On November 2, New York City voters are likely to elect Eric Adams as the city’s next mayor, a development that could herald a new era of local government experimentation in food policy, potentially with national implications. Adams’ views on policing have received a lot of media attention, and David Schleicher recently blogged here about Adams’ comments suggesting he favors a zoning budget-type approach to increase affordable housing. Adams’ interest in encouraging people to adopt plant-based diets to improve public health is likely less known, although it has been covered in the media going back several years. If former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to change what people eat are a precedent, Adams’ interest in food policy could lead to court cases to discuss on this blog.
Adams’ Book Healthy at Last
In 2020, Adams published Healthy at Last, a book that chronicles how he adopted a “whole-food, plant-based” diet and reversed his Type 2 diabetes after he was diagnosed with the disease at age 56 (p. 118). The book describes the health benefits of a plant-based diet, shows how individuals can change their diets, and provides 51 recipes to help people along. Adams also argues for “reimagining soul food” as “plant based” (p. 49). Although a whole food plant-based diet is vegan, Adams emphasizes that eating vegan by itself is not necessarily healthy (vegans can eat processed foods such as potato chips) and he advocates not eating “foods with more than three ingredients” (p. 86).
While Adams is mainly focused on the public health benefits of plant-based diets, Healthy at Last also includes a short discussion of the environmental benefits. The book suggests that Adams is prepared to speak openly about the link between diets and climate change that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others have highlighted, but that American politicians generally have shied away from confronting. For instance, farmed animals (such as cows) raised for human consumption are a significant source of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Adams mentions that “[c]ows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are the largest producers of methane in the United States -- a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide” (p. 108). Healthy at Last also includes a passing nod to the animal welfare reasons for eating plant-based instead of animal products (e.g., p. 107).
Public Policy Opportunities and Risks of Preemption
For Adams, changing people’s diets involves altering not only individual behavior, but also public policy, although he is careful to say that he does not “believe the government should tell you what you can have on your grill in your backyard on Saturday.” In his current role as Brooklyn borough president, Adams has taken a number of steps to help people change their diets and prodded the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to take others. He successfully pushed for Meatless Mondays in all New York City schools after they were piloted in 15 Brooklyn schools, and was involved in launching Meatless Mondays in city jails and city-run hospitals. He pushed for a city council resolution that led city schools to stop serving processed meats such as hot dogs, which the World Health Organization has designated a carcinogen. He helped to initiate the establishment of the Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue. And under his leadership, the office of the Brooklyn borough president provided people with information about plant-based diets.
In an interview with Ezra Klein on October 1, Adams indicated that he is aware of several of the levers through which he would be able to influence people’s diets if he is elected mayor. One option is for the city to increase the amount of plant-based foods that it buys to feed people in its facilities. He told Klein that “If a person is homeless, if a person is on some form of food pantry allotment, they go to the government because they don’t have any other choices. So it’s almost a betrayal when you know someone has no other choice but to eat what you give them, and you’re giving them food that feeds their chronic diseases.”
We note that instead of formulating a policy to expressly increase the purchase of plant-based foods, the city could commit to reducing its purchases of meat, and this presumably would lead the city to substitute plants for meat, assuming the city continues to buy at least the same amount of food overall. Under Mayor de Blasio, the City committed to halving the amount of beef that the city purchases for consumption in city facilities, though this announcement left it unclear whether the city would be replacing beef with plant-based foods instead of animal foods. In addition to using the city’s procurement budget to influence people’s food choices, New York City could also increase subsidies for plant-based foods or urban agriculture. This would build on the Health Bucks program that the city established under Bloomberg to subsidize fruit and vegetable purchases at farmers’ markets. Indeed, Adams told Klein that “We must start subsidizing healthy food.” Adams also stressed to Klein the importance of better educating people, for example in schools, about nutrition.
There are also other options open to Adams – and other local government officials across the U.S. – to encourage a shift to plant-based diets. A new policy brief that we co-authored with colleagues from the Center for Environmental and Animal Protection in NYU Environmental Studies and NYU Law’s Guarini Center on Environmental, Energy & Land Use Law outlines policies that U.S. cities are either already implementing or potentially could implement to reduce meat consumption.
For example, city officials could attempt to work with restaurants to encourage more consumption of plant-based foods, and development of plant-based cuisines. Cities might develop a program to allow restaurants to voluntarily certify themselves as satisfying health, environmental and animal welfare criteria and publicize the voluntarily certified restaurants. Cities might require restaurants to post information about the greenhouse gas impacts of particular menu offerings or general categories of foods. Cities could divest city investments in animal agriculture. Relying on their status as investors, cities might also use securities laws to require the meat industry to disclose more about the risks of meat production and consumption.
Granted, local government officials are likely to face political and legal pushback to efforts to change diets from people who regard food choices as personal, and the interest groups that currently profit from the standard American diet, such as the powerful meat industry. The industry was not too pleased with de Blasio era initiatives to reduce meat consumption in New York City. And as in other policy domains, local governments pursuing food policy goals must be careful to act within the confines of federal and state law, and they run the risk of state (or federal) preemption after the fact if they pursue policies that attract the ire of politically powerful interest groups. NYU Professor Jennifer Pomeranz has written extensively about the threat that state preemption presents to local efforts to improve public health through improved nutrition. She reports that “Between 2008 and June 2018, thirteen states enacted preemptive food policy laws on topics such as nutrition labeling and food and beverage taxes.”
The Bloomberg Era Precedent
Assuming Adams is elected, he will not be the first New York City mayor invested in changing people’s diets. Notably, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration introduced several innovative food policies to reduce obesity and food insecurity that were later adopted by other governments including the federal government, such as a ban on trans fats in restaurants and other “food service establishments,” and mandatory posting of calorie counts on restaurant menus. Not all of Bloomberg’s food policy initiatives were successful. Most famously his Board of Health’s effort to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in containers larger than 16 ounces was invalidated in the courts. (Healthy At Last also emphasizes that individuals should reduce their consumption of sugar. p. 78-80).
As Mayor, Adams would have multiple opportunities to increase consumption of plant-based foods in New York City. Some of his ideas might be copied by other cities, states and the federal government. Depending on what vested interests he opts to take on, and how he does it, his administration’s food policies could add to the diet of local government law scholars, particularly if interest groups challenge his administration’s policies in the courts. Attention to food law and policy is growing. The local and state dimension of the field may get more focus if Adams is elected and seeks to use governmental levers to encourage more people to switch to plant-based diets.