If America is a fast food nation, so is New Haven, according to supporters of the newly-formed New Haven Food Policy Council.
The Board of Aldermen is in the process of confirming 11 members from various economic, political and social sectors to the council, including Yale Office of Sustainability Director Julie Newman and Yale Sustainable Food Project head chef Catherine Jones. With the expertise of members from diverse backgrounds, supporters of the council think it has the potential to address economic and cultural concerns associated with poor nutrition, as well as to seriously improve access to locally grown, nutritious food for all residents — Yale students and low-income residents included.
In a report published by the Connecticut Food Policy Council last year, New Haven ranked 163rd out of 169 cities in Connecticut for “food security,” a term which reflects the nutritional adequacy, equitable pricing and geographic accessibility of a region’s foods. The measurement also evaluates whether citizens have access to transportation to reach food and whether the foods consumed encourage the city to be self-reliant in case outside food sources are compromised. Officials from CitySeed, the non-profit organization focused on sustainability that pioneered the council’s creation, said the body was not formed in direct response to the study’s low ratings, but the report brought to light many issues that supporters hope the council will address.
“The reason why you want to have a Food Policy Council is that food is a basic need,” CitySeed Executive Director Jennifer McTiernan H. ’99 said. “Although there’s a water authority and a housing authority and there are also many people whose work connects to the food system, the idea of the council is to pull together people working in this area so they can collaborate on these issues to encourage long-term change.”
Out of the 169 cities, New Haven fell in the bottom 10 in the categories of wealth, access to transportation, food production resources, severity of poverty and socio-demographic challenges. Some of the categories that New Haven excelled in were public food assistance and residents’ proximity to offices that distribute food stamps.
Of these indicators, the report found that access to transportation — in which New Haven ranked 168th — proved to be the second-largest indicator of local food security, after a city’s wealth. The transportation situation could improve with the attention of the council, McTiernan H. said.
“The council could evaluate the bus routes in New Haven and try to make sure that no matter where you live in New Haven, you can get on a bus and go to a grocery store,” she said. “They did this in Hartford and they ended up rearranging some of the bus lines … to make sure that getting to the grocery store isn’t preventing people from getting food.”
Charles Alvarez ’09, who worked with CitySeed over the summer as a Presidential Public Service Fellow, said the establishment of the council was a step toward helping low-income residents fulfill their nutritional needs. CitySeed’s farmers’ markets, which open on different days of the week in 4 locations throughout the city, were the first to accept food stamps in Connecticut. Alvarez said he would like to see farmers’ markets established on a daily basis in the future to make organic food accessible to more people.
“In Fair Haven, the food provided by the farmers is the only fresh, nutritious food of that quality that’s available in that community,” he said.
Alvarez also said he hopes the council will target lower-income residents like those in Fair Haven, who he said would benefit the most from the markets.
The establishment of affordable, accessible farmers’ markets is dispelling cultural assumptions that farmers’ markets are upper-class shopping venues, Alvarez said.
“Farmers’ markets are oftentimes viewed as an elite place to do your grocery shopping, so making the produce more affordable and more known to lower-income communities will ensure equal access,” he said.
In addition to providing more permanent farmers’ markets, CitySeed Program Coordinator Benjamin Gardner said, state government policies must also preserve farmland, so that farmers’ revenues stay within the state’s economy. CitySeed’s markets brought a little over $1 million to the local economy last year.
“Farmland is disappearing in the state of Connecticut at the rate of thousands of acres a year, and there’s a certain amount of attention that the state government needs to pay to that phenomenon in order to reverse that trend,” Gardner said. “[The solution] is not just going to be people spending money on local foods.”
To support healthy agriculture, Alvarez said, the government should subsidize local farmers that produce a variety of different fruits and vegetables, instead of the multinational corporations that grow genetically modified and unhealthy foods that yield high-fructose corn syrup.
Advocates of food security also attribute food insecurity to the problematic fast-paced habits of working Americans, attitudes which they say prevent citizens of all incomes from buying their own healthy produce and leading lifestyles that contribute to sustainable communities.
“We’re in a culture where efficiency and convenience reign,” Gardner said. “Instead of cooking food together we take food out of a can and have quick dinners, and then we’re off on our separate ways. Buying from farmers’ markets has social benefits by encouraging people to reconnect with their families through knowing where their food comes from.”
This culture, Alvarez said, certainly spills into Yale’s student body. The University could be doing more to promote healthy habits, such as establishing on-campus farmer’s markets similar to Brown and Harvard’s weekly farmers’ markets, he said. This could potentially expand the market for local farmers and provide opportunities for students and faculty to make wise consumer decisions, he said.
In September, CitySeed coordinated a farmers’ market on Broadway close to campus, but at the time, officials said it was only a one-day event.
Alvarez criticized the YCC decision to offer bus transportation to Shaw’s on Dec. 10.
“When people go to Shaw’s, most of the time what they’re going to be buying is soda,” he said. “The YCC could do a better job in directing where people go by transporting them to [venues] which feature local produce.”
McTiernan H. said she hopes to expand communal celebration of food as well as good decision-making in New Haven.
“Americans seem to have a very tense and difficult relationship with food and there aren’t many spaces where food is celebrated for being delicious and grown in Connecticut,” she said. “When people gather around a table, when people get together on a Saturday and go to a farmer’s market in a park, this kind of community building is the opposite of what’s quickest and easiest, which defines fast food.”