We know that our environment plays a huge role in our decision-making. Brian Wansink, the director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, has written about the effects on eating habits of details like plate size, where a candy dish falls in a room, how food is presented, and so on… And then, you may have heard about the current "obesogenic environment," which is making us all sedentary, fast-food-eating, and, subsequently, fat. So we support the motivation behind a Bloomberg push to shape a healthier environment for New Yorkers. Ultimately, solving the obesity crisis may take a village.
An article in today's New York Times describes Mayor Bloomberg's involvement in "food issues," not yet the focus of its own government department, but nonetheless an active area. After banning smoking and securing healthier food in school cafeterias, he's now looking at how to get healthy food to neighborhoods that lack it.
People aren't sure how much of a role he's playing – is he a leader of the revolution, or a pawn in the changing zeitgeist? We would think the latter, as finally the world has begun to realize what a predicament we're in – you may have seen our coverage of the UN's December resolution on diabetes. But, ultimately, we don't care so much, as long as he's getting on board. On the other hand, some aren't sure the government has fully committed to the initiative. Other cities actually have food policy councils – San Francisco, Portland, Hartford, and Toronto to name a few (though none has a "Department of Food" yet). Dr. Thomas Frieden, who is apparently "as close as it gets" to the "Alice Waters of city food politics," has said the administration's response to obesity and diabetes, the only worsening US health problems, has been restrained. We're happy, though, to see people are thinking about it.
Read the article below:
April 4, 2007
Farewell, French Fries! Hello, Sliced Apples!
By KIM SEVERSON
NEW YORK'S mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, loves popcorn and merlot, but not always at the same time. He watches his weight carefully, but more often than not a hamburger will do for lunch, with maybe a little cream cheese on a cracker for a snack.
The mayor's a charmer at the dinner parties he gives at his Upper East Side town house, but pot pies, fried chicken and ice cream sundaes are more likely to be on the menu than foie gras and miso-soaked sea bass.
In other words, from a culinary point of view, he has sweater-vest taste on a billionaire's budget. But from a policy perspective, Mr. Bloomberg has taken on more food issues, and provoked more controversy, than any New York mayor before him. As a result, he has the potential to change the way more New Yorkers eat — whether in the haughtiest dining rooms or the poorest home kitchens — than all the city's food activists and restaurant critics combined.
"A lot of what he's doing is likely to be happening nationally over time," said Tim Zagat, the co-founder of the guides that bear his name. "The government's involvement in what we're eating is going to be increasingly visible as a way to make people healthier."
From the start, Mayor Bloomberg muscled his way into the city's restaurants on a health platform. He banned smoking in bars and small restaurants. (Lighting up in restaurants with more than 35 seats had already been outlawed.) More recently, he shot down trans fat, forced large restaurant chains to post calorie counts and took on a cutting-edge culinary technique called sous vide.
Bar owners threatened to pull him from office over the first move, and restaurant owners are still grumbling over the others.
The mayor's raucous takeover of the public school system in 2002 led to a culinary bonus for the city's 1.1 million school children. They now have an executive chef, whole wheat bread, salad bars and little plastic bags of sliced New York state apples. Even before the very public rat infestations and a string of high-profile closings, health inspectors were already making about 15,000 more restaurants visits annually than they did four years ago. In January and February, the health department closed 147 restaurants, double the number for the same two months last year.
And the Mayor has now turned his attention to hunger and poverty, working with the City Council to get more people to sign up for food stamps and looking with renewed vigor at how to get healthy food to people who live in neighborhoods with no grocery stores.
Perhaps the biggest statement Mayor Bloomberg has made about food policy came in the form of a hire. In January, Benjamin Thomases, 31, a New Yorker who holds an MBA from Columbia University, became the first official charged with coordinating the city's policies on food.
"This is a very important moment for the city," said City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, a Greenmarket regular who has a strong following among New York health and food advocacy groups and who pressed the mayor for the position.
Still, people engaged in agricultural reform, anti-hunger workers and even the average food-obsessed New Yorker wonder whether the Mayor is actually leading the city's current food revolution or merely walking in front of a social change that was well under way before he took office.
It's easy to see a dawning awareness in City Hall that government can help people eat better. But it's not as easy to find a singular grand vision, or even much of a pattern, behind the intersection of food and city government. The mayor declined an interview with The New York Times on this subject and has never presented an overarching view on food policy.
"On food issues they're very peculiar, this Bloomberg administration," said Toni Liquori, an educator who has worked on food and public health projects in New York City for more than 20 years, including administering a $2 million Kellogg Foundation grant to improve the eating habits and health of New York City school children.
"What ends up happening is that one issue will pierce through and someone will charge with it, like trans fats or school meals," she said. "But you also have a sense that it's not like the administration is driving anything full tilt. It's not as if they have embraced the full connection on food."
Anti-hunger advocates, who have long been skeptical of Mayor Bloomberg's commitment to the poor, credit the Mayor for taking a more serious interest in food as it relates to poverty this term.
"The tools are now all in place to achieve significant progress, but it depends on whether the city decides to use the tools," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and former member of the Clinton administration.
"It took Nixon to go to China," he said. "Maybe it'll take a Republican billionaire to have real progress on hunger and poverty."
In many American cities, agricultural politics are being argued at the bar and alpha moms are organizing to take back school cafeterias. Chefs are making heroes out of cattle ranchers and the obesity crisis has prompted a new look at how and what to feed the poor. In an effort to build a cohesive public policy that brings all those food-related movements together, a handful of cities began forming food policy councils in the late 1990s.
The organizations, which are in part designed to advise governments on matters of food, usually include anyone who might have a stake in an urban diet. The councils with the most power are seated in city or state health departments, and might include farmers, food bank managers, school principals, backyard gardeners, grocers, chefs, labor leaders and clergy.
Both Berkeley and San Francisco have played with the model, as have Hartford, Conn., Toronto and Portland, Ore. Last week, New York state agricultural officials announced that the state would soon have its first food-policy council.
The nearest thing New York city government has now is Mr. Thomases, the food czar, who works deep inside the enormous collection of city departments called Health and Human Services. In an interview, however, he said that his job is not to set policy or offer vision.
"I prefer not to think of myself as the food czar," said Mr. Thomases, who is making $85,000 a year, a figure that some in City Hall say would be higher if the position held more power.
Rather, his job is to make some sense of the myriad ways the city feeds people. He will be the glue that helps hold it together, said Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor under whom Mr. Thomases serves. His main mechanism will be an interdepartmental food policy task force, which had its first meeting in February. He has also reached out to groups outside government, including large food manufacturers as well as the New York City Food Systems Network, an informal nexus for people who work in hunger, nutrition, agriculture and other food-related endeavors.
And while organizations like food councils and positions like Mr. Thomases' are a start, no major American city has yet established a Department of Food, in the way New York has a Department of Cultural Affairs or a Department of Environmental Protection. Although Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, recently weighed in on the 2007 Farm Bill and many mayors have taken up the anti-obesity cause, no mayor of a large urban city has stood up and become, in essence, the Alice Waters of city food politics.
In the Bloomberg administration, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden is as close as it gets. As head of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, he has done more to change the mayor's thinking about the government's role in how we eat than anyone else in the administration.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has donated millions to the Johns Hopkins school of public health that bears his name, brought in the antismoking, TB-fighting Dr. Frieden early on. Though he's been labeled both a zealot and a revolutionary, Dr. Frieden doesn't see himself as either. And he doesn't see the changes in how New York eats as part of any larger foodie revolution.
The city, he points out, has had a long history of making people healthier by controlling food. In 1918, the Board of Health condemned oyster beds in the East River because they were contaminated with typhoid. Today, typhoid isn't killing New Yorkers. Heart disease is.
"Obesity and diabetes are now the only health problems in the United States getting worse," Dr. Frieden said. In light of the epidemic, Mayor Bloomberg's hand in changing New York's diet "has been relatively restrained," he said.
Dr. Frieden, who has a runner's body even though he swears he can't lay off desserts, said it took a little bit of convincing to get the mayor behind the trans fat ban. But in the end, as with the smoking ban, it all came down to one question. The mayor asked, "Are you certain this is going to save lives?"
Not all of Dr. Freiden's efforts to alter New York's food landscape have been successful.
He realizes that a law forcing large restaurant chains to post calorie counts as prominently as menu prices might face a court challenge. And although the department often trots out its Healthy Bodegas Initiative as an example of innovative food policy work, the project has not gotten very far.
The idea was to encourage bodegas in neighborhoods with poverty and health problems to sell more nutritious food. An effort to get more 1 percent milk into some stores worked, but an attempt to persuade 60 bodegas in East Harlem and the South Bronx to sell packages of sliced New York apples and carrots didn't take off.
The program began in all 60 in December, but as of last week, no one could say how many bodegas still sold the snacks, and a department spokeswoman called it a preliminary effort that bogged down by distribution problems.
Despite those stumbles, many in city government feel empowered under Mayor Bloomberg's leadership to take on food-related projects. The Department for the Aging is rethinking the Meals on Wheels programs and wondering about how to serve more culturally appropriate meals at senior centers populated by people with, say, roots in China or Italy. The New York City health code was amended last spring so that day-care providers must offer their charges fewer calories. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development will open two 20,000-square-foot urban farms this summer on vacant city land.
Ms. Gibbs, a tough and experienced bureaucrat who started with the Giuliani administration, gets a twinkle in her eye when she starts to contemplate the ways food issues might come together in the city.
"There's no doubt in my mind there's something about food in the air that people are picking up," she said.
On the other hand, chefs are mixed on Mr. Bloomberg's food record — especially the few who got hit with fines last year for cooking sous vide, which involves vacuum-sealing food in plastic and cooking it slowly in water that's barely hot. Fearing the practice could infect diners with pathogens like botulism, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has restricted its use while it develops regulations.
"In the restaurant industry, we see the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as a division of tax and finance," said Colin Alevras, the chef and co-owner of the Tasting Room, who doesn't think Mr. Bloomberg is a serious food guy.
Former Mayor Ed Koch, a man who knows a thing or two about the headaches of trying to run New York as well as the pleasures of eating in its restaurants, counters that the mayor really is a food guy.
"And he has a great cache of wine," Mr. Koch said.
Although he's a little disappointed he wasn't tapped to serve as the city's official taster, he does have a little piece of advice for Mayor Bloomberg as he works on food policy: Don't forget that eating is about pleasure, and food is supposed to taste good.
"You don't want to leave food policy to a doctor," said Mr. Koch. "Because a doctor cuts out everything."