and Weiner, however, felt uneasy about any single body being held responsible for the City’s food. Quinn sees more potential in gathering efforts across different government agencies. Weiner sees greater potential in the City’s current non-profit organizations.
“We need a non-profit Czar at the table,” Weiner remarked. Liu agreed, stating, “City government can only do so much. We need to get into non-profit organizations.”
As it now stands, Quinn is leading the polls in the Democratic primary, immediately followed by late-comer Anthony Weiner. Polls show that former Chairman of the NYC MTA, Joseph Lhota, leads the Republic primary, followed by John Catsimatidis. Many voters remain undecided.
Watch the full recording of the nights proceedings here.