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Scott Stringer Leads Call at TC for Nutrition Changes


Scott Stringer

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Some 750,000 New Yorkers, many of them in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, live in what has come to be known as food deserts, without nearby access to grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables, said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at a conference at Teachers College on April 4.

Stringer, who has championed the creation of a regional “food shed” that would ensure a steady supply of locally grown produce for the city’s markets and restaurants, said the lack of healthful food options combined with environmental degradation in these neighborhoods “is killing people,” and called on nutritionists and activists at the conference to flex their political muscle by holding politicians accountable for change.

“You have to start thinking about the candidates in 2009 and the candidates in 2010,” Stringer told the packed audience at the Cowin Center. “You are going to have to think about which of those folks understands environmental issues, understands the food issues that affect communities—and we’re going to have to empower neighborhoods to think about the green economy and healthy living through the lens of politics.

“So when we ask a candidate, ‘Are you pro-choice?’, or, ‘Do you believe in civil rights and civil liberties?’, we now have to start asking questions about the kinds of environmental and food policies for which people have to be held accountable.”

Stringer’s presentation came at the start of a wide-ranging conference, “Restoring Balance: New Visions for Food and Activity,” that brought together nutritionists, food activists, healthcare professionals, scholars and others on the 100th anniversary of the TC nutrition education program, which is the nation’s oldest.

During his presentation, Stringer presented Isobel Contento, the Mary Swartz Rose Professor and Chair of the TC’s nutrition education program, with a proclamation in honor of the anniversary. Contento, meanwhile, told Stringer that TC fully endorsed a landmark report produced by his office that calls for such things as the establishment of a 100- to 200-mile New York City food shed and creation of “food enterprise zones” that would grant farmers’ markets and supermarkets tax abatements to move into poor neighborhoods.

The notion of a food shed is based the idea that shipping food across the country and around the world is unsustainable. A better and more healthful option, whole food advocates argue, is for urban centers to create a regional system in which they get much of their fruits and vegetables, and even dairy products, from the surrounding area.

Joan Dye Gussow, who is the Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita of Nutrition Education at TC and who just days before the conference published an opinion article on the Huffington Post with Stringer that called on cities to rely on regionally grown food, told the gathering that she had been teaching her TC students about the dysfunctional nature of the food system since the 1970s.

Indeed, Gussow is considered an early advocate of the movement to get people to eat food produced in their local area. Yet Gussow said that it still comes as something of a pleasant surprise to her that the creation of a New York City food shed has gained such prominence in recent years.

“I have to say that if anyone had told me 30 years ago that I’d be standing on the stage at Teachers College just after the Manhattan borough president had talked about New York City’s food shed, I would have thought they were smoking dope,” she said, “because even I didn’t even talk about the food shed 30 years ago because no one would have known what it was.

“But I did talk about localizing the food supply when I began worrying about what New Yorkers would eat when the reality of our energy and environmental problems began to materialize… . So this is a thrilling moment for me.”

The daylong conference included a number of presentations and panel discussions that included scholars and experts from throughout the country. One panel session focused on programs that seek to make healthful food and activity more readily available, including Food for Fitness, a national initiative by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the United Fresh Produce Association’s nationwide effort to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into schools. Another panel session showcased new technology that makes it possible to locate, on the Internet, all food stores and restaurant within 400 yards of every public school in New York City.

Contento said the conference comes at a time when the nation must makes changes, for the country’s food system is not the only one that has fallen badly out of balance. She noted that the U.S. healthcare system has become “a disease-care system,” and K-12 schools don’t provide enough opportunity for children to be active and eat healthy food.

 “So a lot of things seem to be out of balance, but it’s also an exciting time,” Contento said. “Grassroots initiatives and activities at the local level during the past decades are finally being matched at the highest levels. It was great to see a photograph of First Lady Obama starting a vegetable garden in the White House and a photograph of the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, in the New York Times recently using a jackhammer to tear up pavement at the Department of Agriculture for an organic farm. So this is a good time to be thinking about food and activity.”

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