Pizza, Pastrami, and School Lunches: NYC's Mayoral Candidates Talk Food Policy

ByNicole Brownstein

On Wednesday night, a consortium of 12 food-related organizations hosted the Mayoral Candidate Forum on the Future of Food at The New School. The event, moderated by food activist and professor Marion Nestle, forced six of New York City's potential mayors to answer questions regarding their stance on issues of hunger, food economics, and regional agriculture. You can watch the event here and get your own take on each politician's stance. 

Here's an overview of everyone's stance. 

1. Anthony Weiner

The biggest takeaway from Weiner's stance on food and hunger in the city is that he wants to increase access to SNAP and school lunches. By reducing both barriers to and stigmatization surrounding food stamps and reduced lunch, he thinks he can solve the city’s growing hunger problem. He promised to “double the number of school lunches served during the summer time” and “would feed the meals in the classroom” to better connect students with the “back end” of food production.  

When asked about food workers' rights, Weiner redirected the conversation to immigration reform, claiming “the best thing we can do for food service workers is help them organize” and “we have to have a realistic immigration policy that isn’t punitive to food workers.”

In reference to Bloomberg's soda ban, Weiner called it "small minded," wanting to talk more about opening new hospitals instead. “We have closed 13 hospitals in this city in the last four years and here we are worrying about the size of someone’s soft drink,” he said. It's clear that Weiner sees food as an important issue, but doesn't necessarily make the connection between food and health here. 

For more on Weiner’s food policy stance not discussed last night, check out his Food Policy Action Scorecard.

2. Bill de Blasio

De Blasio often tied together food policy with ideas of economic stability, job creation, and environmental sustainability. His stance seems focused on increasing access to and production of local and regional foods, stating, “I want a Hunt’s Point Market that’s reoriented over time to produce from our broader tri-state area as part of an overall effort to wean us off the culture of produce from 3,000 miles away.”

Using the recent styrofoam ban as an example, de Blasio promises to make NYC a leader in regional agriculture, stating that if NYC invests heavily in a local alternative, there will be more producers and the price will drop. 

Like Weiner, he wants to de-stigmatize SNAP, promising to increase stores’ access to EBT technology, as well as create further food policy transparency at the government level, going as far as to create new food-policy and hunger-related roles for deputy mayors.  

The takeaway from de Blasio’s talk? More local food, broader access to SNAP, healthier school lunches, and maybe a new role for future deputy mayors. 

3. Sal Albanese

Albanese came into this discussion holding a Master's degree in public health from NYU and having worked as a schoolteacher for 11 years. He focused his answers on creating access to open and unused city land, promising to encourage urban farming efforts to grow “by making sure that all of the empty land that we have can be used for community gardens.”

Boasting of his experience in teaching, Albanese proposed using schools as community centers to educate students and parents alike about food and fitness. Increasing community knowledge on these matters, he says, will save the city money on future health care bills. 

Albanese's focus seems to be on schools and education, but you can read more about his other policy ideas here.

4. John Catsimatidis

Claiming he is the “most experienced” in food policy with 44 years running the supermarket chain Gristedes, Catsimatidis answered questions about solving city hunger by wanting to “induce landlords to rent to food stores” because “one of the biggest problems in New York is due to pricing.” To solve hunger, he says, the city needs to reduce rent for food stores, which will make food cheaper.

Catsimatidis plans to increase road access to Hunt’s Point Market, which will make products cheaper. Using local produce, he says, will bring overall food prices down because of lower transportation costs. He also suggested combating hunger by restructuring SNAP to make it seem more like the WIC program, which limits what participants can purchase using their vouchers.

Like Weiner, Catsimatidis supports food-workers unions to promote higher wages and increased benefits for those in this field.

When asked about increased access to organic food, Catsimatidis made allusions to a possible organic-food credit system for grocery stores and boasted of his efforts to “encourage all supermarkets to deliver more organic foods” at a more affordable price.

The biggest takeaway that Catsimatidis himself wants us to get from his talk last night can be summed up in his closing statement: “I want to go back to Harlem and want to tell all those kids I made it and you can make it too.”

5. Christine Quinn

Christine Quinn is already a known advocate for food policy, having started FoodWorks in 2010 and advocated for the Office of the Food Policy Coordinator, but she took this opportunity to discuss ways to further the city's efforts to increase access to healthy foods. 

Her first goal is to create a five-point plan around children's health, making kids' meals in schools and restaurants meet USDA health standards. Quinn, like Albanese, wants to increase schools' potential to serve as community centers, promising to double the number of child health clinics in schools. 

Quinn also plans to increase children's health by making in-school breakfasts universal and offering kids free dinners as well. Later, she referenced the need for environmental justice, stating that the city needs to get trucks off the streets to reduce asthma rates.

Since Quinn has already been a big advocate for food policy in the city, it seems her focus now will be to continue Bloomberg’s efforts to link food and nutrition with overall health, focusing on making the government’s role in food more transparent and pushing for stronger policies for children’s health. 

6. John Liu

Liu, the city’s current comptroller, opened by saying “food is a pretty important topic” before delving into the city’s current efforts to bring more food to low-income neighborhoods, including green carts, which he jokes “don’t carry that much green anymore” because of all their fruit options.

He said these efforts are not enough, as huge amounts of food go to waste. But he also said this effort should not be taken up by the government. “I think city government can only do so much,” Liu stated, and then called out to the organizations in the room: “We need to rely on community based organizations far more than we currently do.”

On food procurement and the city’s purchasing power, Liu wants to revamp this process and reroute it through schools. “I think the schools are a great way to promote healthy eating,” Liu says, “but school food sucks.” He plans to expand the city’s rooftop gardens, farmers markets, and regional food economy by bringing “food that actually tastes decent” into schools  and making information about available city land more transparent.  

When asked where Liu does his food shopping, he says H-Mart, which he goes to because it’s close to his apartment, but when on the SNAP Challenge (which Weiner did as well), a central Brooklyn C-Town was his one-shop-stop for Campbell’s pork and beans.