New report: CNY produces lots of food. It also has areas of food scarcity

Central New York is blessed with rich, fertile farmland and relatively good access to food

Central New York is blessed with rich, fertile farmland and relatively good access to food distribution networks.

Yet those assets are under some strain, and the region also has pockets and neighborhoods where residents sometimes have difficulty finding enough nutritious food.

A new study and report released today makes recommendations for strengthening the region’s food-related economy while also addressing the inequalities in food access.

The report, called FoodPlanCNY, was commissioned by the Onondaga County Agriculture Council and prepared through a partnership of local governments and academic institutions and an assist from a relatively new “food systems” group.

“This is more than a food plan — it’s a poverty initiative,” said Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon. He joined Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, County Legislature Chairman Dave Knapp and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry President Joannie Mahoney among others unveiling the report today at the Central New York Regional Market.

The report’s goals are to help find ways to improve the health of area residents through access to better food and nutrition, build on the existing food production and distribution network and ensure that both are achieved with respect for the environment, said lead author Matthew Potteiger, a landscape architecture professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

He noted the city of Syracuse is surrounded by productive farmland. “But much of that produce, ironically, doesn’t get into city neighborhoods,” he said.

The 100-page report starts with an assessment of the impact of the food sector in the local economy. It notes, for example, that Onondaga County has 623 farms that generate $178.5 million in annual sales and another $158.8 million in economic benefit.

But farms and farmland are under constant stress from continuing suburban development, the report notes. Onondaga County had 408,934 acres of farmland in 1935. That fell to 365,571 by 2012 and dropped further to 160,717 by 2017.

The report notes similar strains on local food distribution. Though Syracuse remains an important food hub in the Northeast, that is challenged by increasing national and global factors, such as big chains, that rely more heavily on long-stance transport.

Meanwhile other sections of the report detail the issues of food access. It notes, for example, that some neighborhoods in the city are more likely to have an abundance of convenience markets selling processed foods rather than full-service market with more healthful (and locally produced) options.

A goal of the FoodPlanCNY is to work both ends of the system together. Creating more outlets where farmers and manufacturers can sell their food could also benefit underserved communities.

These are the some of the key recommendations in the FoodPlanCNY report:

1. Strengthen the “middle” of the food system: Re-build the infrastructure and capacity of regional food distribution and processing

2. Grow community-based, healthy food environments: Support community-based process for creating diverse, resilient food environments at the county, city, and neighborhood levels.

3. Create healthy, resilient environmental systems: Link the economic advantages of a regional food system to improving environmental quality

4. Expand public space and participation in the food system: Improve access to resources necessary for a thriving food system.

5. Coordinate food system projects, planning, and policy.

That last recommendation includes a call to support the Syracuse Onondaga Food System Alliance, which started in 2019 with a mission that parallels many of the FoodPlanCNY goals.

“The partnership (SOFSA) aims to ensure the long-term viability and vitality of the region’s agricultural sector while simultaneously increasing access to healthy food and reducing the prevalence of food insecurity within the county,” the SOFSA web site says.

The FoodPlanCNY report was dedicated to the late Evan Weissman, a professor at the Syracuse University Department of Nutrition and Food Studies in Falk College. He died in early 2020 as he and Potteiger were editing the report. Weissman also helped launch SOFSA.

Read the full FoodPlanCNY report.

Don Cazentre writes for NYup.comsyracuse.com and The Post-Standard. Reach him at [email protected], or follow him at NYup.com, on Twitter or Facebook.