How Can We Improve Food Access in NYC?

On Saturday, March 1, the 2014 TEDxManhattan: Changing the Way We Eat conference will descend on New York City, bringing together a panel of food experts who will speak on a number of eye-opening topics, from the history of food culture to sustainability efforts to eating crickets as a protein source. Viewing parties are planned around the country, and the aim, as always, is to spread ideas and ignite interest in these topics.

In anticipation of the event, we spoke with Baruch College professor Regina Bernard-Carreno about her upcoming TEDx presentation on food and race in New York City.

What will you be presenting on March 1?
For my presentation, I’ll be taking the audience and viewers through a journey hunting for food. I’m a native New Yorker from Hell’s Kitchen. About 17 years ago I moved to Queens, to a part that doesn’t have much food access. I’m trying to introduce viewers to a term that deviates from food deserts. Where I live now is food barren. There’s an enormous amount of choice but most of it is pretty bad — [the neighborhood is] filled with things that you probably shouldn’t be eating. The argument I make is that all these neighborhoods look the same racially and all the same food exists in all of them.

I was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, and we didn’t have food issues ever. I come from a Guyanese family, so growing up in that tradition, we didn’t encounter access issues; everything was made from scratch. Having moved to Queens and becoming a mom and trying how to keep my kids healthy triggered my interest in this issue. I would never give my kids processed food. I started to shift my course instruction from just about race to race, class, and access to food, also looking at other structural issues within those neighborhoods.

Do you think your interest in food systems came about primarily as a personal interest or because you find that many structural issues in low income neighborhoods all revolve around food?
I think the two things happened at the same time. I’m not just trying to get fresh fruits or vegetables to these areas but really trying to reeducate a population on how to think about access and what that means. A lot of people have lost their voice and will to fight. I’ve taken my students on a journey for the last four years looking at how food interacts with race and class — we’ve done some farming, visited food pantries. We have a lot of different avenues to think about food in our local setting.

Do your students have personal experience with food barren environments?
Many students come in with a set of preconceived notions of what they think we’ll be talking about. As I start to introduce the topic and then take them out into the neighborhoods, that’s when it starts to click. I teach a lot of affluent students but also students from impoverished backgrounds. The conversations are very diverse.

Evaluating these issues is part of the solution, but are you also working on implementing any programs to start making a change?
We’re now thinking about forming a different version of the CSA. It’s still in its infancy stage. With these kinds of programs, there’s no one size fits all. The current CSA programs are generally for a middle class structure and don’t fit the needs of poor people. We want to consider race, class, homelessness, and food.

What we’ve been doing for the last few years is street distribution. I try to provide my students with all the texts for class so they can use that money on other projects. We make food bags but also create little booklets telling people how to access food in the city if they need it. We head out once or twice a week to distribute these booklets in the evening.

Are you looking to the new mayor to make changes or do you think food issues need to be addressed area by area?
It has to be done neighborhood by neighborhood. People need to regain their own activist centered life and understand what it takes to demand change. There are some organizations that come in to distribute food, but unless we employ the people we’re advocating for, it’s not coming from the grassroots. We’re not looking to the government just yet.

Do you think that residents who grow up in these areas are currently motivated for food change?
People in these particular areas, at least in the general sense, have accepted that certain things don’t exist. The farmers’ market is twenty blocks away from clear poverty. And that’s part of my personal grief. With blacks and Latinos, part of their heritage has been eating off the land, but now those communities are so disconnected from that.

Do you think that celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson — who runs a food education program through Red Rooster in Harlem — are actually helping?
I happen to like Marcus Samuelsson very much. I think the disconnect comes from local community chefs who have been cooking this food for God knows how long and watching the TV and seeing a celebrity chef remake the dish and make it popular. That to me creates a feeling of anxiety. For example, I was watching some chef on TV who said, “This curry is off,” and I looked at my husband and said, “How does he know that?” Unless the people we are really advocating for are at the table, there will always be a disconnect.

Check out the TEDxManhattan website for more information on the program, including a full schedule of presentations. You can catch this event via live stream on March 1.



Scab Alert! Poultry Safety Proposal Calls for Fewer Skin Inspections

In the past, U.S. poultry processors’ food safety procedures largely involved checking the birds for scabs and sores (grosssssss). But now, new proposals have called for producers to focus more on sanitation, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, said that as many as 5,200 people a year could avoid food-borne illness — and as much as $250 million could be saved yearly — if companies updated their methods, according to the mag.

Vilsack says that inspectors would still check out the bird carcasses at the end of the assembly line, but that pre-line look-overs — which started in 1906 — would cease.

A public health expert contacted by the publication heralded the news, saying: “This is historic. … If you really want to improve our poultry system, this is what you would do. It’s all about improving food safety. You can’t see salmonella.”



Junk Food in Schools Doesn’t Make Kids Fat: Study

Junk-food-loaded school vending machines, long said to lure the nation’s youth to dietary debauchery, might not be making them fat, a new study finds.

At least 33 percent of kids are overweight, the New York Daily News reports, but access to unhealthy snacks — such as sugary candy, salty chips, and syrupy soda — in school might not have anything to do with it, according to Jennifer Van Hook, a Penn State sociology professor.

For several years, Van Hook studied the body mass indexes (BMIs) of 19,000 students in 1,000 private and public schools, Web MD reports.

“What we found basically is, there is no relationship between going to a middle school that sells junk food and gaining weight,” she told reporters.

In Van Hook’s study, the amount of obese kids declined between fifth and eighth grades, the Daily News reports. So surprised was Van Hook by the results, in fact, that she and her team spent two years studying the data.

“Children spend a lot of time in school and we expected school to have a lot of influence on them,” she told the paper.

She concluded that kids’ eating habits at home play more of a role in obesity than kids’ eating habits at school.


Jesse Jackson Slams Newt Gingrich Over Food Stamps

And the food-stamp fracas continues!

The Reverend Jesse Jackson has just blasted Newt Gingrich for his comments that Barack Obama is a “food stamp” president, and has come out against the Republican presidential hopeful, telling Politico: “Food stamps (are the) lifeline for many Americans — they help farmers, they help the grocery industry, and mostly, they help people who are malnourished.”

But wait, there’s more!

“For him to disparage the food stamps is to not understand the 50 million in the country living in poverty. He is showing disdain for the poor,” Jackson said.

Now, in case you don’t remember how began the SNAP — Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — shitshow, Newt Gingrich told reporters in December that “you don’t get food stamps. … You get a credit card and the credit card can be used for anything. We’ve had people take their food-stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii.”

He also said that millionaires can get food stamps, which is totally untrue.

Then, he continued on with his anti-SNAP screed, telling reporters several days later that Obama is the “finest food-stamp president.”

Gingrich’s comments have come under fire not just from political opponents, but from media and economic analysts.

Many have reported that SNAP enrollment first grew during George W. Bush’s presidency, not Obama’s tenure. The Bush administration aggressively courted eligible Americans to seek benefits, CNBC reports. Experts say that SNAP has ballooned mainly because of the economy — not Obama.

The latest in the SNAP spat stems from Gingrich’s comments Monday night, when a Fox News reporter accused the candidate of belittling people with “racially charged remarks,” Politico notes.


More Broke People, More Cheap Eats: Report

Sure, it’s the new year, but being broke is nothing new for many Americans, who will continue to seek cheap food as they expect to grow poorer and poorer according to a new, depressing report.

The just-released Food Flavors and Ingredients Outlook 2012, Ninth Edition — a manual used by industry insiders to predict trends — suggests that many Americans have cut back on essential food spending and strongly rely upon coupons to make ends meet, according to a statement posted on MarketWatch.

People also are doing more paycheck-cycle-style shopping. They tend to go to the supermarket right after getting paid and stock up lots of items, as they’re concerned that about running out of money and being unable to buy adequate amounts of groceries.

Parents have also started to spend less money on kids’ food.

This doesn’t usually happen in recessions, but appears to be taken place in the current economic downturn.

Food companies have also decided to start ignoring the middle class, since it’s shrinking. Instead, they will target their products to the growing ranks of the poor and über-rich.


USDA Shutters Hundreds of Outposts

The agency that helps farmers and ranchers — and basically just makes sure that the country’s food production goes smoothly and that Americans are fed — is shutting down hundreds of regional offices to save money, the Associated Press reports.

The closures will save the agency $150 million, the AP notes — affecting at least 46 states and Washington.

Other cost-cutting measures for the agency — which has a $145 billion budget — announced by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday include finding cheaper cell phone plans for USDA staffers.

A lot of the changes will greatly impact the agency’s research arm: USDA scientists have typically done things like try to figure out how to make Alaskan wasteland arable, or how to best irrigate parched deserts. The Obama administration said earlier this year that it wants to shave at least $42 million from the USDA’s ag research, the AP writes.

The USDA also organizes aid for the poor, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.


FDA Says ‘No’ to Drugged Up Livestock

Cows, chickens, and pigs in America are on lots of drugs — and even account for 80 percent of the country’s antibiotic consumption, Time reports.

But now, Food and Drug Administration officials have called on the ag industry to limit antibiotic use in livestock, as they think it might lead to the growth of deadly, drug-resistant bacteria: On January 4, the FDA banned farmers from using a class of these medicines in excess or for preventative reasons.

This particular group of antibiotics, cephalosporins, gets used frequently in humans to treat strep throat and bronchitis, Time notes.

The livestock industry commonly doses animals with antibiotics before they get sick, though they are not intended to prevent disease.

About 100,000 Americans die each year from infections related to drug-resistant bacteria, Time reports, and many fear that the situation will only worsen if animals routinely ingest antibiotics in their food and water.

This is not the first time the FDA has moved to enact such a rule.

In 2008, the administration tried establishing a similar regulation, but got too much flack from the über-wealthy ag lobby.


Food Might Get Cheaper: Report

Foods from meat to millet might become more affordable this year, as farmers expect 2012 to bring plentiful crop yields, Bloomberg reports.

According to the news service, Standard & Poor’s has determined that eight top foodstuffs dropped significantly in price in 2011 — including cocoa, sugar, coffee, and soybeans — suggesting that the new year will bring the same decreases.

What this means: Food inflation — basically a fancy way of saying food price upswings — will probably slow, from a peak increase of 6 percent in 2011 to a more stable rate of 3 to 4 percent.

In the U.S., food costs will probably go up 2.5 to 3.5 percent in 2012, Bloomberg reports — compared with 2011, when they ballooned between 3.25 and 3.75 percent.

Wheat prices have dipped, Bloomberg notes, bringing down the price of animal feed.

Because of this, economists also predict that livestock production will boom in 2012 and that the new glut of pork and beef on the market will make meat significantly cheaper.


UN Expert: Poor Shafted by WTO’s Food Policy

A top U.N. human rights expert got into a heated disagreement with the leader of the World Trade Organization on Friday, calling WTO-backed food policies “outdated” and a “lose-lose” for the world’s poor, the Associated Press reports.

Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.’s expert on the right to food, has just said that the WTO and its chief, Pascal Lamy, push for policies that screw over the world’s poor.

De Schutter says that the WTO advocates “trade-centric” policies that prevent the world’s impoverished from getting inexpensive, fresh food.

De Schutter says that these market-based approaches help agribusinesses profit in rich countries — and inflate the price of food for the world’s least-developed nations.

Between 1992 and 2008, De Schutter says, grocery bills in these countries ballooned 500 or 600 percent.

“This may look like food security on paper, but it is an approach that has failed spectacularly,” he writes in an open letter.

“The reality on the ground is that vulnerable populations are consigned to endemic hunger and poverty.”


Newt Gingrich: Obama Is the “Finest Food Stamp” President

Newt Gingrich thinks Barack Obama is a bad president — for helping more poor Americans eat.

Thing is, Obama isn’t exactly responsible for recent, record-setting numbers of food-stamp beneficiaries.

Gingrich, who wants to run on the Republican ticket in the 2012 presidential election, has repeatedly criticized both the food-stamp program and President Obama, under whose leadership the benefits expanded.

Gingrich’s statements have gotten flak from analysts, as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) first grew during George W. Bush’s presidency, not Obama’s tenure. The Bush administration aggressively courted eligible Americans to seek benefits, CNBC reports. Experts say that SNAP has ballooned mainly because of the economy — not Obama’s policies.

In his latest tirade against SNAP, however, Gingrich told CNBC: “We are going to have the candidate of food stamps, the finest food-stamp president in the American history, in Barack Obama, and we are going to have a candidate of paychecks.”

Last month, Gingrich told reporters that people used SNAP for exotic getaways.

“You don’t get food stamps,” the former House speaker told the media. “You get a credit card, and the credit card can be used for anything. We’ve had people take their food-stamp money and use it to go to Hawaii.”

He then told ABC: “They give food stamps now to millionaires. Because after all, don’t you want to be compassionate? You know the Obama model: Isn’t there somebody you’d like to give money to this week?”

Of course, these statements are completely full of shit. Gingrich has yet to recant any of his BS claims.