The weather in New York City can sometimes be extreme with events such as heat waves, blizzards, and hurricanes, and it can all change in a New York minute. In fact, extreme weather has caused New Yorkers to cope in a myriad of strategies from visiting one of our many umbrella vendors to stopping by a public cooling center. But communities that have been historically deprived of public resources risk greater health and economic threats from our climate, and, as the Executive Director of New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, I believe it’s going to take more than a three-dollar umbrella to protect these communities in a meaningful way. Whether you believe it or not, an essential factor in the fight against climate change starts with what we put on our plates.
The urgency to combat climate change demands a multifaceted approach, and it’s increasingly clear that our food choices wield significant influence. At this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, world leaders gathered to decide how to save our planet—and finally, food consumption was included as part of the solution. About a third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food, with the largest portion of food-related greenhouse gases (GHGs) coming from agriculture and land use. Specifically, animal-based foods, especially red meat, dairy, and farmed shrimp, are associated with the highest greenhouse gas emissions on the globe.
This is why New York City promotes a plant-forward approach to our food policy. We find that centering our policies around food holistically, from food insecurity to food infrastructure, has a profound effect on our constituents’ health, environment, and way of living. So, today, we are calling on mayors across the nation to protect our planet, starting with their city’s food consumption.
Climate change may feel like a larger-than-life issue, but municipalities can—and must—play their part. For example, here’s how New York City has taken small, but impactful, reforms to reduce our footprint while still delivering healthy and tasty food.
The Mayor’s Office of Food Policy laid out Food Forward NYC, a comprehensive 10-year food policy plan to reach a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy food system. As signatories of the C40 Good Food Cities Declaration and the Coolfood Pledge, New York City is committed to tracking its food-related GHG emissions and reducing by 33 percent the carbon footprint of the food it purchases by 2030. In fact, our K-12 schools serve culturally relevant, scratch-cooked, plant-based meals, while our public hospitals surpassed one million default plant-based meals—leading to a 36 percent reduction in carbon emissions in the first year of its implementation alone.
The strength of New York City’s food policies lies in our collaborative approach to change. As leaders in climate justice, we unite our city’s agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and constituents to form robust, invaluable, partnerships for driving sustainable development. Now, our Plant-Powered Carbon Challenge is inspiring the private sector to join us. Just last week, we welcomed Columbia University as an inaugural partner in this critical plant-powered climate action. Imagine the change we could make if our cities came together to protect the environment through the foods that we eat and supply.
The initiatives spearheaded by the urban centers of ideas and industry vividly illustrate the transformative potential of our culture when plant-based food policies take center stage. And city by city, these collaborations have resulted in an impact on a global scale: Here in New York City, our Framework for Good Food Purchasing has become a model for public procurement nationally and internationally (and won us the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Award for Governance in 2022).
The path forward can be as close as tomorrow. If other urban leaders accept New York City’s challenge now, we’ll get there sooner than expected. Forward-thinking food system strategies and inclusive partnerships for equity and excellence have been a beacon of hope in New York City, and they can be the same for your city too.
More importantly, from our collective endeavor, we can alleviate the profound impacts of climate change. Our commitment to a cleaner environment stands as our safeguard, ensuring a sustainable future for our planet and future generations to come. So, let’s commit to protecting the future of our communities, who rely on us for so much and whose cultures and contributions have given us even more in return. Let’s do it for them…one plate at a time.
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Photo courtesy of Benny Rotlevy, Unsplash