Mayor Eric Adams has a plan to make New York more vegan and more earth friendly than ever before – but will it work?

Eric Adams wasted little time following up on his campaign promise to be a champion for all things plant-based. Just a month after taking the oath as New York City’s mayor, he announced that the city’s public schools — the largest school system in the nation — would set aside one day each week to serve only vegan meals.

The reviews for Vegan Fridays, which began in February, were mixed. On Twitter, while some applauded the effort, many others shared photos of the unappetizing and decidedly not-vegan meals that had been served to their children.

But the criticism has not deterred the mayor, a self-proclaimed vegan, from announcing a sweeping package of other policy goals and initiatives aimed at improving nutrition for New Yorkers.

The more substantial measures include revising standards for all food purchased and served by city agencies by April 1, and expanding plant-based meals in city-run institutions like jails and shelters. Mr. Adams has proposed improving nutrition in food-insecure neighborhoods by offering financial incentives for grocery stores to stock healthy foods. He also says the city will match dollars that New Yorkers spend on fruits and vegetables through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be known as food stamps).

Other ideas remain somewhat vague, like a general call for more urban agriculture, including hydroponics and rooftop farms. Mr. Adams has said he would consider reviving an effort to tax sales of sugary sodas.

Food issues have been a rallying cry for many urban leaders in recent decades, and New York mayors have been no exception. Ed Koch banned food vendors from parts of the city in 1985 (then quickly changed his mind). In 2017, Bill de Blasio required chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. But not since Michael Bloomberg — who barred restaurants from using most trans fats in 2006, and for several years tried unsuccessfully to impose a soda tax — has a New York mayor focused so intently on food and nutrition.

Mr. Adams has also made himself the face of these food policies, expounding at length on his struggle with Type 2 diabetes, and how adopting a plant-based diet rescued his health. Even as he grapples with a welter of crises, from Covid to violence against subway riders, he continually asserts that food is central to solving many of them.

“There is a level of connectivity with food policies that we have often ignored,” Mr. Adams said in a recent interview, adding that plant-based eating can help combat everything from climate change to Covid to mental health problems. “There is no better way to strengthen your immune system than the right food.”

The reach and ambition of his ideas have drawn praise from many of the people who have worked for years to promote better nutrition for New Yorkers. “The mayor’s newer policies leverage the buying power of city agencies to create systemic change,” said Angela Davis, the director of food access and agriculture for GrowNYC, an environmental nonprofit.

Others are frustrated that Mr. Adams hasn’t provided more specifics about how he’ll finance and execute many of his proposals. “The lack of details that have been shared is concerning,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, a fellow Democrat who has made food issues central to her work.

A spokesman for the mayor said that it was still early in his term, and that more specifics would be coming. But Ms. Ramos said the introduction of Vegan Fridays didn’t bode well for his larger agenda.
“The rollout was really about pretty pictures and less about nutritionists really outlining what the dietary goals for our children are,” she said. “As a mom, that is what I would have appreciated.”

“I would love for the conversation to actually be much more about where the food is sourced from,” she added. “A lot of these vegan lunches that we saw were these burritos that come in a plastic wrap and are clearly processed.”

The initiative could be an opportunity to support New York State farmers, Ms. Ramos said. School districts that buy at least 30 percent of their food from in-state producers receive bigger reimbursements from the state; New York City, she said, could learn from Buffalo, where the school district was able to meet that standard within a year of its announcement in 2018. A spokeswoman for the state agriculture department said New York City schools had not applied for reimbursement through the program; the city’s education department declined to say whether its schools met the 30 percent standard.

Mr. Adams said Vegan Fridays were still a work in progress, and he wanted to make improvements before deciding whether to add more days. “This is the beginning of a conversation,” he said. “We are going to sit down and say, ‘Hey we did a month of this, let’s come together and figure out, how do we do it right?’”

Some food activists say the city missed a chance to sell the public on a good idea. “I think earlier, more proactive communication would have been helpful to explain a big change,” said Liz Accles, the executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization addressing poverty and hunger in New York. “So many families rely on the food, and if parents and children and school communities aren’t clear about what it is,” she added, “people can go to the worst place.”

It may be harder for food-service directors for school districts to offer vegan meals when they have grown accustomed to the subsidized food they receive through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foods in Schools program, which includes meat and dairy, said Amie Hamlin, the executive director for the Coalition for Healthy School Food, an organization that promotes plant-based meals.
While vegan foods are available through the Foods in Schools program, “schools go for the foods that would cost the most on the open market,” Ms. Hamlin said (though a recent Agriculture Department report shows that applesauce, strawberries and canned peaches are the most requested items for the 2022-23 school year for New York City and Long Island). The federal government requires cafeterias to offer milk as part of its National School Lunch and Breakfast program.

Milk has emerged as a new battleground. When Mr. Adams recently signalled that he would consider a ban on chocolate milk in schools because of its high sugar content, he was assailed by dairy farmers and members of the state’s congressional delegation who contend that flavoured milk is an important source of nutrients for many schoolchildren.

The mayor’s next big food initiative will be to work with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to update standards for the types of foods city agencies can purchase and serve. The new standards will modify the requirements for nutrients, including limits on sodium and sugar, to reflect the most recent scientific research.

Dr. Peter Lurie, the president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that given the magnitude of the city government’s purchasing power — it spends $500 million a year — updating these guidelines can help support independent food producers, and send a strong public message. “It is clear the city has an outsize impact upon nutritional policy in general in this country,” he said, as local policies like New York’s ban on trans fats were eventually adopted by the Obama administration. “That Mayor Adams would want to seize that pulpit is encouraging because it is likely that his voice will be heard.”

Even with that pulpit, though, Mr. Adams’s goal of expanding healthy food options in neighborhoods that have historically lacked access may prove much more challenging, Dr. Lurie said. Those neighborhoods face deep systemic inequities that also have to be addressed, he said. For example, the city’s history of redlining makes it less likely that predominantly black neighbourhoods will have grocery stores where healthy food can be sold at all, he said. Dr. Lurie suggested the mayor look at policies other local governments have adopted, like the requirement by Prince George’s County in Maryland that children’s meals at restaurants meet certain health standards.

But New York City’s size and density may make it much harder to set and enforce such policies. That challenge extends to Mr. Adams’s goal of promoting more urban agriculture, said Ms. Accles, who runs Community Food Advocates. “In New York, there is such a huge demand” for food, she said, “and limited space to grow things.”

In December, Mr. Adams named a food-policy transition team of restaurateurs, academics and others that met throughout the month to make recommendations for his administration. His efforts will be overseen by Kate MacKenzie, the director of the mayor’s office of food policy, who was appointed in 2019 by Mr. de Blasio. The office was established under Mr. Bloomberg in 2008.

Last month, Mr. Adams announced that imagery on all food-related promotional material released by city agencies or advertised on city property would feature only healthy food. He has expanded a hospital program he started as Brooklyn borough president in 2019 to offer clinics for patients on topics like diet and sleep habits.

Mr. Adams said he would also consider revisiting Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal for a soda tax. (A City Hall spokesman declined to elaborate but said, “The mayor is leaving all options on the table to promote healthier diets and reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods such as processed meats and sugary drinks.”) Mr. Bloomberg drew widespread criticism when he called for the soda tax — not just from the beverage industry, but also from New Yorkers who saw the move as a classist infringement on personal choice.

Mr. Adams may be even more vulnerable to this criticism because he has centered the discourse on himself and his own diet, said Dr. Lurie of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. And that may distract people from the substance of the mayor’s policies. In February, Mr. Adams touched off a media frenzy when he ordered fish at a restaurant after proclaiming that he was vegan. (He responded by saying he was “imperfect.”)

It didn’t surprise Dr. Lurie that “Fishgate,” as some have called the incident, got so much attention. “When you put the spotlight on yourself in those ways, you bring a lot of scrutiny on your own personal habits,” he said. “There is a solid scientific basis for a lot of what he is suggesting, and personally I think in the long term that’s a more sustainable argument.”

Original source: https://www.nytimes.com