The Politician Who's Ready to Reclaim Our Food Chain NOW

President Obama's got an awful lot on his plate. Sadly, it's all lousy leftovers from the previous administration: rotten bailouts, curdled wars, moldy policies. Is there any room for grass-fed, grassroots-led reform?

The eat-better-brigade's hoping our new Commander in Chief will be "the prize delivery guy...delivering fresh, steaming change in 30 minutes or less" as Raj Patel put it in a speech last Friday at the Farming For The Future conference in Pennsylvania. Patel bemoaned the monocrop monarchy that rules from our school cafeterias to our diners and dining rooms. He ended with the rousing declaration that we are "not consumers of democracy, we are its proprietors."

Who's minding the store, though? Will Obama even attempt to emancipate eaters from the military industrial complex cabal that helped Big Ag give small farms the boot? Our government's policies have played a scandalously large role in exiling wholesome, unprocessed, uncontaminated foods to the fringes of our culture.

But we don't need to wait for deliverance from DC when NYC's got a powerful advocate for fresh, healthy, locally grown foods who's ready to lead the way today. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer held a press conference last Saturday at Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket to announce the release of Food In The Public Interest: How New York City's Food Policy Holds the Key to Hunger, Health, Jobs and the Environment , a comprehensive report on how to strengthen our local foodshed by establishing "food enterprise zones" and other incentives to improve access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods in every neighborhood. Stringer's also a big fan of urban agriculture, eager to help NYC residents curb their carbon "foodprint" by helping folks grow more of their own food in community gardens, backyards and on rooftops. The report, produced with the help of Stringer's dedicated, able staff and input from food policy experts and activists of all stripes (like myself), grew out of a forum he co-hosted with Columbia University last November on The Politics of Food.

Stringer's calling for a "radical overhaul" of the disastrous food policies that are plunging us into a future of lower life expectancy and higher sea levels. And he's looking beyond his own borough, hoping to set a precedent for communities all over the country. The Politics of Food conference was the first step in Stringer's plan to "begin the urgent work of creating a...practical and innovative food policy for New York that puts our great city at the front of this debate where it belongs."

NYC is, after all, the birthplace of J. I. Rodale, America's foremost proponent of sustainable agriculture. That's right, the founder of Organic Gardening magazine (originally called Organic Farming and Gardening when it launched in 1942,) grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Rodale "believed that modern agricultural techniques and American eating habits left quite a bit to be desired," so, in 1950, he launched another periodical, Prevention, to promote a healthier diet and combat the food-induced illnesses that plague us. He died in 1971--rather inconveniently, during a taping of the Dick Cavett show, where he had a heart attack--so we can only imagine what he would make of the extent to which our diet has deteriorated in recent decades.

No doubt Rodale would have applauded Mayor Bloomberg for taking on tobacco and trans fats. But he would have been baffled by Bloomberg's much vaunted sustainability initiative, PlaNYC, which fails to consider any aspect of our food chain in its goal of greening New York and ensuring a better quality of life for NYC's residents in the decades to come.

This egregious oversight of the impact that food production has on our environment is a sin committed not only by Bloomberg but also by the otherwise visionary Van Jones and Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman, who both lobby tirelessly for a green collar economy but have yet to realize that growing healthy food is the ultimate green collar job, whether you're doing it on pavement or pasture. As Michael Pollan wrote in his open letter to President Obama advocating the "resolarization" of our food chain:

...we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

...We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America -- not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.

...The revival of farming in America, which of course draws on the abiding cultural power of our agrarian heritage, will pay many political and economic dividends. It will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of new "green jobs," which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy...

But while Obama and his Secretary of Ag, Tom Vilsack, have given lip service to the merits of Michael Pollan's proposals, our bold borough president has been busy actively working to implement them, heeding Pollan's call to reregionalize our food system and rebuild America's food culture. Stringer has even signed on to the politically risky aspect of Pollan's "sun food agenda" that addresses those inconvenient truths about the corporate-sponsored corpulence and petro-fueled pollution that plague our nation. As Pollan notes:

Our agenda puts the interests of America's farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry's. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more "populist" or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd.

Stringer echoed this sentiment on Saturday:

For too long, decisions about our food supply have been made by private parties or by the federal government...We talk more about food desserts in this city than we talk about food deserts, where 750,000 New Yorkers do not have access to healthy food...that must change. We also have a policy in this city of giving tax incentives to Burger King, McDonald's, and fast food operators rather than give tax abatements to people who want to get us the lettuce and the tomato without the burger. And that, to me, is food injustice. That must change.

...We've got to bring food closer to home...we must establish a state of the art is time to tag enterprise zones to guarantee that the healthy food supply will come to all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

...we're talking about investing in green jobs to deal with food production, but it has to not just be about the President telling the states that it will eventually trickle down to the cities. We have got to look at new development and our economic infrastructure and figure out how we can incentivize the ability to create green collar jobs.

Stringer cited the high price we'll pay if we fail to address the diet-related diseases that are crippling our communities:

...we taxpayers will have to deal with that crisis...and healthcare costs will continue to rise because we did not do the preventive work that we had to do.

...if we create the beginnings of a foodshed...if we use land use and zoning as it relates to creating supermarkets and healthy food, if we implement these recommendations, NYC will become the leader in creating a new green economy and making sure that our people have a lot of healthy opportunities in their lives.

...the Mayor's done a great job with trans fats, putting these issues on the table. But we continue to subsidize Burger King and McDonald's, we continue to fail to use the zoning laws that we have on the books to empower people to have a say in what is happening in our neighborhoods. It's time to use our rooftops, it's time to bring vegetation, vegetables, closer to home, and let's use our collective thinking.

The people behind me today, they're the experts, not me. They're the policy people, they're the advocates, they're the people on the front line. They're the ones who, now, working together, have told us very clearly that there is a role for government in this battle. This is the road map that they've given government officials--from the governor, the mayor, the borough president, the city council--this is the document, today, and people have got to understand that this is our moment, this is our opportunity.

This is indeed our opportunity, and we are so lucky to have a politician who gets it. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Milwaukee's Growing Power, the extraordinary urban farm founded by MacArthur genius Will Allen, and saw firsthand the future of urban agriculture. With Stringer's support, I'm optimistic that NYC could adopt Allen's remarkable model for producing food and converting food waste to fertilizer.

Last week, before heading off to the Farming for the Future conference, I attended a forum at NYU where a group of sustainable ag advocates, including the marvelous Annie Myers and permaculture proponents Andrew Faust and Adam Brock, discussed their vision for transforming NYU's grounds and rooftops into productive food gardens.

And today, New York City Council Member David Yassky's holding a press conference to introduce the Sustainable Roof Act of 2009. The time is now--here's hoping that as goes New York, so goes the nation.