In 2012, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an amendment to the New York City Health Code that would restrict the size of sodas and other sugary drinks to a maximum of 16 ounces. The premise was that if larger sizes weren’t available to buy, customers would be forced to drink less soda, leading to better health and a fall in obesity rates.
The Board of Health voted unanimously to accept the 16 ounce limit, and the regulation was set to take effect before a New York Supreme Court ruling invalidated the large soda ban. The city appealed the ruling, but the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the Sugary Drinks Portion Cap Rule was outside the scope of the NYC Board of Health’s authority.
Bloomberg’s proposal was widely criticized and mocked in the city and elsewhere, and became one of the go-to examples of the government attempting to legislate health through eating habits.
Many of the criticisms focused on the proposal taking away choice from the consumer, with the Coca Cola Company saying the regulation was condescending to consumers.
“The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes,” said the company in a statement. “They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase.”
But the proposed soda ban had a deeper problem: rather than treating the root issues of poverty that lead to sugary junk food diets and poor health, it simply tried to address the symptoms.
When we’ve identified so many of the problems faced by lower-income and food-insecure communities, why does it seem to be so slow and difficult to pass legislation that can help improve those issues? Why is it hard to pass food policies that are good for health?
These are some of the questions that panelists addressed at the Legislating Better Health Through Food Policy panel, hosted by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.
The panel, moderated by the Food Policy Center’s executive director, Charles Platkin, was a discussion of food policy with four experts: Alex Beauchamp, the Northeast Region Director for food accountability watchdog Food & Water Watch, Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute lecturer Smita Narula, assistant professor Margot Pollans of Pace Law School and the faculty director of the Pace-NRDC Food Law Initiative, and Margaret Brown, a staff attorney at the Natural Resource Defense Council’s NY Program.
Narula stressed the importance of shifting the narrative, and the way that we talk about food policy, away from top-down restrictions like the soda ban.
“On the soda tax in particular, there was something very top-down and condescending about it,” Narula said. “Why not pass a living wage so that people can afford to buy healthy food? And why is soda so much cheaper than a salad, anyway?”
She also said that rather than focusing on consumerism, activism could be a powerful mechanism for change, if regulation doesn’t stop it in its tracks.
“A lot of it is about getting out of the way,” said Narula, referring to grassroots efforts to increase access to healthy food.
On the topic of food deserts, areas with historically low access to grocery stores and fresh produce, Narula pointed out that it was more like a “food apartheid,” in which healthy food access was divided along lines of economic class and race.
“There is access to food in those communities, but it’s toxic food,” she added.
“Part of it is changing the narrative,” said Narula. “Instead of asking what communities can do, we should find out what they are asking of us.”
“It starts with asking people what kind of food they’re eating and where it’s coming from,” added Pollans.
Pollans also pointed out the importance of the 2018 Farm Bill, which must be passed to ensure the funding of a number of programs that were previously funded for five years by the 2014 Farm Bill.
Programs that could lose funding include the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program, the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also stands to lose funding.
You can call your representative to ask them to help pass the 2018 Farm Bill, and to oppose cuts and restrictive work requirements for SNAP benefits. Find your representative here.
Beauchamp emphasized that any changes to policy need to be grounded in the needs of the community.
“The solutions have to be lifted from the communities themselves,” he said. “It has to be based on the community’s needs.”
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