What Planners Don’t Know About Food: Food Planning in New york and Beyond

by John Nettleton

In recent Planners Network articles on alternative plans for New York City, there was no discussion about the natural resource base for the city or region and no ideas for economic development that build on such a base. Recent articles in the Spring 2000 APA Journal further highlight a neglect by planners of the food system and its relation to community development. This parallels the failure of most physicians to grasp proper nutrition and most architects to understand renewable energy or efficiency. To generate new and real concern for innovative plans that incorporate energy and resource use, the food sector and agriculture, this article focuses on trends and initiatives that are building the potential for sustainable agriculture and for a marketing system to strengthen links between urban and rural communities.Demand for Safe Organic Produce

Nationwide, demand for organic produce has increased more than 20% each year since 1992. As reported in the New York Times, sales are “growing faster than any other segment of theˆ industry. Consumer fears about biotechnology are spurring interest. As low prices for commodity crops encourages farmers to take the organic plungeˆthere’s never been a more receptive moment for organic farming.” There’s also increased demand for regionally produced fruits and vegetables, grown either organically or on transitional land in the process of becoming organic. Starting from this small base, according to Hal Hamilton in Yes Magazine, “it will take years of mind-boggling growth to gain a truly substantial share of the retail food sector: the organic movement could, however, easily achieve an influential share of ten percent or more on some parts of the industry.”

Growth of Farmers Markets

The growth in farmers markets is widespread. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) listed 2,746 farmers markets nationally, a 56% increase over 1994. In New York City, the number of weekly “market days” has increased from 35 to 42 in the past year. Though most markets open only one day per week, some open on multiple days, with 11 open year-round. Over 175 farmers and regional food producers sell at farmers markets citywide. Most are vegetable, fruit and orchard farmers, with 10% producing honey, jam, wine and vineyard products. The majority of producers travel to market from the Lower Hudson Valley, though some come from Kinderhook (180km), or the Finger Lakes (450km in the case of one vintner). 20% of sellers at NYC markets are from out-of-state.

With markets typically open one day per week, the number of farm market days a given producer can attend is limited. Newer markets provide venues closer to home, allowing farmers to shift to such markets and avoid longer travel into the city. While offering new outlets for communities, such market expansion has stretched the supply of farmers. The American farmer is also “aging out.” The average age range of a sole proprietor is in the mid-50s, and those who were raised on the farm lack the interest to continue farming. As the number of farms and farmers in New York continues to decline, survivors need to choose between commercial farming and the direct marketing of ethnic and niche or specialty products at farmers markets.

One solution to the farmer-supply problem is to help those farmers receiving wholesale prices to shift to direct and niche marketing. Another solution, initiated in Massachusetts and underway this year in New York, is to provide assistance to new immigrants with prior agricultural experience who are interested in reentering agriculture and are willing to grow for niche or specialty markets. Between 1995-96, fully 31% of new immigrants to New York City were from South or Central America, according to the NYC Department of City Planning. Though USDA loan programs for new and minority farmers exist, they are under-used in New York. Working with Greenmarkets and others, Cornell Cooperative Extension has begun training new immigrants, primarily Mexican- and Central-Americans, to work in existing markets and to find land where they can produce for the niche ethnic and farmers’ markets. Education and training will take place at farmers markets, production sites in the five boroughs of New York City, and in surrounding counties.

Supporting Demand in the Community

A primary support for effective demand at farmers markets is the Federal Farm Market Nutrition program (FMNP), piloted in Massachusetts to “encourage the use of locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables by families in need of better nutrition, and to increase farmer income by increasing direct sales and cultivating new customers.” The program began in New York State in 1989 with $600,000 in redeemed coupons. Last year, over $2.87 million were redeemed by over 225,000 households, with half that activity occurring in New York City. In addition to encouraging families to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, this program has drawn farmers to direct market in low-income neighborhoods that otherwise lack access to fresh produce.

Citywide non-profit groups include GreenMarket, organized in 1976 to manage and support the operation of farmers markets. In contrast to Hartford, where The Hartford Food System provides regional leadership for a sustainable agriculture effort, the New York City system is a highly interactive one among varied partners. For example, Just Food works with groups to develop growing sites and projects for market sales and distribution to soup kitchens and food pantries. City Harvest operates a van fleet that collects gleaned produce, cooked food and prepared meals from receptions, dinners and conferences. Food that has not been served or “placed out” is distributed to shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries and to residences and programs such as God’s Love We Deliver, which delivers meals to homebound persons with AIDs.

Cornell’s New Farmers/New Markets program has encouraged many community groups to shift from community gardening to market production. This program operates in neighborhoods that are home to new immigrants and in areas with extensive vacant land. In the East New York Farms project, Pratt Institute’s Center for Community & Environmental Development, along with others, is developing a network of vacant lots where market production is linked with job training in value-added food production. A range of sites is used, with the produce delivered for sale at the locally-sponsored farmers market. In Williamsburg, El Puente and Los Sures support a farmers market along with Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), a subscription farming project where shareholders pay at the onset of the growing season for a market basket delivered weekly during the growing season. The Williamsburg CSA is organized so that families pay for their shares according to income.

Regional Efforts in Sustainable Agriculture

Up the Hudson River Valley, landholding religious denominations have organized into ROAR, which stands for “Religious Orders Along the River.” They are reviewing stewardship responsibilities and have begun to frame a vision which melds needs and resources, keeps land off the market, and promotes working with groups to produce food for their needs and for the needs of the urban residents. Groups from urban neighborhoods are traveling to the area to help cultivate organic plots, and to share with their families and communities in the resultant harvest.

Ongoing efforts by non-profit organizations take place without a consistent policy framework for food security or sustainable agriculture. Although New York was a state with a national reputation for regional planning predating the Great Depression, this tradition disappeared when Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1932 and took many of the Regional Planning Association of America members to Washington, where they spent the next 13 years. The framework necessary to resolve pressing issues at a regional scale was irretrievably lost, leaving those of us engaged in regional and/or sustainable development literally on our own. This situation stands in stark contrast to experiences in Toronto, barely 800 km from New York, where the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront has recently developed a “Framework for Ecosystem-based Planning” and called for “Planning for Sustainability.” While there is certainly a different planning and regulatory climate in Ontario (and Canada) than in New York (and the U.S.), the point is that the Toronto Waterfront Commission effort was a public discussion document to be developed into a series of publicly-developed planning tools.

Land Preservation and Sustainable Practices

Conversion of farmland to urban use is outpacing population growth. From 1960 to 1990, the New York region’s population grew by 13% while urban-related land uses increased 60%. On Long Island, the rate of new auto registrations continues to exceed population growth, as the suburban/regional environment is confronted by continued growth in auto use and dependency, combined with a broadly dispersed settlement pattern and related land uses and misuses.

The American Farmland Trust’s “Farming on the Edge” initiative highlights these pressures. As most American and Eastern Canadian cities were settled on prime agricultural land, further development takes place at the expense of arable, productive agricultural land. Farmland Trust’s maps, using 1992 data, reveal that fully 80% of the fruit, 70% of vegetables, 45% of dairy and 20% (each) of meat and grain are produced in near-metropolitan areas under threat of development. In New York, the Mid-Hudson Region and Eastern Long Island areas have both high development pressure and high quality farmland. If the goal of sustainable agriculture and a just and secure food system is to be met, positive trends in market development require greater attention, so that efforts by non-profits can begin to support new planning policies and programs that sustain the region and its urban neighborhoods.

If the goal of sustainable development and land use is to be met, planners need to include the food system in their thinking, whether they are ‘city mice’ or ‘country mice’, and use the growing market network to their advantage.

John Nettleton is a Planners Network member who directs community development education programs for Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York City. He can be reached at jsn10(at)cornell(dot)edu.

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