Forget Trans Fats and Soda—Will NYC's New Mayor Tackle Hunger?

Antihunger groups believe they have an ally in Bill de Blasio.

New York's newly minted mayor, Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Jason Reed/Reuters)

Jan 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

New York City has been in the news a lot over the last decade for its food and nutrition policy, thanks in large part to the man who has occupied the Mayor’s Office since 2002, Michael Bloomberg. The city’s urban agriculture has expanded under Bloomberg, its hospitals serve less junk food, fewer food scraps go into landfills, and New York became the first city to completely ban trans fats—a policy that set the stage for similar bans in other cities and paved the way for a federal ban.

While not all of Bloomberg’s policies have come to fruition—his proposed ban on supersize sugary drinks was famously shot down—there’s no question he was one of the most active mayors on the food policy front in U.S. history.

According to some New York City food policy experts, however, Bloomberg was quite inactive—and possibly active in a negative way—on an issue that affects nearly a million and a half New Yorkers: hunger.

“As we documented thoroughly in our recent report, even though the stock market has skyrocketed and billionaire net worth has soared, one in six New York City residents and one in five NYC children now live in food-insecure homes,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

There’s no question the chasm between New York’s haves and have-nots widened under Bloomberg, a financier and media mogul turned mayor who remained closely aligned with Wall Street and the city’s upper crust while in office. Meanwhile, as the NYCCAH notes in its report, a Dickensian tale of two cities has emerged, resulting in a dramatic increase in food insecurity.

Bloomberg’s successor, Democrat Bill de Blasio, frequently spoke of just such a narrative of “two New Yorks” during his campaign, pledging to focus on closing the city’s inequality gap.

“We as New Yorkers need to start to connect the notion of environmental sustainability and food supply sustainability with economic sustainability,” de Blasio told about a thousand activists last July in a forum on the future of New York’s food. “We need to recognize that a lot of what we’re going to be doing in the future is figuring out how to live on this earth more appropriately, and that in fact there are a lot of jobs that come out of that.”

Specifically, de Blasio called for universal school meals and easier access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Berg said it’s rare to hear candidates for New York City’s highest office speak so specifically about food insecurity and that NYCCAH is hopeful that hunger has an enemy in de Blasio.

“In contrast [to Bloomberg], I expect that Mayor de Blasio, who has been a longtime ally of the antihunger movement, will make the fight against hunger, and the poverty that causes hunger, a top priority,” Berg said, adding that de Blasio’s push for universal school breakfast will go a long way in helping hungry children in the city’s public schools to learn.

Leading up to the city’s election in November, the NYCCAH published a comprehensive food security plan for the next mayor—“Food Secure NYC 2018”—which was well received by de Blasio, who has committed to working more closely with food stakeholders than did his predecessor. But Berg is aware that when it comes to the all-important task of feeding the hungry, politics is not a spectator sport—no matter who occupies the Mayor’s Office.

“It is our job as advocates and service providers to help the mayor get his agenda enacted and get the job done,” he said. “We very much look forward to working with de Blasio and his team.”