New York Food and Climate Summit

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Today’s Food and Climate Summit at NYU, timed to coincide with the climate summit in Copenhagen, was energizing. I attended workshops on everything from canning food, to how to discuss the  meat-climate connection in a non-confrontational way, to discrimination as it relates to food and climate change. It was obvious that all of us attendees shared similar views when after lunch, someone brought a styrofoam box into the elevator and everyone stopped breathing. The woman with the offending box was asked which restaurant it was from, and it turned out to have come from one of the restaurants recommended by the conference as “sustainable.” It was pointed out that it wasn’t sustainable to use styrofoam. The offender replied that it was much less harmful than eating meat, and at least her meal was vegan. She then changed the subject by asking which workshops her questioner had attended. It made me happy that here, wasteful packaging was a viable topic for discussion; an indignity that you might see several times day and suffer silently could safely be addressed.

Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion discusses the intersection food, race and climate change at the panel, Structural Discrimination Related to Food and Climate Change. Fellow panelists Aine Duggan, Chet Whye, Javier Lopez, and Joel Berg look on.
Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion discusses the intersection of food, race and climate change at the panel, Structural Discrimination Related to Food and Climate Change. Fellow panelists Aine Duggan, Chet Whye, Javier Lopez, and Joel Berg look on.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer started the day with a rousing speech about how New York City should set an example for the world with a more enlightened food system. He talked about his initiative to establish the NYC Food Charter, which would guarantee the right of all citizens to healthy food, make the food system sustainable, and educate people about nutrition, among other initiatives. He would like to see a vegetable garden in City Hall Park, and he encouraged everyone to participate in the dialogue on food and climate, instead of sitting back and leaving it to politicians. I had no idea Stringer was such a bold voice for policy change, and am frankly thrilled to have a leader like him in local government.

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For me, the most powerful speaker of the day was Dr. Vandana Shiva, the human rights activist who is working to end hunger and support impoverished farmers in India by encouraging agricultural biodiversity. She spoke to us via video. She called the corporate controlled system of food production a “curse upon the planet,” and at the heart of the climate crisis. She urged us to remember that policies of US corporations like biotech giant Monsanto are devastating people in third world countries, and that they desperately need our help. I was also impressed by Kristina Gsell, a young student, who helped to found the Food Sustainability project at Columbia University. She told us how the students convinced the administration to turn some campus property into a  food garden, and showed us slides of the tomatoes, peppers and strawberries that they had successfully grown, and the students working alongside members of the local community. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a huge accomplishment for a group of students to achieve.

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Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of public health, food policy, and nutrition at NYU and an outspoken voice for food reform, spoke about overcoming the elitist stigma that is inevitably leveraged against anyone who champions local eating. She pointed out that helping everyone to eat healthy food is egalitarian. I was happy to hear this issue addressed, because in the four interviews that I’ve done so far about the cookbook, every single interviewer has asked me that question. I loved Dr. Nestle’s point, and it’s a positive way to meet a rather dark accusation that I doubt most cookbook authors are being challenged with. But now more than ever, food is a political issue, and anyone who speaks out for changing the current system of food production will be drawn into the debate. Thanks for your advice on answering that one, Dr. Nestle.

Signage above NYU's campus compost receptacles - I was excited to see that they compost!
Signage above NYU's campus compost receptacles - I was excited to see that they compost!

I’ve come away from the summit with several local actions to follow, including getting the city to reinstate the leaf composting program, encouraging the mayor to sign an executive order directing city institutions to source meals from area food growers, and getting President Stringer’s NYC Food Charter passed.

For more about the summit, visit the official website: http://www.nyu.edu/sustainability/foodandclimatesummit/.

To view President Stringer’s food charter, go to his website: http://www.mbpo.org/free_details.asp?id=55.

To learn about Vandana Shiva’s amazing work to preserve biodiversity and empower farmers, visit the website of her non-profit Navdanya: http://www.navdanya.org/.

To learn more about the Columbia Food Sustainability Project, visit their blog: http://gosustainable.blogspot.com/.

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