Editor’s Note: Eric Adams is the mayor of New York City and a former New York state senator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
America’s food system is feeding a public health crisis. From obesity to type 2 diabetes, that crisis is escalating quickly – and we must act now. Major advances have been made in addressing hunger and malnutrition, but it’s long past time for us to shift our focus from calories to nutrition, to help Americans get – and stay – healthy.
The American way of eating today is focused on profit, not progress, on empty calories and fast food, not on health. As mayor of New York City, I see the effects of this firsthand. About 1.4 million people in our city are experiencing food insecurity, according to New York City’s 2021 Food Metrics Report – even as more than half of the adult population is overweight or obese, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, as the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health points out, nearly 1 in 5 of our children are already overweight, putting them at risk of lifelong health issues and chronic illnesses.
This issue is personal for me.
One morning in 2016, I woke up and couldn’t see the numbers on my alarm clock. I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with Type 2 diabetes. He told me I might have my driver’s license revoked due to vision loss, and I might have permanent nerve damage in my fingers and toes.
I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on insulin. So, I did something scientific: I Googled “reversing diabetes.” Through that search, I ended up connecting with Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn at the Cleveland Clinic, who told me I could treat my diabetes with lifestyle changes, including overhauling my diet and exercising.
I was skeptical at first. But reducing meat and dairy consumption in favor of fresh produce and grains made an immediate difference in my health – and the long-term benefits have been transformative. Within three months, I lost significant weight, lowered my cholesterol, restored my vision and reversed my diabetes. I recognize that many people don’t have access to specialists like Esselstyn who can personally talk through the ins and outs of nutrition, and it may not be possible for everyone to reverse a diabetes diagnosis with a lifestyle change or even with medication, but I have made it my mission to use what I learned and increase New Yorkers’ access to a high-quality, affordable, nutritious diet, so that more people can avoid diseases in the first place.
The disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on Black and brown communities was tragically compounded by existing diet-driven health disparities. While higher-income neighborhoods have overwhelming options when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, low-income communities of color often live in nutritional deserts with fewer grocery stores and a higher concentration of processed foods, sugary drinks, and shelf-stable products.
From the start, my administration has centered food and public health in every aspect of our policymaking.
We are investing in our food infrastructure by supporting the renovation of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the Bronx, one of the largest wholesale distribution centers in the world in a largely Black and brown community, and one that provides an estimated 25% of the city’s produce.
Last spring, we launched Plant-Powered Fridays in all our public schools, and we are upgrading 100 school kitchens across the five boroughs to serve our children and educators better. My administration institutionalized one of the largest Good Food Purchasing program in the country and just introduced fresh produce into the nation’s only municipal emergency food system. Finally, we are expanding urban farms on our public housing properties through the New York City Housing Authority.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration will be convening the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in more than 50 years. I am proud to have convened a conference of New York City food leaders this summer to kick-start a discussion on new ideas. I shared these ideas with the White House in a letter last month.
Our efforts here in New York City have been transformative, but we can’t do this work alone. A new wave of ambitious federal action is necessary to turn the tide on diet-related disease in our city and across the country. We must address the ongoing crisis of poor diet, economic inequality and chronic disease. This historic White House conference, with an agenda that touches on many of these issues, will highlight the need for change – and hopefully put forth ideas to guide that change.
For our schools, we need to source fresh, local produce and stop the predatory advertising of junk food to our children. We also should think locally, investing in urban food production, regional food networks and last-mile distribution.
I am grateful to our congressional leaders and to the Biden-Harris administration for their commitment to bringing an end to hunger, increasing access to healthy food choices and addressing the leading causes for diet-related diseases and death within our communities.
Now is the time for our country to make the shift from treatment to prevention, from feeding the illness to giving people the tools to build sustainable lifestyles and healthier, stronger communities.