Community engagement is key for successful food reform, sugar reduction policies

By Deniz Ataman

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	AndreyPopov
Source: Getty/ AndreyPopov

Related tags sugar reduction Cspi Food policy New york city California

Sugar reduction policies and programs in New York City and Berkeley, Calif., could serve as public health templates for cities across the country, according to experts gathered at the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Sugar Reduction Summit last week.

During a panel, moderated by Michael Nutter, former Mayor of Philadelphia, Kate MacKenzie, MS, RD, executive director, NYC Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and Holly Scheider, food policy activist, Berkeley, Calif., offered insight to how food reform policy, particularly sugar reduction, can shape public health in cities large and small. As the adverse effects of added sugar in processed foods and beverage pose national concern, both New York City and Berkeley offer a template for other cities around the country to coordinate initiatives between communities and local government. Both cities’ food policy programs have made notable progress on investing city funds into prevention and education. 

The discussion followed CSPI and the NY Department of Hygiene and Mental Health (DOHMH) filing a petition​ to FDA to set voluntary targets for reducing added sugars from food and beverages. Using FDA’s sodium reduction program as a template, “a parallel program to reduce added sugars in the food supply is another necessary strategy to improve Americans’ diets and advance population health,” according to both NYC DOHMH and CSPI.

NYC food, retail and environmental initiatives

New York City’s food policy initiatives include its 10-year Food Forward plan created to “sustain a food system where all New Yorkers can access healthy, affordable sustainable food,” Mackenzie noted.

Many New Yorkers consumer more than one sugary drink a day. Certainly exceeding USDA guidelines…The city has taken steps to ensure marketers can not advertise unhealthy food or beverages on property that’s owned by the city,” ​Mackenzie explained.

The Office of Food Policy also plans to reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 33% from a baseline year in 2019—“and our food standards are largely going to drive that​,” she said, noting food accounts for 20% of the city’s emissions -- primarily from high consumptions of beef and dairy. 

“Additionally, we are challenging the private sector and our nonprofit partners and any entity within the city to follow our pattern here and our leadership by encouraging other entities to join with us in making commitments to reduce their carbon footprint.”

How the city’s recently launched grocery delivery service to lower income New Yorkers will impact these emission goals is worth watching. Trhough the program, eligible participants receive credits that can be used to purchase SNAP foods and beverages through an online platform connected to hundreds of grocery stores in the city. Credits can pay for service fees, tips and delivery, and participants receive a 50% discount on fresh fruits and vegetables. “We’re affording choice to people to support the smaller grocery stores in their neighborhoods that could certainly benefit again from the revenues of this type of program​,” Mackenzie stated.

For store owners, NYC’s Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Program offers tax credits and zoning enhancements “for supermarket operators and developers seeking to build or renovate new retail space to be owned or leased by a full-line supermarket operator," according to the program website​. Currently, 28 projects are approved and 2,000 jobs are retained or created through the program.

Pioneers of sugar reduction policy

Berkeley, Scheider explained, was the first city in the country to pass a local Sugary Drink tax in 2014. Unlike many cities, Berkeley has an independent public health department which works to tackle health inequalities and illnesses related to dietary habits. Because of this existing infrastructure, which included public school and community garden programs that were losing funding, implementing the tax created a new stream of funding.

Taking from her work with tobacco companies and passing clean indoor air policies, Scheider explained that pushing the sugary drink tax involved community-level participation while educating stakeholders on nutrition-related health statistics. The key component to the structure of the tax was developing a community advisory commission, on which Scheider served, that brought in steady funds for one penny an ounce.

Berkeley’s sugar sweetened beverage product panel of experts (SSBPPE) was developed subsequently as part of the city’s internal procurement policy. The policy requires “all grantees from the Healthy Berkeley program, funded by sugary drink commission, to have an organizational policy that does not allow the purchase or sale of sugary drinks at their community events and meetings,” Scheider detailed.

To make it happen, community organizing was key,​” Scheider noted. “It’s very important engaging communities of color, leaders of color in the leadership of the campaign.’”

One notable program is the healthy checkout ordinance in partnership with CSPI. A program funded by the Healthy Berkeley grant that uses store data and community assessments (i.e. focus groups and petitions). It applies to large stores licensed to sell food and defines checkout aisles and restricts food and beverages that can be sold in the checkout aisle. While implementation between stores is mixed, Scheider noted that it provides a model for how retailers participate in addressing public health reform.

“The important element of this is not just the education we did with the campaign, not just the fact that prices went up in about 70% of retailers, but that there’s a constant investment of these revenues in prevention and education,” ​Scheider added.


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