Sunday, February 08, 2009

New York Fat Cats want to be Svelte

Maybe it's because Morgan Spurlock's fast food documentary, Supersize Me, was made here in New York City? OK, probably not. More likely it's because this is a place that always wants to be on the leading edge of any trend. Whatever the cause may be, the fact is that New York City and State officials have been more and more inclined to litigate with regard to the quality of food available to its citizens.

I am, for the most part, totally for this movement. Recently I've been particularly impressed with a demand that was fought tooth and nail by the chain restaurants of the city. Having lost a fierce battle, any food operation with more than 15 locations nationwide is now required to post caloric values for all menu items. They won't be getting away with printing up a pamphlet and then hiding it behind the counter either; the information must be displayed prominently.

This is precisely the kind of action I feel is necessary. It doesn't tell any consumer what he or she can or can not do - it simply gives each person enough information to make a properly informed decision. The restaurant postings are even backed up by an ad campaign on the subway encouraging appropriate daily calorie consumption. I can just see people standing at the fast food joint, thinking to themselves: Hmm, if I'm only supposed to have 2000 calories today, maybe I won't have the cheeseburger that's almost a thousand calories all by itself. As far as I'm concerned, labeling laws such as this should apply to every fast food or "family restaurant" chain in the country.

As far as the infamous trans-fat ban, now fully enacted here in NYC, I (and many others) feel that the city went about it in the wrong way. Rather than putting a flat-out ban upon the substance citywide, I believe it would have been more effective to use a tactic similar to the calorie disclosure scheme: require that food establishments clearly label which items contain or get cooked in trans-fat, and let consumers decide for themselves. I have a feeling that many restaurants would have voluntarily dropped the trans-fats, as after all "trans-fat" is the new "cholesterol". It's practically cussing at this point; no business would want to print it on a menu.

Then there's the so-called fat-tax, a statewide measure which proposes a 15 to 18% tax on sugary soft drinks. Its intention is to address increasing rates of obesity, particularly in children; it would reduce the consumption of "liquid candy" while generating significant revenue for the state. The revenue would then be spent on health campaigns. In all reality it doesn't seem so different from the cigarette tax that has now been in place in the city for several years.

However, by the time the cigarette tax was made law, the vast majority of adults already regarded smoking as an unhealthy and undesirable habit. After decades of campaigning by groups like the American Lung Association, the general public had accepted the carcinogenic realities of tobacco smoke; it was then not such a shock for civil officials to place health over vice. Conversely, the long term effects of imbibing copious amounts of high fructose corn syrup have only just begun to be studied. We as a society are still far from reaching the conclusion that it is a substance that should be considered dangerous or taboo. In short, the New York government is probably jumping the gun on that one.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer is the most recent New York official to weigh in on how to address poor diet habits and ridiculous food-sourcing practices that are rampant throughout the island. On Saturday, February 7th, Stringer released a report called Food in the Public Interest; among his main concepts are creating tax incentives to encourage supermarkets and greenmarkets to move into areas currently lacking in food resources, placing restrictions on fast food restaurants, and directing city agencies to source 20% of foodstuffs from within a few hundred miles of the city.

These strike me as fairly logical steps to take to begin to combat what is a widespread and ever-growing issue. As Stringer stated at a press conference Saturday, "Our stores are full of apples that come thousands of miles from New Zealand and Washington State, rather than hundreds of miles from New Paltz in Ulster County or Whitehall in Washington County, New York. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live in ‘food deserts’ where there isn’t enough fresh food".

The issue of produce shipped needlessly across countries or oceans is one that drives me mad each and every time I shop for groceries. My attempts at purchasing bell peppers provide one good example. Bell peppers are one of the few vegetables which I will only buy if organically grown, because when grown "conventionally" they tend to be among the crops most heavily doused in pesticides. Among numerous other negative aspects, these pesticides are made of petrochemicals, the use of which is now well understood to be a short-lived endeavor. Imagine my consternation, then, when the only organic bell peppers available were shipped in from Holland! Any illusion of sustainable agriculture disappears when a trans-Atlantic journey is involved.

The concept of 'food deserts' is one that has now been thoroughly examined - and by Yale University, no less. In two studies conducted last year by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, researchers dissected what most city dwellers already understand: that lower income neighborhoods often have little or no access to fresh produce or more healthy versions of processed foods.

The result? As stated in one of the Rudd Center's reports, entitled Access to Healthy Foods in Low-Income Neighborhoods, "[l]ow-income people, minorities, and rural residents suffer the highest rates of preventable, diet-related diseases linked to insufficient consumption of healthy foods." Given this truth, the wisdom of encouraging real grocery stores and greenmarkets to establish themselves where previously only bodegas (i.e. convenience stores) could be found cannot be denied.

The consensus among the leaders and the edified seems to be that it is time to take decisive action. For those who may have to change their ways or (heaven forbid) lose profit, though, it's a different story. It is expected that soft drink giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola will have a strong word or two to say about the fat tax proposition should it near legislation. I doubt these megaliths will be heartened by the fact that sources as prominent as MSN are advising investors not to purchase their stocks in light of the proposed tax.

Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, doesn't seem to be happy with the fat tax suggestion either; she has been quoted as calling the tax "misguided" and "ridiculous". The ABA's science and policy expert, Maureen Storey, went so far as to provide testimony in Albany on Monday that there is no sound research showing a link between soft drink consumption and obesity. Incidentally, until 2004,the ABA was known as the National Soft Drink Association.

As to local food sourcing for New York City agencies, Karen Karp, a food consultant for the city, stated "we need citrus, we need coffee beans, we need sugar all year round... It’s a bigger picture than just apples and carrots." Well, 20% local still leaves 80% from whatever sources the city agencies deem fit, does it not? And, Ms. Karp, I strongly suggest you make your way as soon as possible to one of New York City's numerous greenmarkets. There you will be able to see for yourself the bountiful, gorgeous array of just what is produced within the state of New York; I'm relatively sure you'll find more there than apples and carrots.

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With much difficulty, this article was published somewhere other than my own blog; trust me it's not as exciting as it sounds. If you wanna here about it, here's where you'll find my tirade.

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