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Kathryn Garcia, NYC Food Czar During Covid-19 Pandemic; Former Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation

In New York City, 1.2 million residents were food insecure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that number has increased to around 2 million. How would you decrease poverty and end hunger in New York City?

In New York City, one of the most wealthy and costly cities of the world, more than a million New Yorkers—including 1 in every 5 children—were experiencing food insecurity prior to the pandemic. Tragically, the men and women who work in our restaurants often struggle to put food on the table at home, and have faced job losses and uncertainty during the last year of the pandemic. The Bronx, is the hub of New York’s food infrastructure, yet suffers from the highest rates of food insecurity per capita and the lowest ratio of senior center capacity to older adult residents. Meanwhile, research shows that more than half of the food we discard is edible. Food was an emergency long before Kathryn Garcia was named Food Czar to help. 

Solving the food crisis will be a priority in a Garcia Administration. We will:

Address the root of the problem. Food insecurity is deeply tied to unemployment. Even if we produce enough food, we need better jobs with higher wages to ensure workers don’t go to bed hungry. We will double down on job growth and economic mobility.

Increase funding to support food programs, with a focus on funding equity across all neighborhoods and providers and inclusion of all New Yorkers that experience food insecurity: older adults, families, undocumented NYers, students, people experiencing homelessness, veterans and others.

Shorten the commute to buy or pick up healthy food. We will invest dollars to incentivize and develop infrastructure (senior centers, grocery stores, pantries, community-based models) in underserved neighborhoods. Moreover, we need to fund fresh and culturally relevant food—not just canned goods. We will expand our emergency food program to provide fresh food for the most vulnerable New Yorkers. We can’t solve for hunger without solving for culturally appropriate options.

What specific steps will you take to increase the participation of eligible New Yorkers in federally-funded programs such as SNAP and WIC?

We will:

Enroll 100% of eligible NYers for SNAP benefits. During COVID19, NYC saw a 12% increase in people receiving SNAP benefits just over the course of four months—nearly $200M dollars to fight hunger. We will also support more retailers to accept SNAP benefits; every penny paid by the federal government can also help boost our local economy and food businesses. 

Eliminate repetitive, time-consuming, and convoluted benefit application processes. New Yorkers should be able to apply for benefits on a smartphone–or the process isn’t working. With universal broadband, we will make it easier for NYers to access nutrition benefits. 

Call on Congress to permanently expand SNAP by 15% and expand coverage to include prepared meals, delivery fees and membership fees for bulk shopping programs, including for students. SNAP recipients deserve the dignity of a warm meal and should be able to make the most of their benefits. We will also support retailers to expand the online SNAP pilot program. 

Support New Yorkers who are not eligible for SNAP with voucher programs that provide choice and dignity and boost local community-based solutions, including expanding Health Bucks.

Would you increase the administrative power of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy or would you provide a different structure for New York City food oversight? Please specifically include how your plan would a) enhance mechanisms for community engagement and direct democracy and b) unify the City’s public policies related to food (that are currently split among many different agencies and many massive, private, non-profit groups)?

Kathryn would re-establish a dedicated, interdisciplinary food team with procurement capacity—at the level of what we built during COVID19—to institutionalize addressing food access and insecurity, and bring together disparate and uncoordinated programs within agencies under different Deputy Mayors.

How will you ensure the lived-experiences and expertise of communities of color are incorporated into the development and implementation of policies to build a more equitable food system? How will your policies approach the structural racism that exists in our food system?

The food system is intricately connected to the nation’s history of racism. Our agricultural economy directly stems from a legacy of enslavement of Black people, and has had generational impacts on land access and capital for food production. Food insecurity and lack of access to fresh and healthy food in a given neighborhood (ie: areas in which the primary food suppliers are small corner stores with a very limited selection of goods) are products of historical injustices in housing and planning practices that created unequal investment and resources.

For a more equitable food system, we will:

Ensure City feeding programs contract with diverse vendors, seek out feedback from underrepresented populations during program design and execution, and strive to provide culturally-appropriate food

Elevate and empower community-based solutions and organizations that serve underrepresented populations, rather than replacing or complicating their efforts

Support food supply chains focused on ethnic products, labor protections for food workers, and purchasing requirements to work with MWBE farmers

How do you plan to invest in long-term food sovereignty in NYC that moves away from the current investment in Emergency Food as a response to systemic and long term food insecurity?

The need for emergency food in New York City is evidence of failure of several steps and resources higher up the chain. Doubling down on food pantries isn’t a long term solution to help New York City families and workers be able to afford a nutritious, dignified meal. 

Instead, we need to make it cheaper and easier to buy a nutritious meal in your community. We need nutritious food to be at a competitive price point with junk food. We will subsidize meals at community restaurants that are vehicles for job training and re-investment in community to provide a nutritious, affordable option.

Fundamentally, we need to execute on the 4 strategies outlined above in the SNAP question and enroll 100% of eligible NYers for SNAP benefits.

Approximately 230 million meals are served annually by our NYC agencies. The Good Food Purchasing Program, which is currently in the early stages of implementation here in NYC, uses the enormous strength of our City’s food procurement power to improve the local and regional food systems in the areas of workers’ rights, environmental sustainability, local economies, nutrition, animal welfare, and meaningfully infuse racial equity and transparency practices into the food system. We want to understand your commitment to maximizing the impact of the Good Food Purchasing Program in your administration. Can you speak to the resources that you would harness to make this happen?

As Food Czar, Kathryn saw first hand the importance of procurement decision making to support the local food economy. 

As Mayor, she will:

Encourage the adoption of the Good Food Purchasing program across the region and fund the New York State Farm to School Purchasing Incentive. We must build a resilient, equitable and sustainable food system. We can lower the carbon footprint in our food supply by strengthening our reliance on our regional food economy.

Be better prepared for future emergencies, with a continuous food supply chain monitoring and early warning system, technical assistance for business to develop continuity of operations plans, capacity building within nonprofits to receive federal funding, and robust emergency feeding operations plan.

It is important for students to have access to food that fuels them and helps them succeed in school. Students deserve school meals that are a respected, valued part of the school day as well as a wide range of food options, including Halal, Kosher, and options for people with extreme allergies. How important is school food to you? What would you do to improve the school meal quality, experience, and options?

In too many schools, our teachers are faced with kids that may not have had enough to eat at home or may not have a home at all. We will be hyper focused on the 140 schools with more than 20% of homeless students. Schools are not just centers of learning, they are centers for community support. We will ensure that schools are safe and offer services and stability for families, not just students. 

Kathryn supports universal breakfast and permanent grab and go meals for adults. She will work with OFNS to improve school meal quality and options.

What would you do to improve the quality and nutritional value of institutional meals provided by City agencies (e.g. school food, senior meals, etc.)?

For school meals, Kathryn supports and will execute the proposal outlined in the 10 Year Food Plan: “Access to healthy, whole foods is a priority for NYC public schools, as such meals provided to our students should be cooked from a primarily scratch menu. All City schools should aim to serve fresh meals made from ingredients in their most basic form, prepared at or near the site of consumption, as often as possible.”

For senior meals, it is clear that the current system is not working – as evidenced by the significant demand for senior meals during the COVID-19 Emergency GetFood program from areas that were not served by senior centers. The key here is to expand senior center infrastructure and home delivery services that can serve high quality, culturally appropriate meals.

How will you work to better support and expand the capacity of non-profit community-based organizations and their staff who are serving meals to older adults through the Department for the Aging, including Senior Center and home-delivered meal providers? (For context, in normal times, these chronically underfunded systems serve roughly 20,000 and 30,000 older adults respectively, and could be better utilized to expand their reach.)

We need to build capacity of community-based organizations (CBOs) that support local food supply chains. CBOs are typically best positioned to serve as the connections between local community needs and broad City implementation. Many CBOs already serve as emergency food providers or community development corporations providing business assistance, and frequently both. Many also have pre-existing arrangements and contacts with the City. This effort should build the capacity of CBOs to act as the conduit between the City and local food ecosystems by:

Identify CBOs with pre-existing relationships with the City and CBOs with relevant expertise in target communities and build/augment relationships with them

Support expansion of food hubs, such as Central Brooklyn Food Hub

Build CBO’s emergency capacity to support future response efforts. For example, continue and expand emergency management volunteer capacity building efforts.

Partner with select CBOs and the philanthropic community to pilot new types of food solutions such as coops, people’s restaurants, etc. The City can then leverage the learning from those pilots to shape CIty and philanthropic support for broader implementation of these models.

Provide CBOs with technical assistance and training on relevant business models such as purchasing food, launching food coops, community kitchens, etc.

What would you do to ensure food workers are treated equitably?

COVID19’s central food challenge related not to issues with the supply of a specific product but to the ability of food workers to safely do their job and be compensated accordingly. It particularly highlighted the challenges facing the many undocumented workers in the food sector, gig workers providing delivery, farm workers and low income food retail workers. However the City’s ability to support these workers was hindered by a lack of visibility into their working conditions. While some levers are outside of direct municipal control, there are some efforts the City can take to materially improve the conditions of food workers.

We can develop a program to allow employee cooperative buy-backs of food businesses. Restaurateurs predicted a 72 percent chance of survival if the crisis lasted one month, but only a 15% chance of survival if the crisis lasts for six months. Without substantial additional federal stimulus assistance, many restaurants in NYC may not be able to weather the pandemic. The City should provide a pathway for workers to cooperatively buy back businesses if owners decide to close or sell the establishment.

How would you fortify and expand community-driven efforts towards an equitable, sustainable and resilient food system?

We will:

Support and grow urban agriculture. From rooftop gardens and hydroponic systems to schoolyard green spaces and production farms, we need a resilient urban agriculture system that provides opportunities for green infrastructure, green jobs, stewardship and education. 

Construct the GrowNYC Regional Food Hub to provide much-needed modern and energy efficient cold storage to serve local food distribution.

Fight food waste. Support community composting and incentivize donating unsold food—and levy fines for noncompliant businesses.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

To celebrate that we won the “bagel vote” – an everything bagel – open face – with cream cheese, a slice of tomato, capers, lox, and onion, from Bagel Hole in Brooklyn.

One word you would use to describe the food system?


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