Vegan Meetup Continues in Brooklyn

Public PolicyMartin Rowe

I’ve been a regular attendee at Brooklyn’s quarterly plant-based/vegan meetups organized by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President, for the last year—and they always offer considerable food for thought (as well as considerable quantities of food), particularly when I think about the Vegan America Project.

Plant-Based meetup_final2.jpg

Adams has been evangelical about the health benefits of a plant-based diet for more than a year now: crediting it for saving him from diabetes-induced loss of vision and allowing him to lose weight and improve his overall health. He has promoted plant-based eating in the newsletters that go to every home in Brooklyn (population 2.47 million), and all his staff in Borough Hall are encouraged to follow his diet. Recently, his 79-year-old mother came off insulin following a transition to a plant-based diet. Adams uses the meetups to showcase NYC-based doctors, food experts, and community activists  advocating for the plant-based lifestyle. Such was the case this last Monday (February 5th).

As in previous meetups, the attendees numbered around 500 people, and diverse—but it was a noticeably older crowd. Indeed, a panelist ruefully observed that the young rarely care about the consequences of their diet. The panel’s message remained mainly about personal responsibility (changing one’s diet to help oneself and one’s family) and educating your doctors about nutrition (or getting another doctor). Distinctions were drawn between a vegan diet that might contain a lot of processed foods, sugar, and salt, and a whole-foods, plant-based, oil-free diet. The first question was about dealing with gas; the second was about finding vegan restaurants in Brooklyn.

I find it difficult to calibrate what’s happening here. That a political figure—even one whose job comes with few real powers—is so committed to getting people to transform their diets is remarkable. Unlike Bill Clinton or Al Gore (both of whom have flirted with veganism), Eric Adams is still in office and is clearly interested in becoming NYC’s mayor in 2021. He obviously feels that the benefits of his diet outweigh any political risks he might face with the dairy, meat, and soda lobbies. It’ll be interesting to see if Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who also has his eyes on higher office, will make the same calculation regarding his veganism.

Even though Adams’ meetups remain light on public policy, Adams has talked about food justice and the disadvantages that economically marginalized communities, many of color, face in accessing healthy foods. At some point, the meetups (personal redemption narratives and cool start-ups) are going to have to confront the systemic reality that, for many, “food” is sugar-saturated, calorie-dense, and processed, and that its ubiquity and affordability is a consequence of economic and political structures that disincentivize the affordability and availability of whole foods.

In the years ahead, all of us, including elected politicians, must turn personal conviction into public policy—even as we confront huge vested interests, such as the soda lobby, that cloak the pervasiveness of unhealthy food under the rubric of “choice” and “personal responsibility.” Individual lifestyle change is not enough. A comprehensive strategy that incorporates climate-change adaptation, urban resiliency, and animal welfare is necessary for the approach to succeed. To that end, we might ask the meetup to discuss and develop various strategies that will address these different areas of public policy. The following (very preliminary) suggestions straddle the line between the ideal and the “do-able,” and between what the public sector can demand and the private sector can deliver:

Food Procurement Policies
1. Mandate that 50 percent of food purchased by municipally owned and operated institutions (e.g. schools and hospitals) as well as food served on city property (e.g. stadiums and convention centers) be plant-based.
2. Reduce portion sizes of meat and dairy in such institutions.
3. Encourage restaurants and private-sector food operations to adopt climate-friendly menus and use behavioral-science insights to encourage “plant-forward” options, including through changing cafeteria layout, menu design, and food pricing and promotion.
4. Promote Meatless Mondays widely when it’s instituted by NYC, by implementing advertising using city property about climate change, public health, and animal welfare.
5. Offer tax incentives for businesses that only sell plant-based foods.
6. Make it a requirement for all restaurants doing business in NYC to offer at least five items (including at least two entrees) on the menu that are wholly plant-based.

Public Health Measures
1. Institute a city-wide public-health insurance plan that would offer discounted rates for residents who demonstrate a commitment to a plant-based diet.
2. Make it necessary for all insurance plans in NYC to offer instruction on plant-based eating and cooking plans in order to receive that plan’s services.
3. Work with gyms and rehabilitation centers to provide whole-foods, plant-based cooking demonstrations and services.
4. Mandate that all medical doctors licensed to work in NYC take a City-accredited course in plant-based nutrition.
5. Ban all soda machines and fast-food restaurants from within NYC hospitals, or only provide plant-based, low-sodium, and low-sugar meals.

Food Equity and Justice
1. Mandate all stores that sell food to sell a significant percentage of fruits and vegetables. Provide tax incentives for stores to do so.
2. Mandate all stores to place fruits and vegetables at the front or in a highly visible location in the store.
3. Provide incentives, mandates, or tax abatements for supermarkets to service underserved communities in Brooklyn and to provide healthy food.
4. Provide tax incentives to supermarkets to offer instructions to local schools and cafeterias on using vegetables and preparing them.

Climate Resiliency
1. Incorporate meat- and dairy-production and consumption goals into all policy decisions for reducing the carbon footprint of New York City.
2. Emphasize local fruits and vegetables in NYC purchasing policies to support “foodshed” and reduce the carbon “foodprint.”
3. Diversify food resources and encourage carbon sequestration in all neighborhoods in NYC by supporting the development of, and sustaining, community gardens, CSAs, gardens in vacant lots, and rooftop gardens.
4. Expand bioswale programs in all neighborhoods to retain storm water and encourage planting of food crops and/or fruit-bearing trees.

Disincentivization Policies
1. Pass a tax on items that contain large amounts of sugar.
2. Ban plastic bags.
3. Pass a local carbon or consumption tax, which would include meat and dairy products, at source.

As with all policy proposals, the devil is in the details and folks will employ numerous caveats and seek to carve out exemptions that overwhelm the goal and ensure the status quo. In NYC, the mayor’s power is circumscribed by the City Council, which, in turn, is hedged in by state and federal political bodies. These realities are why public policy is hard and often ugly, and why individual change is so attractive: because it threatens nobody and makes you feel virtuous. However, as Eric Adams is showing (perhaps inadvertently) through his meetups, personal virtue is not enough.

Running Out of Things to Talk About

Ideas and HistoryMartin Rowe

It’s been several months since my last blog, and there are a number of reasons for that. Work and life are two. A third is that the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have set off an avalanche of accusations against other men in Hollywood and politics, that has now engulfed the animal advocacy movement. Meanwhile, the current administration continues to generate more  outrage, seemingly every day—even though the US (and global) economy grows and the US unemployment rate remains low.

These three factors (#metoo, politics, and the economy) respectively reinforce introspection and retrospection, preoccupy us in day-to-day scandals, or lull us into believing that good times will last forever. To speculate now about the future can seem indulgent, even a flight from a difficult reality, even if all three of these portend potential realignments. The #metoo revolution promises to upend gender relations and power dynamics within society and politics. The danger is that it becomes only about weeding out obvious bad actors while leaving “good” men in charge, or supplanting male leadership but leaving organizations without policies that support whistleblowers or foster a healthy working environment that ends unprofessional or potentially criminal behavior. The large number of women running for political office in 2018 suggest momentum for systemic change, but it’s far from obvious that more women in power will mean a new way of conducting politics—or, more importantly, different policies altogether.

The daily churn of news makes it hard to look beyond the current administration’s  reactionary policies on energy and land use to anticipate whether, for instance, the renewable energy sector is now robust enough to continue growing even when public policy is oriented toward fossil-fuel extraction and expanding markets for dirty energy. A roaring economy, driven by quarterly earnings reports, also obfuscates signs of another crash—either from the bursting of a housing bubble, banking malfeasance, rising inflation, or political instability—and how or whether we should imagine systemic change emerging from a crisis or from a confident, buoyant market with access to considerable liquidity.

That said, I see signs of change everywhere, and in the next few weeks, I’ll talk about them. Here’s one from a slightly unusual source. In a “Shouts & Murmurs” (i.e. humor) column in the February 12 & 19, 2018, editions of The New Yorker magazine, entitled “What Will Food Be Like in the Future,” Mia Mercado has fun speculating how, “In the future, food will be similar to what it is today, only bigger and with much better Wi-Fi,” and “there will be no more hunger, because hunger will get rebranded as ‘opposite full.'” She concludes her piece with the prognostication: “Everyone will be vegan in the future, so eventually we’ll all run out of things to talk about.”

On one level, Mercado is responding to the fact that, as the joke has it, “‘How do you know if someone’s vegan?’ ‘They’ll tell you.'” Veganism here is the ultimate “talking point,” the catalyst for numerous, socially embarrassing or irritating intimate or public conversations about food choices, etc. On another level, however, Mercado is perhaps echoing my own intuition that veganism is not merely a talking point but “good to think with“: that it offers us a chance to reflect on resources, culture, nutrition, sustainability, race, justice, and resilience. To “be vegan,” therefore threatens or promises the possibility of difference or distinctiveness that encourages conversation or makes life interesting—depending on your perspective.

So is the vegan future a mic-drop gag or throwaway last line? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. At the very least, much like a joke, it’s entered the conversation with all its destabilizing tendencies and threat-grins of social anxiety.