The NYC Mayoral Candidate Food Forum: Big Ideas or Real Policy Change?

By Sari Kamin

The New York City Mayoral Candidate Food Forum took place on July 17th, 2013 at the New School Tishman Auditorium in New York C. The forum, moderated by author and New York University Professor, Dr. Marion Nestle, was an opportunity for the NYC Mayoral candidates to share their thoughts on food policy issues such as health, food access and more.

While all the Mayoral candidates were invited, the ones who participated were: former Congressman Anthony Weiner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, City Comptroller John Liu, Former Councilman Sal Albanese, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and Owner, President, Chairman & CEO of Gristedes John Catsimatidis. Missing was former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who cancelled his appearance the day of. Democratic candidates Ceceilia Berkowitz, Erick Salgado and Republicans Adolfo Carrión Jr., Joseph J. Lhota, and George McDonald also declined.

Dr. Nestle sat down with each candidate individually, asking questions that were selected by the twelve co-host organizations of the event. Dr. Nestle was prohibited from straying from the chosen questions or engaging in any discussion with the candidates.

Dr. Nestle opened the event by calling it "ground-breaking" and "historic." The full auditorium and two overflow rooms full of people watching via live stream were evidence that the food community of New York is hungry to hear their candidates speak on the issues that many fight for on a daily basis. Food issues have long been ignored by politicians, and this forum was a testament to the many voices in NYC's food community demanding to be heard.

Congressman Anthony Weiner was first in the hot seat. Dr. Nestle asked him what he would do as mayor to end or reduce hunger. Weiner declared he would de-stigmatize SNAP benefits. Weiner said he wanted to make it as easy as possible for qualified residents to be enrolled in SNAP. He also offered incentive options, such as doubling the value of SNAP coupons for consumers purchasing fresh produce. Weiner was one of the few candidates to comment on immigration policy. He advocated for a "realistic immigration policy" and vowed to be unabashed about helping food workers organize. When asked about health initiatives like Bloomberg's failed soda ban, Weiner commented that the mayor's previous initiatives were too "small minded" and "odd." He proclaimed that if you want to make people healthy, "give them health care." Similarly, if you want to feed hungry people, "feed them."

Bill de Blasio was the next to speak with Dr. Nestle. The first question she asked him was how he would fix Hunt's Point Market in the Bronx. de Blasio remarked that he wanted to focus on distribution of local produce to Hunt's Point from the Tri State area. He asserted that Americans need to be "weened off a culture that gets its food from 3,000 miles away." de Blasio emphasized that a change in culture would lead to a change in reality and that a focus on local produce was the most effective way to work towards a healthier environment and better health for New Yorkers.

Like Weiner, Sal Albanese vowed to go beyond Bloomberg's past initiatives while tackling chronic health problems. Albanese stressed the importance of physical education in schools, and including parents in the process of nutrition education. Albanese is well remembered for having pioneered the Living Wage Bill in 1996 that to this day still "protects city contract employees by setting wage levels that comply with industry standards." Albanese referenced this accomplishment several times during his questioning with Nestle, ensuring the audience that he was more than capable of expanding the living wage ("I've already done it, and I can do it again"). Albanese was also quick to point out that he was the only mayoral candidate not accepting contributions from developers.

John Catsimatidis, the President and founder of Gristedes was the only Republican candidate that spoke at the Food Forum. Catsimatidis said that he wanted to get "more food stamps into the hands of people who need them" and that he would fight to avoid SNAP fraud. While Catsimatidis was encouraging in his support of organic foods ("I believe in organic foods"), he flailed on the specifics when questioned on his strategies regarding better living wages for food workers, health incentives, and hunger reduction in NYC.

City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn said we "need to recognize and find ways to establish a requirement for living wage standard," by "using the city's purchasing power in any way we can." Quinn remarked that NYC has the second largest industrial food purchasing power in the United States. (The U.S. Military is the first.) Like candidates de Blasio and Weiner before her, Quinn also came out in support for universal lunches and the addition of universal breakfasts, but she went a step further by adding that low-income schools should offer dinners and an option for students to take a packaged meal home with them on the weekends. Quinn has had a solid record of food advocacy during her tenure as City Council Speaker. In 2010 she released Food Works : A Vision to Improve NYC's Food System. As mayor, she intends to engage more broadly with stakeholders on food policy issues using an advisory board that would work closely with the food policy coordinator, a position she created with Mayor Bloomberg in 2006.

Current City Comptroller John Liu was the last candidate to be interviewed by Dr. Nestle. Liu was the first candidate to mention the issue of waste when asked about food access. Liu stated "forty percent [of New York City food] is wasted before it even gets to the table." Liu infused some humor into the dialogue stating that school food "often sucks" and that food contracts in New York City need to be revamped. Liu made one of the boldest statements of the night, proclaiming he would raise the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour.

Dr. Marion Nestle declared that "the most important feature of the event was the event itself." Brooklyn Food Coalition General Coordinator, Nancy Romer said it was a "coming of age" event for the food movement and it proved that the movement is "diverse, powerful, and serious." However, not all attendees were as energized; Christy Robb of St. John's Bread & Life said that "all the candidates came up short on specifics about how money can be leveraged to create more local jobs or to better local agriculture."

Now that we've heard the candidates speak, what can we do to keep the momentum going and hold them accountable? NYC held the first city-wide Mayoral Candidate Food Forum in the United States, but what is the dialogue like in other municipals across the country? Now that the food movement has matured to the point where politicians have taken notice, how do we get our legislators to catch up with the mindset of community organizers and local activists? NYC set a precedent, but the national community needs to come together to create a collective call for action.

Stay tuned to as we closely follow this election. We will continue to engage with the candidates and stakeholders throughout the mayoral race and keep you informed as the conversations that began at the Mayoral candidate food forum progress.

Click here to listen to a HeritageRadioNetwork.Org radio recap of the NYC Mayoral Candidate Food Forum.