Building a Common Table: Preserving the Physical, Social, and Economic Health of Our City Through Food
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about parallel crises within the food industry in New York City. Food service workers from our over 23,000 food service establishments across the city were thrust into the position of being front-line workers, delivering food to their neighbors while their businesses struggled to survive. Without clear regulation from the City and State, restaurants and other food establishments had to figure out ways to adapt, stay safe, and keep their doors open to provide a small sense of normalcy and bring needed food to their communities.
All the while, as New Yorkers were losing their jobs or faced the justifiable fear of going out to get food, more and more were becoming unable to pay for their meals. The city lost a record 631,000 jobs during the pandemic. While we have recovered some of those jobs, many New Yorkers are still figuring out how they will pay for their food.
Individuals across our city rose to the challenge of filling these widening gaps in food security during the pandemic. Shaun himself launched the Common Table initiative early on in the pandemic, which connected 11 restaurants across 5 neighborhoods and served 600 residents 4,000 meals in a single week.
But, the pandemic was not the source of many of the issues plaguing our city’s food sector—the pandemic only made many of these challenges worse. Prior to the pandemic, a significant amount of food businesses operated within precarious financial situations. The lack of emergency services available to food workers reflected a longstanding trend of the city not properly supporting them. People’s lack of access to fresh food reflected historical disparities in its availability across the city.
In the last half century, there’s never been a period with more potential to implement dramatic and enduring change in the New York City food system than right now. But getting there will require bold and thoughtful leadership.
Shaun Donovan recognizes that food is not just a basic necessity—it is a human right and a vital factor in determining long-term health. Food, and food choice, represent dignity, community, and culture. The inherently communal nature of food makes it a powerful tool for bringing people together to celebrate and heal, and as we make our way out of isolation and into a new chapter in our city’s history, New York’s uniquely rich and powerful food sector has the capacity to not just nourish us all individually, but also feed the soul of our city.
With all of this in mind, Shaun will pursue a set of bold and innovative policies in support of our city’s physical, social, and economic health, as outlined in the following platform.
We will promote a culture of collaboration and education instead of punitive action between the city and its food businesses. We will partner with our food establishments to expand the ways they support their neighboring communities, and act on critical lessons from the pandemic. This includes reimagining our food system as one that supports employers and protects workers, leveraging Shaun’s decades of management experience to overcome any inherent tension between these goals.
We will leverage tools like City procurement practices to promote healthier eating and community development while reducing our carbon footprint and waste production. And, we will leverage Shaun’s central 15 minute neighborhoods concept—focused on ensuring every New Yorker has a great public school, rapid transportation, a good park, high-quality primary care, and a chance to get ahead within 15 minutes of their front door—as a tool for emergency-preparedness planning and fresh food accessibility.
As with all of his platforms, the policies outlined in Shaun’s Food Platform below will all be viewed through a lens of equity informed by close collaboration with communities most directly impacted by these policies to ensure they address historical gaps in investment and opportunity.
Our plan will focus on:
- Ensuring the Food Industry can Recover and Thrive
- Bringing Fresh, Healthy Food to Our Communities and Institutions
- Finding Innovative Solutions to Reduce Waste through our Food System
Ensuring the Food Industry can Recover and Thrive
Food and hospitality were among the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants and bars are a critical part of the New York City economy, accounting for 300,000 jobs while playing an important role in drawing visitors to our city—supporting hundreds of thousands of other jobs in hospitality, retail, and the arts. And our city’s diverse food ecosystem includes a wide variety of food establishments beyond restaurants and bars, like vendors, bodegas, and food trucks, that have the potential to further expand food access and economic opportunity for New Yorkers.
These establishments and the heroic, hardworking New Yorkers who operate them have put their lives on the line to keep our city running during this time of struggle, and we must make sure that we’re supporting them. But even before the pandemic, New York’s iconic foodscape was a distillation of the American dream, with immigrants from around the world thriving here. Creativity in our food industry has powered innovation and a sense of community across our boroughs, and the way we celebrate the diverse food cultures within our city has attracted thousands of visitors from around the world. Shaun’s commitment to not just rebuilding, but reimagining our city includes these businesses as a cornerstone of what makes New York City the greatest city in the world.
While some of the jobs are now coming back, there is still a long road ahead for our recovery, and we will focus support on these businesses as part of Shaun’s broader plan to bring back our economy and create 500,000 new jobs for New Yorkers by 2025.
We will also work hand-in-hand with industry partners, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), and NYC & Company to make it known to the world that our food sector is ready to receive patrons again. We will drive visitor activation with a campaign to encourage locals to go out again, and as the COVID pandemic wanes, the City must also attract regional visitors and eventually the essential international and business travelers. Through it all, we will make sure that our government policies and initiatives align with the goals of food establishments throughout the city and have the owners’, operators’, and employees’ best interests in mind.
We are committing to the following policies and programs:
Speed up COVID recovery and make it more efficient
Restaurants in New York City are slowly beginning to open again and it will be a priority for our administration to make sure that these restaurants remain open, as safely as possible. We will work to ensure that every food establishment has the resources to keep their employees and patrons safe, provide education and guidelines for safely operating a food establishment including standardized protective gear practices, and help make personal protective equipment (PPE) more accessible for all workers across the city’s food production and distribution chain.
That said, we recognize that many restaurants are in dire need of financial support. It’s fantastic news that the Biden-Harris recovery plan includes a $28.6 billion grant fund to assist restaurants, food trucks, bars, and street vendors with a range of financial needs.
We’re very excited about this initiative, but we also recognize that this may not be the last time that the food sector, and specifically our city’s food businesses, may need some quick financial support. Shaun, with decades of experience at every level or government and deep connections to the Biden-Harris administration from his time on the Obama-Biden cabinet, is uniquely positioned among mayoral candidates to get money in the hands of those who need it most.
This also extends to existing programs to support businesses and individual New Yorkers when they fall on hard times. As mentioned in our plan for Arts & Culture, another sector that has been deeply affected by the pandemic, the Donovan administration will ensure that our safety net is strong and that federal investments in programs like unemployment insurance and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) reach those who need them.
At the same time, we will not wait for federal action if our city is faced with an urgent need. Shaun’s decades of government experience also give him an understanding of local and federal regulation that would allow him as mayor to find creative sources of funding or potential reallocations of resources that others might not consider.
Learn from this crisis to better support New Yorkers, build stronger communities, and prepare for future challenges
As a city, we must take the lessons we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and put systems in place not just to protect the city’s most valued food assets, but to recognize their potential for disaster relief and properly utilize their skills and knowledge to power our city’s recovery. The supply chain was dramatically interrupted in New York City and nationally during the worst phase of the pandemic. Critical infrastructure of supply chain businesses and the transportation networks that are essential for nearly all food operations in the city were impacted by the crisis.
A first step is to understand how we can better support our food workers at all times. Not too long ago, Shaun stood with the workers at the Hunts Point Terminal Market to demand a $1 per hour wage increase, a battle that was hard fought and ultimately won. But workers shouldn’t need to take those actions to get the pay that they deserve. We need to make sure we are providing our food service workers with good wages and benefits like sick leave, child care, maternity leave, all while keeping our neighborhood food businesses open. The policies mentioned above around maintaining and strengthening our safety net are a good start, but even when they’re working, our food employees may lack access to critical services.
We will work with the State and Federal governments to expand health coverage for New Yorkers who currently lack access, and fill any gaps with a New York City public option. The Donovan administration will make it easier for food workers to get anywhere in the city through efficient and sustainable transportation, and strengthen neighborhood commercial corridors so people find work near their own homes.
Recognizing that a lack of affordable, stable housing can act as a barrier for accessing so many of these other necessities, Shaun will leverage his decades of experience and national leadership in the housing space to make affordable housing available to every New Yorker. And, it is also important that people feel safe in their communities, which is why Shaun has proposed a number of policies to pursue community-led violence prevention models while rethinking how we respond to specific crises, so police can focus on preventing violent crime and gun violence while trained professionals address mental health and school safety situations. Greater access to fresh, nutritious food—the absence can act as an environmental factor impacting violence in a community—can make the refocusing of police efforts even more effective.
Recognizing the critical role that immigrant communities play at every level of our food sector, we must make sure that New Yorkers from a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds, and immigration statuses have access to these same benefits.
The cornerstone of Shaun’s plan to better use our neighborhood resources to provide equitable and consistent opportunity and help those in need is his central “15 minute neighborhoods” policy—which focuses on ensuring that every New Yorker has access to a good public school, fresh food, rapid transportation, a great park, high-quality primary care, and a chance to get ahead within 15 minutes of their front door.
Using 15 minute neighborhoods as a guiding principle, we will establish disaster-preparedness plans for communities that also revolve around people having access to the resources they need to stay safe and healthy during a disaster within a short distance of their home—including using restaurants as emergency food hubs, empowering community gardens to expand operations, and improving overall coordination to ensure everyone is treated and paid fairly. We know that restaurant workers are naturally incredibly hard-working, “get it done” type people, and we will make it easier, not harder, for them to help feed and support their communities in times of crisis. Smaller operations along each part of the food chain ensures that if one sector is impacted, the entire food supply chain does not crumble.
In order for this to succeed, the city must recognize the need for innovative solutions to coordination and management challenges during a crisis. As part of our community-focused disaster-preparedness plans, we will invest in data and technology tools to support all folks in the food relief system, consolidate and share resources, and prevent duplication of work. Additionally, Shaun will work to foster public-private partnerships that both feed people and create or preserve jobs, like his Common Table initiative.
We recognize that the added roles that food establishments played during the pandemic needn’t be limited to moments of crisis. It isn’t unusual for businesses to transition to alternate uses during their off hours, and given the equipment and expertise available in our food establishments, there is a wealth of opportunity for community engagement, support, and business development. That is why Shaun will coordinate with local business owners and community organizations across the city to identify potential alternate uses for specific businesses, including as fresh food markets, community spaces, job training sites, or other vital neighborhood resources. Our administration will work directly with businesses and communities to understand how grant programs, regulatory changes and other steps might make it easier for them to launch these kinds of community-focused initiatives.
Through this particular crisis, our restaurants have found creative ways to adapt to new health precautions and keep diners safe. These ideas—like the outdoor structures many restaurants have built during the pandemic and the technology many use to meet delivery, pickup, and payment needs—present amazing opportunities for restaurants to better meet the needs and wants of New Yorkers year-round and long after the pandemic is over. The Donovan administration will partner closely with food leaders to ensure that the City facilitates the expanded use of these adaptations and lessons as food businesses continue serving New Yorkers. And, we will better coordinate City initiatives like Open Streets and expanded outdoor dining to ensure that these benefit food and non-food establishments in the community alike instead of putting them at odds.
Address longstanding needs of the restaurant industry
New York City is known for having the best restaurants in the world, and we should be working tirelessly to make New York City the best place to own and work in a food establishment. And yet, despite all the benefits that our restaurants bestow upon the city, from strengthening our communities to attracting visitors from across the globe, our city has historically seemed to go out of its way to make running these businesses difficult.
Burdensome regulations covering everything from signage to sidewalk space make it exceedingly complicated to get seemingly mundane things done. Fines are leveraged as a source of City revenue at the expense of business growth. Restaurants are limited in when and how they sell certain foods and beverages, stunting efforts to diversify revenue and expand into other spaces. And there can at times be an underlying antagonism from our government toward leaders that are working hard to empower our city and its people.
To address this, Shaun will aim to fundamentally shift the way restaurants and other food businesses interact with the City, starting with appointing a liaison to support the food and hospitality industries and guide operators through the process of opening and maintaining a healthy business. This individual will lead our government agencies in working with business operators and guiding these through City and State policies—as opposed to only holding them accountable for violations—to promote better and more cohesive practices across the industry. We will work to ensure these and all other communications from the City to restaurants utilize a variety of channels and acknowledge language preferences.
The Donovan administration will partner with landlords to create affordable retail leases that will allow a range of food businesses and food co-ops to run effectively, make it easier for new establishments to open, and promote the food sovereignty of our communities. And, by reviewing our current business tax structure, we will look for ways to prevent taxes from increasing too quickly for our small businesses.
We will investigate ways that we could drive greater racial and gender-based equity for food workers. For example, potential changes to payment methods could make the food industry safer for women, people of color, the aging, the LBGTQ+ community, the disabled community, and so many others at risk of harassment who may currently not feel empowered to speak up. Additionally, these could help address deep disparities in pay between front- and back-of-house restaurant employees. We will work with food businesses to help remedy any disruptions that changes like these might bring about.
The City must also take a clear position in favor of supporting not just restaurants, but food establishments in general, while keeping New Yorkers safe, without antagonizing our business owners and workers. This begins with acknowledging the fraught relationship between our city’s Health Department and its food businesses, and the role that fines as a source of City revenue play in that relationship. To this end, we will rethink how the City issues fines, identify alternative methods for incentivizing compliance with health codes, and partner with businesses in order to promote education instead of punishment.
As mentioned above, there are many other ways that complicated and burdensome city regulation stands in the way of successful business and community development. As outlined more broadly in our Economic Development Platform, we will restructure and simplify business regulations in the city with the goal of creating opportunity for small business owners and strengthening neighborhood business corridors while preserving the safety and wellbeing of New Yorkers. These are connected to our plans to support small businesses—especially Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs)—through initiatives like loan disbursement, investment in up-to-date information systems, and establishment of customer-oriented standards for the delivery of services to small businesses.
And, in collaboration with industry partners and the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), Shaun will promote New York City’s world-class restaurants as part of a citywide and neighborhood-specific tourism campaign that showcases the top-notch and diverse talent that our city has to offer. Shaun’s administration will create inclusive and diverse programming throughout the city to ensure every culture and community is represented in a fair and equitable way—including hosting Restaurant Week style initiatives to promote diverse and talented restaurants and drive patrons to neighborhood business corridors. This will be carried out in conjunction with efforts outlined in our Arts & Culture Platform to leverage New York’s world class arts industry to rebuild our tourism and hospitality sectors, as well as support nearby neighborhood businesses.
These initiatives will also create opportunities for our diverse and talented chefs to lead educational programming, exposing New Yorkers and tourists to a wider range of foods and ingredients and teaching them how to use these to build healthier, more varied diets.
Recognizing the value of a vibrant restaurant ecosystem for employers across industries interested in attracting top talent from across the world, we will partner with the city’s largest employers and philanthropic organizations to support these and other initiatives.
Support the wide range of food businesses and the New Yorkers that run them
We must also recognize that New York City’s food ecosystem is made up of a wide variety of food establishments and services. One particular group made up of small business owners that has often been marginalized by our city is our street vendors. Though we have recently taken steps to change the way we treat street vendors in our city, this group is still often regarded more as a nuisance than a potential engine for economic growth and mobility.
We’re excited about the recent City Council measure to increase the number of vendor permits and will look to further expand access to permits. As we rethink urban space in the wake of the pandemic, Shaun will review regulations that restrict where street vendors can operate and will look for changes—such as allowing vendors to work 15 feet from a building entrance instead of 20 feet—that could expand the amount of streets available to our vendors and counteract obstacles that have been built into our environment to keep vendors from thriving. We will work with other businesses to make sure these new changes are understood by all parties and disruptions to activity are minimized.
These regulatory and built-environment obstacles also impact the city’s food trucks. We have an opportunity in reimagining our city, its streets, and the way we enforce local regulation to take into account the needs of a wide range of businesses, including our food trucks and their operators.
And, many of the same obstacles exist for our city’s green carts, bodegas, small grocery stores, and a range of other businesses that sell cooked and uncooked foods and play a vital role in making fresh produce available in parts of our city where it otherwise wouldn’t be accessible. Specific strategies to expand fresh food access are discussed in more detail in the following section. That said, Shaun recognizes that in addition to addressing lack of access to fresh food, these small businesses provide economic opportunities for New Yorkers and their communities.
The goal is to move from historically piecemeal regulations to a cohesive approach that takes into accounts the needs of individual communities and neighborhoods while allowing small business owners like our vendors, food truck operators, green carts, bodegas, and local markets to thrive and be a part of the city’s economic revitalization—recognizing that there is a whole economic ecosystem supported by these businesses as they purchase materials, rent storefronts or space to house their carts and trucks, and bring greater diversity of food choice to New Yorkers across the city.
We will be viewing all of our initiatives through a lens of equity, led by the city’s first Chief Equity Officer. Described in more detail in our Racial Equity Platform, this individual will be responsible for setting and tracking our progress toward ambitious equity goals, and will have the authority to coordinate cross-agency efforts to meet these goals.
Read more about Shaun’s numerous plans to support local businesses—especially MWBEs—and strategies for comprehensive training and job experiences that lead to family-sustaining work for New Yorkers across boroughs in our Economic Development Platform. And read more about Shaun’s plans to provide universal broadband, a service that would immensely benefit small business owners across the city, in our Innovation Platform.
And, it cannot be ignored that a large portion of the New Yorkers that own and operate these businesses are part of the varied immigrant communities that have built our city over the centuries. In Shaun’s Immigration Platform, we outline our commitment to supporting our immigrant communities, and many of those policies, particularly those around greater language access, will support our food business owners as well. The Donovan administration will ensure that there is a clear plan to once again offer services like the food protection course required to receive a food vendor license in all languages. We must make materials on regulations available in all languages as well.
And, in the spirit of focusing the Health Department on education rather than punitive action, we will create a process for inspections to take place in a business owners’ native language, including through the use of translators if necessary. This is a commitment that the city makes but doesn’t live up to. With a mayor with Shaun’s deep expertise and understanding of government at the helm, we can finally provide our richly diverse business owners the support they need in the languages that are most comfortable for them.
Bringing Fresh, Healthy Food to Our Communities and Institutions
Shaun often says it is unacceptable that we can predict a child’s chances of success, even their life expectancy, based on the zip code they grow up in. Lack of healthy, fresh food contributes significantly to this troubling trend, which is why Shaun has made access to fresh food a key part of his 15 minute neighborhoods policy. This can take many shapes, from strengthening neighborhood business corridors and ensuring that local businesses in them carry affordable fresh food options, to supporting robust urban agriculture initiatives that allow communities to take even more direct control of their diets.
It’s also important to consider that the largest buyer of food in New York City is the City itself. Pre-pandemic, the City was buying more food every day than any other entity outside of the U.S. military, about $500 million annually. Our schools, hospitals, public housing, and other institutions all receive the food that the City purchases to be cooked and distributed to New Yorkers using those services. It is for this reason that the City can lead by example and set priorities to be used as benchmarks.
The Good Food Purchasing Program is a set of standards that encourages large institutions to direct their buying power toward five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. While Mayor de Blasio has begun the process of using the Good Food Purchasing Program rubric, the Donovan administration will go much further, tailoring the city’s purchasing power to highly specific goals across nutrition, racial equity, gender equity, worker protections, and climate resilience, among others, as well as seeking to make culturally and religiously appropriate foods more widely available to all New Yorkers. By building upon existing commitments by the City to follow Good Food Purchasing Program guidance, Shaun will ensure that our many agencies and institutions have local, healthy, sustainable food from workers who are paid fairly, as well as clear metrics to guide our progress.
The mayor’s office will use its massive procurement power to advance food equity and food justice, lift people out of poverty, and ensure that all citizens can participate equally in a vibrant, diversified food economy that is culturally appropriate, nutritionally beneficial, and not determined by income or zip code.
We are committing to the following policies and programs:
Make fresh food more widely available in our neighborhoods
One of the main barriers to people adopting healthier eating habits is simply having physical and financial access to fresh food. Especially as more people have taken up cooking as a necessity throughout the pandemic, we should be providing greater access to a wide variety of food options.
Shaun recognizes that there are a range of places where fresh food could be made available, from local grocery stores and green carts to food pantries and community gardens. The Donovan administration will utilize existing and expanded food-access maps and leverage data-driven tools to closely monitor access to fresh food for New Yorkers as well as cold and dry storage for businesses across the city and support efforts to expand access to these and other resources, starting with areas where it is least available.
This will require updating the city’s often old or outdated data regarding food access, an issue that will hopefully be addressed in part through our plans to provide universal broadband across every neighborhood in our city and the opportunities for better data visualization that this makes possible. Increased connectivity will also make it easier for green carts, small grocery stores, and other community fresh food providers to expand their reach and improve their operations.
Recognizing that affordability of fresh food can be an obstacle for many, we will increase funding for community-based organizations to identify and enroll low-income families and seniors in critical benefits including SNAP. We must go further and continue this work by reducing barriers to application by providing in-language resources on SNAP and utilizing a broad range of communication channels not limited to digital tools.
And, we will find ways to increase the impact of resources that are already available to New Yorkers. For example, we will investigate potential ways to expand the Health Bucks program, which provides matching funds benefits to SNAP users making purchased at New York City farmers markets, so New Yorkers can use their Health Bucks at establishments like green carts, even if the produce isn’t grown in New York State—with additional incentives if it is.
Read more about these and other recommendations to improve environmental determinants of health in our Health Platform.
The city’s 600 community gardens are a powerful health and education tool, allowing communities to grow food sustainably while teaching residents of all ages about healthy eating habits, many times in areas where healthy food is not as readily available. Shaun has long promoted community gardens as part of a vision for sustainable urban living, as exemplified by Via Verde, a model affordable housing complex that integrated community gardens into its design and was built as a result of a first-of-its-kind design competition hosted while Shaun was the city’s housing commissioner.
But long before then, many communities—often communities of color in areas that received less investment—were already pioneering urban agriculture practices. It is to these experts that we must look toward now as examples for what can be achieved throughout the city if we provide coordinated support. The Donovan administration will make it easier, not harder, for neighborhoods to establish community gardens, and will integrate these into a broader network of fresh food accessibility to ensure gardens receive proper investment, particularly in areas where they remedy a scarcity of fresh food.
Our administration will provide all of the tools necessary for a community garden to thrive, including water, electricity, free broadband, soil analysis and compost for soil improvement. We will use these resources to create business education centers, connected to specific community gardens and in collaboration with local agriculture and business leaders. And, we will investigate potential tools at the city’s disposal to repurpose unused land in areas that experience a scarcity of fresh food and make these spaces available for community gardens.
Farmers markets are another way many communities in the city have addressed issues of food accessibility while creating economic opportunity for their residents and growers from neighboring areas. We will make it easier for communities to start local farmers markets, make connections with farmers from nearby areas, and sell produce from their own gardens. It is also important our residents know how to use what is being grown at their community garden or sold at their farmers markets or local green carts. We will launch a produce education campaign so residents can learn about new ways to cook the produce they are finding around the city.
Bodegas also serve a unique purpose for our city. Not only are they take-out restaurants—they are also convenience stores, community centers, and grocery stores. Since they exist on nearly every corner of the city, we can use that power to bring more fresh food to communities. But, it isn’t always financially viable for bodegas to purchase a lot of produce to sell at their stores. They often lack the refrigeration and storage space needed to stock the bulk orders of goods that would make fresh foods more affordable to sell. By facilitating partnerships between bodegas, the City can help create networks of establishments that can purchase together and reduce cost burdens. The Donovan administration will encourage these partnerships and ease regulatory burdens to ensure this can happen seamlessly.
And, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, these kinds of food accessibility initiatives are particularly important when people fall on hard times. We will increase funding for food providers like food pantries and soup kitchens and foster connections with the city’s community gardens to ensure New Yorkers in need have access to fresh food. At the height of the pandemic, 91% of visitors to food pantries were using them for the first-time, while 71% of visitors were families with children. But, we must also recognize that there are missed opportunities with soup kitchens and food pantries to provide services beyond food. The Donovan administration will partner with these institutions to deliver high-quality health, housing, and job support to those who need these services.
We will also leverage Shaun’s deep connections in the Biden-Harris administration and call on the Federal government to boost SNAP benefits, extend eligibility, and expand potential SNAP uses to include food sources like restaurants, NYCHA vending machines, green carts, produce vans, and street vendors, and a wider range of options including Halal and Kosher foods and medically tailored meals. While Shaun was Director of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in President Obama’s Cabinet, he focused on growing the number of families eligible for SNAP benefits, so he is familiar with the steps needed to continue this important work. This crisis has shown just how vulnerable the city’s food system is and we need to be better prepared and have a more coordinated recovery when the next one hits.
Strengthen our regional food system and rethink procurement
There is a wealth of produce in the area immediately surrounding our city, and Shaun will partner with neighboring growers and governments to strengthen our regional food system and encourage neighboring towns to also adopt the Good Food Purchasing Program. Importing food products from around the world uses unnecessary environmental resources, especially when we have the option to source much of that produce and wildlife from much closer to home while supporting the regional economy. It will be important to work with the Regional Planning Association to coordinate with the state government and surrounding towns to foster this regional food system.
All of this speaks to the potential economic and social impact of our City’s procurement practices, and highlights why the Donovan administration will reevaluate these to ensure that they are promoting the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers.
As discussed in our Economic Development Platform, city contracting opportunities will be one of the many potential pro-equity tools overseen by the Chief Equity Officer and their team, and will be leveraged to strengthen our local MWBEs. Beyond that, we will more broadly consider alternatives to the typical “lowest bidder” approach to contracting to identify ways we can get New Yorkers fresh, high-quality food while supporting local businesses and the communities that surround them.
Improve the quality of food in our schools
Our school food system is rooted in Depression-era efforts to respond to crises similar to the ones we’re facing now by ensuring we were feeding the most vulnerable people and meeting them where they were. It has also allowed us to create a stable market for the agricultural system, establishing the government as a guaranteed buyer of produce from local farmers. The Department of Education alone spent more than $200 million annually on food, serving more than 172 million meals and snacks each year to 1.1 million students.
Now, as we are facing a different crisis, we have the opportunity to reimagine what our school meal program can look like. School meals were an integral part of the COVID response: even as students were going to their classes from home, meals were still being provided to students and families who needed them across more than just lunch during the school day—an initiative that we will look into expanding even after the pandemic—to the tune of 485,000 meals a day by May of last year. Our over 1,800 schools are the largest restaurant chain in the city and we need to reopen them in a way that puts long-term health front and center.
The cafeteria is a huge part of the city’s infrastructure. It is a focal point of socialization and activity for our students, and the food we provide can create lifelong good eating habits as well as respect the cultural and religious needs of our students. As students are returning to school, we can think of innovative ways to deliver them nutritious, culturally-responsive foods, including Halal and Kosher meals, that meet specific dietary needs that our schools have historically fallen short of addressing. Our current mayor has recently tried and failed through his GetFoodNYC program to provide New Yorkers the culturally and religiously appropriate meals they need, moving too slowly, not going far enough, and delivering meals that are not of acceptable quality.
Our children deserve––and need––the freshest, healthiest food schools can offer, so as Mayor, Shaun will provide schools with more fresh produce that, through scratch cooking, will be a complete meal. This will bring about a number of positive outcomes: first of all, it will allow us to have more control over the menu as food is processed onsite, which allows for more control over the nutritional value of each meal. It also means that local produce will be more easily included in our school meal program, uplifting the economy of the local food market. And, it creates opportunities for workforce development as we train school cooks to meet these needs.
Shaun will respond to strong interest from principals and parents for more scratch cooking with a plan that combines fresh produce, updated equipment, training. All three of these elements together, beyond simply buying more fresh produce, will allow for the shift to scratch cooking to be successful.
We will procure food from suppliers that neighbor our schools and are representative of the students’ community, both spurring local economic development and creating relationships between the students and the food they are eating. Shaun will seek to make school food a more accessible market to small-scale and BIPOC-owned food producers from within NYC. We will do this through improvements to the bid process and prioritization for local suppliers so that a family-owned tortilla company or kosher food producer has a chance to compete, and to nourish local kids.
To further this commitment, Shaun will maintain and expand the New York Thursday program. This Department of Education initiative designates every Thursday for school meals from the New York metropolitan area. The Donovan administration will work to incorporate new providers into this program with a strong emphasis on sustainability.
We also have a unique opportunity to teach our students about the food system and provide hands-on education about the food they eat, how it grows, and different ways to cook it. By getting them involved, from farm to fork, we will create lifelong healthy eaters. Students from kindergarten through high school will cultivate school gardens, turning the food they grow into the food they eat. They will work with their peers to cook in the classroom, creating meals together while developing new skills and new bonds with their classmates.
None of this work can be done without the amazing food educators in our school system. So far, many schools have filled this gap independently, and often entrepreneurs have brought programs to schools. We must support and provide necessary resources to individuals doing this work, while creating more pathways to food educator jobs so every school has tools like these available to them.
More pathways to jobs is a good start, but we also need to make sure that we are keeping the school kitchen infrastructure current as well as promoting professional development training for our food service workers. With these ends in mind, we will work with schools to bring kitchen equipment up to date. If a school cook wanted to find a job in the traditional restaurant industry, they’d have to learn how to use more updated cookware. If we update the school kitchen infrastructure, the school kitchen workers will be better prepared for other food service jobs and students can learn on the most modern cookware.
In order for these programs in schools to succeed, we need buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. In this case, that means we must maintain clear and consistent channels of communication across a variety of mediums and languages with everyone from the parents to the teachers to the school administrators so these updates are completed with minimal disruption of schools’ most important purpose: teaching students. Teachers and administrators have been a part of these institutions for decades and have seen what works and what doesn’t when it comes to encouraging kids to eat healthier. As mayor, Shaun will listen from within and convene groups to learn about what is needed instead of policing the system without proper understanding. And we must work with parents to ensure these policies align with their values while being feasible for schools to execute.
And, we will work with our Federal government to make sure that they are supporting food in schools as well. We will advocate on behalf of New York City families and schools for the appropriate improvements in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill. This is yet another set of reforms that Shaun is uniquely positioned to advocate for given his decades of government experience and deep relationships with senior members of the Biden-Harris administration.
Expand these initiatives across all City institutions
City institutions, from our public housing to our hospitals and correctional facilities, have many of the same food needs and challenges as the large-scale kitchens in our schools. As mayor, Shaun will look for opportunities to extend these initiatives, including promoting more use of local fresh foods and products from the surrounding community, establishing gardens, improving kitchen equipment, and leveraging all of these spaces as educational and job training resources, more broadly across institutions.
Finding Innovative Solutions for a more Sustainable Food System
Climate change is a global issue and the food industry is one of the greatest contributing factors to the issues facing our world. In addition to impacting the lives and businesses in the five Boroughs, The Mayor’s Office can significantly impact all elements of the food chain, including climate issues, on a regional and state-wide level by better directing its behemoth purchasing power. The Donovan administration will make strategic changes to how we grow, deliver, consume, and dispose of our food to create a more sustainable New York City food system.
Reduce waste and address the city’s carbon footprint
As part of the current administration’s COVID-related budget cuts, Mayor de Blasio suspended the curbside organics program. Organics, like food scraps and yard waste, make up about one-third of the city’s waste stream and present profitable opportunities to convert trash into compost and clean energy. That is why Shaun will prioritize restoring, expanding, and improving upon New York City’s curbside organics program. By extending organics recycling to all residents, mandating waste separation for homes and schools, and supporting new or expanded community compost programs, we can divert waste from landfills while saving taxpayer dollars over the long-term.
Read more about how Shaun will leverage innovative technology and programs to keep our city clean and better manage waste in our CleanStat Policy Paper.
Shaun’s administration will also incentivize operators and producers to use compostable or sustainable packaging, including through potential tax benefits, and investigate alternatives to single-use plastic takeout packaging. To accommodate this, we will help negotiate pricing for compostable replacements for restaurants across New York City. Additionally, the Donovan administration will make specific loans and other supports available to restaurants or other businesses interested in building an approved sustainability program, such as sustainable packaging or local purchasing.
As we work to combat climate change, the Donovan administration will look for ways the City can leverage local policy and purchasing decisions to reduce its carbon footprint. To that end, Shaun will commit to purchasing a greater portion of the city’s institutional food from local farmers and producers, including equally-delicious misfit foods, with an emphasis on seasonal and earth-friendly meal planning. In addition to improving food freshness, supporting local agriculture, and reducing food waste, this will decrease the environmental impact of transporting and storing our food.