The Brooklyn councilman had to drive miles away just to get fresh produce and groceries.
However, his father grew up on a farm in the Dominican Republic, and was a dedicated gardener, Espinal said. During the summer, they grew fresh fruits and vegetables in their backyard.
“I grew up learning about soil, harvesting my own produce and eating healthy food,” Espinal said.
But to this day, access to healthy food and hunger still affects some one million New Yorkers who are food insecure.
According to Espinal, 18 percent of New Yorkers go to bed hungry every night. Nearly 20 percent of them live in Brooklyn.
Last Thursday, Espinal and his colleagues in the City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson, visited the Cypress Hills Community School to unveil a plan to tackle food inequity and hunger.
The plan, which is detailed in a report titled, “Growing Food Equity in New York City,” recommends more than 30 policy proposals on food governance, food waste, healthy school food and community gardens.
“We need food policies that help us feed our bodies and nourish our souls,” Johnson said. “Access to adequate, nutritious food is a human right.”
The speaker highlighted some of the budgetary wins that tackle hunger in the new fiscal year. The City Council allocated $1 million to fund a pilot program to help CUNY students experiencing food insecurity.
According to a recent survey of CUNY students, 48 percent of respondents have experienced food insecurity in the last month. At a hearing in February, some students even testified that they would skip class to go to emergency food pantries.
“Hunger among college students is truly alarming,” Johnson said.
The council also successfully advocated for an $8.7 million increase in the budget for emergency food assistance programs, up to $20.2 million. The funding has also been baselined in the budget.
Other items include a $1 million increase to food pantries and $10 million for senior center meals.
The report also recommends the expansion of the Health Bucks program, which provides New Yorkers with SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, opportunities to buy fresh produce at local markets.
Part of the hunger platform is advocating against federal cuts to anti-hunger and nutrition programs like SNAP. According to Johnson, 1.54 million New Yorkers rely on the program.
That effort includes fighting against plans to limit SNAP eligibility and the “public charge,” a policy that discourages immigrants who are worried about their citizenship status from applying for public benefits.
“Shame on the federal government for using food as a weapon to disenfranchise vulnerable populations,” Johnson said. “This is a terrible burden for families, and it forces people to find other forms of assistance to survive.”
On the issue of food access and inequity, the City Council suggests expanding the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program, which provides “zoning and financial incentives to promote the establishment and retention of neighborhood grocery stores.”
Since 2009, Johnson said, 36 FRESH projects have been approved.
He noted that grocery stores across the city have been facing economic pressures, including commercial rent increases. Many are replaced by high-end stores with higher prices.
As a solution, the council will partner with the Department of City Planning (DCP) to expand the program to neighborhoods with the highest need, especially low-income communities of color.
The legislative body will also consider legislation requiring the creation of outreach materials for farm-to-city projects, including farmers markets, CSAs and food box programs.
Another key proposal is to create a community food hub incubator, which would develop “healthy food economies at the neighborhood level.”
“It will help more farmers in communities connect and partner with one another,” Johnson said.
Finally, the City Council will consider legislation to codify and improve upon the Good Food Purchasing program, which is based on five core areas: local economies, health, workforce, animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
According to Johnson, 11 total city agencies procure 240 million meals each year, including for seniors at senior centers, patients at hospitals and individuals at correctional facilities.
“That is a lot of food and purchasing power,” the speaker said. “That buying power can and should be leveraged.”
Another component of the City Council’s new food policy platform is ensuring that students eat healthy food at school. On this front, the city has made significant progress already, including a guarantee that all 1.1 million public school students have free lunch.
Johnson said in the first year of the program, an average of 26,000 more students ate lunch every single day.
But the city is still struggling with providing breakfast in the classroom for students. In fact, City Hall even proposed reducing funding for breakfast in the classroom by $6 million. Johnson touted the council’s work to restore the cuts.
The speaker also highlighted a new innovation at city schools: food court-style cafeterias. Since these new cafeterias were installed, studies have shown that students ate three times more tomatoes, four times more spinach, fives time more broccoli, 11 times more grapes and 30 times more lettuce.
There are currently plans to renovate 26 more lunch rooms into food courts.
“They serve healthy foods in more appealing ways to attract students to eat school lunch,” Johnson said. “We will fight for the city to expand these food courts to even more middle and high schools.”
Other school-related proposals including studying and implementing scratch-cooked menu items, full-time food education coordinators at the Department of Education (DOE) and more nutrition education.
On school waste, Johnson called for the city to fund a “robust education campaign” to better inform consumers about the financial and environmental costs of food waste.
The council will also look at legislation requiring city agencies with food procurement contracts to develop a food waste prevention plan.
“Changing our behavior, even in small ways, can help make a real difference,” he said.
Additionally, the council will introduce legislation to create a new Office of Urban Agriculture, which would create plans to protect, expand and improve the city’s 600 community gardens, land trusts and urban farm businesses.
The legislative body will also support urban agriculture education for low-income New Yorkers.
Another recommendation calls for partnering with the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) to create opportunities within the summer youth employment program (SYEP) for young people to work in community gardens.
Finally, the last portion of the plan focuses on food governance. Johnson said the City Council will examine bills to improve and codify the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy.
The legislation would also mandate the office to develop a citywide, multiyear food plan that identifies and addresses problems, monitors progress and helps prioritize food-related budget needs.
“Most importantly, the plan would engage with communities most impacted by food inequities,” Johnson said. “Community engagement is key.”