Monday, February 16, 2009

Scott Stringer's Food Fight For Manhattan

On this Presidents' Day, we see that our local President, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, is once again the leading voice on a crucial local issue that has been overlooked by many others. This time the topic is Food.

Earlier this month, Stringer took his Food Fight to the next level by publishing his information-rich Food in the Public Interest report. The report addresses the importance of food as a driver of the health of our fellow residents, and it looks carefully at our local agricultural community, its relevance, and mechanisms for protecting and strengthening the agricultural activity in and around New York City. The report also discusses hunger prevention in our city, which is particularly relevant during this period of economic stress and high unemployment. We applaud each element of the report, and we highlight for you the connection between the food that we consume as NYC residents and the quality of health we enjoy as a result.

Fat City

New York City has already shown leadership in its ban on transfats in our restaurants and in its 2008 establishment of the requirement that all restaurants with at least 15 locations nationwide post the calories contained in each item on their menus. Yet, it seems that much more must be done. We are starting this food fight with the trends working against us. The rate of obesity and the rate of diabetes each increased 17% between 2002 and 2004 according to Stringer's Food Report.

Manhattan Borough President Stringer's report also alerts us that, amazingly, most of New York City's adults are overweight or obese, and that a direct correlation has been demonstrated between the parts of New York City with the lowest levels of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the parts of our city that have the highest levels of obesity. Unfortunately, Upper Manhattan is near the top of the list of the areas affected by both the lack of consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the abundance of obesity. As stated in the Borough President's report, one in six restaurants in Central Harlem and East Harlem serves fast food, while the number is only one in twenty-five restaurants on the Upper East Side. Upper Manhattan is in desperate need of greater availability of high quality fresh food, and our local Community Boards can use their land use approval authority to encourage such greater availability.

We caution our fellow New Yorkers to remember that weight is not always a good proxy for physical health. Men and women in excellent physical condition with an abundance of muscle and very low levels of fat will often be deemed overweight or even obese based on government guidelines. Will Smith and Andy Roddick would be considered overweight, and Sly Stallone and Mel Gibson would be considered obese under the current government definitions. Each of those four celebrities should be envied in terms of their apparent physical health, but the government guidelines use only height and weight for the overweight and obese labels. Individuals with large amounts of muscle don't fit well into the guidelines.

With that caution stated, it is clear that we need to improve the overall health in all communities within NYC. Upper Manhattan includes many of the neighborhoods in our city that need the most attention and have the most work to do to achieve better health.


Nutrition education is a key component of overcoming the negative health trends that are affecting our city's residents. Borough President Stringer makes a number of innovative and thought-provoking recommendations in his report. The recommendations range from local actions to national policies. Amongst them:

(1) Encourage the consumption of healthy food in place of junk food
• Encourage New York City government agencies to continue reducing the amount of unhealthy and processed food served
• Encourage private and nonprofit entities to replace junk food with healthy options through grants, tenant improvement funds, tax breaks, access to low interest loans, or applicable licenses and permit processes
(2) Expand nutrition education campaigns through public service announcements, subway advertisements, etc.
(3) Develop an ongoing collaboration between nutrition experts and the city’s education and youth agencies to improve nutrition education in public schools and after-school programs
(4) Advocate for an increase in the per pupil federal reimbursement rate for school meals, which would allow for upgrades to school kitchens, improved training for staff, and the purchase of healthier unprocessed ingredients
(5) Encourage employers to promote nutrition education and healthy eating practices in the workplace by creating an online clearinghouse of information to assist employers with implementing worksite health and wellness policies
(6) Offer incentives through private insurance, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, and Medicare, for healthy weight and lifestyles, such as coverage for gym memberships and counseling for obesity

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