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Sprouting Change: How New York City is Becoming Plant-Forward

The Deputy Director of New York City's Mayor's Office of Food Policy updates us on the plant-forward efforts in New York City Public Schools.

Since Mayor Adams took office in January 2022, New York City has made considerable progress in promoting healthy and delicious foods through several initiatives, with the bottom line being if the city is serving food, it will be plant-forward, and it will taste good. 

Since 2019, New York City Public Schools has been delivering tasty meals through its Meatless Mondays program and in 2022, they added Plant-Powered Fridays to give students even more culturally diverse and tasty options. All of these initiatives have been rooted in student engagement with a Chef’s Council, and students across the city have offered robust feedback to help ensure the food is healthy and enjoyable. Additionally, across all 11 of NYC’s public hospitals, plant-based meals are served daily by default as the “Chef’s Special” for both lunch and dinner. And in alignment with the NYC Food Standards, all city agencies serve at least one plant-based protein each week in their lunch and dinner entrees. 

These initiatives underscore the City’s dedication to combat chronic disease and promote access to healthy food. The alarming reality is that diet-related chronic diseases claim the lives of millions of Americans each year, as healthcare tends to focus on treating symptoms of these illnesses rather than addressing their underlying causes. A growing body of research indicates that embracing a diet centered around whole plant foods — notably a variety of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds — can prevent, treat, and bring into remission common diet-related chronic diseases plaguing the people of NYC and the nation, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

A focus on minimally processed, whole plant foods is not only central to our plant-powered initiatives in schools. It is also a fundamental pillar of our NYC Health + Hospitals (H+H) Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Programs. These programs offer individualized support from an interdisciplinary team of experts, including a doctor, nurse practitioner, registered dietitian, health coach, exercise trainer, behavioral health specialist, and community health worker. Since its inception at Bellevue Hospital in 2019, the model has been shown to successfully treat type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic conditions. 

Furthermore, the plant-based default program across NYC hospitals has achieved a 95% patient acceptance rate. While only 1% of patients opted for the plant-based meal prior to the program’s implementation, now an estimated 50% of patients choose the plant-based option, with the remainder opting for animal-based alternatives. This not only marks a crucial step towards addressing the growing chronic disease crisis but also serves to foster environmental sustainability and financial savings, as this initiative has led to a 36% reduction in food-related carbon emissions as well as cost-savings of $500,000 in the past year alone.

These achievements have recently garnered notable national recognition. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 91st Annual Meeting last June, over 1,400 mayors ratified a resolution endorsing the adoption of NYC’s plant-based approach as a response to the nation’s persistent chronic disease, environmental, and fiscal challenges. This approach includes advancing Lifestyle Medicine in hospitals and healthcare systems, introducing more plant-based options in schools, hospitals, and other social service settings, and promoting plant-forward eating through targeted public awareness campaigns.

Others on the national stage have recognized the promise of embracing this plant-forward approach. This summer, Congressman Jim McGovern visited H+H’s Culinary Center, a Brooklyn-based facility dedicated to preparing the meals served in hospitals across NYC, to learn more about our plant-based default programs as well as Lifestyle Medicine clinics. Following the visit, the Congressman expressed that he will continue to explore implementing programs like those at H+H, both in Massachusetts hospitals and, eventually, on a national scale.  

Ultimately, change is hard. However, New York City has shown that when we come together, we can find healthy, delicious, and sustainable ways to tackle our healthcare issues, improve our food systems, and save money along the way. 

So, join us in this journey whether you are a student, community, member, school administrator, healthcare worker, or policymaker. We encourage New Yorkers to find small ways to incorporate healthy, plant-based food part of their routine while working in their community to improve access to healthy food and create a more sustainable food system, whether that's by supporting their local community garden or visiting their local farmers market, there are many small steps we as citizens of this world can take to make our food system more healthful and sustainable for all. 

Rachel Atcheson currently serves as Deputy Director of New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Food Policy as well as At-Large Director of the SUNY Downstate Committee on Plant-Based Health and Nutrition. She previously served as Adams’s Deputy Strategist focusing on plant-forward food policy in the City by contributing to the establishment of Meatless Mondays in NYC public schools, the launch of the lifestyle medicine programs in NYC Health+Hospitals, and other public health and sustainability initiatives around plant-based nutrition.

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