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.
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.
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.
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.