Eat Up: Food Policy in a Food City

Food is to cities what tech was in the 90s: a large, disparate, confusing universe of entrepreneurs and creative types ranging from the tiny DIY young manufacturers at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg to Manhattan's renowned high-end restaurants. And just as Apple was often viewed in the early 90s as quirky and precious, so are many food innovators today.

But like the tech sector, restaurants, markets and food products have often ended up defining neighborhoods and sustaining them. The Smith Street restaurants alerted New Yorkers of a resurgence in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens long before the rest of the world had heard of Brooklandia. Harlem's restaurants, like Amy Ruth's, helped bolster the neighborhood through the very bad days of the 70s and 80s. The High Line's wild success both built on and now supports the excellent restaurants nearby.

And it's not just restaurants. When the Brooklyn Brewery recently served its beers--to wild applause — in Paris, a French wine exporter told the New York Times, "Parisians adore Brooklyn — they can't get enough of it. It's a brand on its own. It's America. It's New York." Brooklyn's food manufacturers, which generated $2.2 billion in revenue in 2011, sold a quarter of their output outside the borough — and $134 million outside the country, notes a report from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.

But despite the importance of food employment (40% of New York's new jobs in the last two years have been in food) and the $30 billion spent annually on food by New Yorkers, New York has been late in officially recognizing food's importance, as London's Mayor Boris Johnson pointed out to Mayor Bloomberg in 2009. London not only had the jump on New York with its extraordinary markets — after all, some go back to medieval times — it was also promoting innovations then virtually unknown in New York, such as urban farming to shorten the food-to-table journey for restaurants.

If New York and the region's food resurgence is to continue, both from a culinary and an industrial point of view, the city, state and region should replicate their food-oriented brethren elsewhere and adapt a number of useful plans.

One is to have some sort of central agency for food plans and policies, whether that's restaurant regulations or wholesale markets. Vancouver and Toronto have set up food policy councils to address industry issues, while Seattle, Portland and London have high-level mayoral offices. Such central offices can help the food industry respond rapidly to problems in land-use planning, zoning, parking restrictions, health regulations, and bridge tolls (98% of food in the region is shipped by truck). Hey, maybe with a little attention, food will be considered a "sector," just like real estate, finance and now, tech.

Another missing component is a wholesale distribution market for regional food, something every other flourishing food region has. Even as the city tries to figure out how to upgrade Hunts Point, it knows the market is fundamentally inadequate. Only 2% of Hunts Point produce is local, according to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and all attempts to modify this have ended in failure. Quinn urges New York to look to Paris and Toronto, and give regional producers a permanent home.

The new upscale chains that have moved into New York — Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, to name two — have bypassed Hunts Point altogether, shipping in their own superior and often local produce. Just five years ago, city residents wanting New Jersey peaches or New York apples bought them mainly at the greenmarkets. Now they are available in good grocery stores — and from suppliers like Fresh Direct. Even Wal-Mart, the nation's largest food seller that is anathema to some community activists, has a corporate policy of reaching out to small and medium-size farmers, says Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of environmental studies at the New School. These suppliers have structured a very efficient distribution system that ignores Hunt's Point, except when they run low on supplies.

Karen Karp, an influential food consultant whose company motto is "good food is good business," argues that "in the last 25 years New York has made itself into a world-class food city, yet it retains an infrastructure from the Dark Ages — decrepit rail, poor roads, outdated water policies." Gov. Cuomo threw down a gauntlet to the region when he announced a $1 million federal grant to support New York's specialty crops and its wine, beer, and spirits industry. Long-term success will require regional cooperation because we are all dependent on a healthy food shed — and food sheds do not recognize state borders.

One asset the city does have is the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which has become New York's most important landlord for food manufacturers. It has some 3.6 million square feet of space in 40 buildings scattered over 300 acres. The yard charges market rents, but its city-owned status exempts tenants from paying property tax, which can be a significant savings. The New York Economic Development Corporation set up the entrepreneurial incubators, creating more than 135,000 square feet of affordable work room for food. The incubators in turn have generated over $20 million in venture capital investment.

It's also true that New York State herbs, Long Island potatoes, Jersey boxwood, Connecticut berries and hundreds of other regional products are among the world's finest, and that New York and the region have made great strides over the last few years in promoting, processing, and distributing regional food. All in all, food is the one subject in which we all have a cultural and economic interest. As historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto comments, "Food has a claim to be considered the world's most important subject. It is what matters most to most people for most of the time."