City Councilman Ben Kallos has come a long way from his days at The Bronx High School of Science, though not so far from its rooftop greenhouse, where he tilled the soil as a teenager. The council member has been at the forefront of pushing New York City’s food agenda to new heights, from providing 1.1 million children with free lunches and dinners to making fresh fruits and vegetables available at NYCHA housing developments to cooking for his constituents at the Greenmarkets.
We caught up with Councilman Kallos to talk new initiatives, old favorite restaurants and where New York stands in terms of progressive food policy in America (hint: relatively speaking, we’re doing pretty well).
Edible Manhattan: Why did you want to be on City Council?
Councilman Ben Kallos: When I was in grade school, I was learning about the Talmud, I saw the arguments that the rabbis were making, and I told my rabbi I wanted to make those same arguments around the law. Rabbi said I couldn’t do that just yet, so I said, “What can I do in the meantime?” And he said, “You can be a lawyer.” That’s been my passion ever since.
Part of the values [of the Jewish faith] are Tikkun Olam (rough translation: repairing the world). We’re all here for a reason, we all have our role to play, and repairing the world as it was given to us, and my way is through this. I hope that over the next three years, one month and 25 days* I’m able to leave a lasting impact and really leave the city better than I found it and hopefully steer it in a way where it can be a light onto the rest of the nation.
EM: You’ve lived in New York almost your entire life. How have you seen it change?
BK: We’re at an amazing point: we have a progressive mayor, we have a progressive speaker, I am vice-chair for policy for the progressive caucus, and we really have a chance to make huge inroads in addressing hunger and food. In the first few months, I’ve been able to work with my colleagues on the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, to build support from other elected officials so we’re able to roll out a free lunch program for middle schools.
I grew up on the East Side, and it’s not very easy here when people are trying to keep up appearances, to be someone who’s on free and reduced lunch, especially when a lot of the neighbors and a lot of people I wanted to spend time with were equipped financially to buy food off campus and not have to eat the school lunch. Whereas for me, it was a necessity, so I was one of many children who decided to do the “cool thing” of not eating lunch and hang out because I told them I wasn’t really hungry when I was starving. What I’m hoping Lunch 4 Learning can do is remove the stigma around school food and get all kids to eat a healthy meal. This year we’ll be fighting to expand it to all 1.1 million children. If you couple that with the Breakfast After The Bell program, which is already federally funded, that means taking care of two out of three square meals for 1.1 million New Yorkers from when they start dealing with our schools until their career, which is amazing. My goal is also to find a place to get them fed dinner.
EM: What food initiatives are you working on right now?
BK: We’ve been working on a whole slew of other issues like the food policy council, where we’re working with coalition partners and trying to take the energy that came from the Mayor’s Food Forum to create a place for food advocates to have a permanent voice in government. I’m also proud to be carrying legislation which is now being called “Healthy Happy Meals” which will hopefully fight a symptom of food insecurity which is the obesity epidemic in this city by encouraging any restaurant to offer healthy options when they incentivize children.
The food issues we’re working on are too numerous to count, but beyond the policy is really the day-to-day. That means that on the first day my office was open, we got somebody emergency SNAP benefits so that they could eat that day. It means expanding access to healthy food by launching Fresh Food Box programs at NYCHA developments throughout my district; we now have three out of four covered and we’re working on expanding it to the fourth, working very closely with GrowNYC. And if you stopped by a Greenmarket this summer, you would have been treated to Cooking With Kallos, where I come out and share recipes made with food from the farmers markets and done cooking demos for constituents. We did fun with strawberries, we did a strawberry jam that we made on site; we also did a borscht with beets, and we also did a whole bunch of other recipes. Though I learned that people were more interested in talking with a councilmember than watching the cooking demos. Folks would come by, chat and then come back when the food was done.
EM: What makes food such a crucial issue?
BK: At the end of the day, it’s a primary drive when you think of helping people to grow and be better. I have a degree in psychology, and it’s really Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — we need to make sure that people have their basic needs taken care of, and that’s food and shelter. There’s a constitutional right to shelter, but in a world with so much wealth and so many excess calories it’s hard to fathom that hunger is still a problem. It just seems to be, in this current era, low-hanging fruit.
There is a lot of energy around trying to fight these issues and ultimately, as a human being, it’s frustrating to try and eat healthy and not have healthy food accessible, and when the food you think is healthy isn’t, or that’s not GMO. That’s why I co-sponsored a bill supporting GMO labeling. I think I share the same frustrations as anybody.
EM: How do you think New York City is doing compared to other cities across the nation on our food issues? Where would you place us on the scale?
BK: I think we’re on track to become a leader in the country. I think that whether it’s calorie labeling of our food in restaurants, which we were able to do; having ongoing and serious conversations around sugary drinks; Healthy Happy Meals, which was passed in San Francisco and which we were able to learn from; I think we have a chance not only to catch up but to lead.
EM: What is next on your agenda?
BK: I will miss summer. I’m going to miss Cooking with Kallos. I’m going to miss seeing the fresh food box programs as they close down for the winter months. I think my big push is going to be on Healthy Happy Meals and making sure we’re taking on obesity, and starting with the school year it’ll be expanding Lunch for Learning, and really making sure that every single resident of this city has access to food and that also means getting as many federal dollars to New Yorkers as possible. On the larger scale, it also means making sure that the food we’re feeding to our children and procuring in this city is locally sourced and sustainably farmed so that we’re supporting the local farms with our dollars.
Also, we’re hoping to get a chance to get through all the bureaucratic hurdles so that we can get raised planters at every NYCHA development and school in the district so that we can get people to connect to their food more. It’s astonishing that people don’t realize how much fruit and vegetables can be grown from a planter, and how bountiful the earth can be. When you’re talking about someone who is on low-income and has trouble getting access to fresh food, being able to grow it yourself is liberating in a way few folks are used to in New York City.
Last year we also invested a few hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a rooftop farm at a neighborhood school, P.S. 290. In fact, some of my best memories at Bronx High School of Science were at the greenhouse on its roof, where you could take a brief respite from one of the most competitive high schools in the world to water some plans.
EM: What can New Yorkers do to help make food healthier and more accessible to their fellow citizens?
BK: I think most people feel disempowered by government and don’t feel like they can have the type of impact they should. When I was speaking at the Just Food Conference, I was reminding constituents that this government belongs to them. Your readers should make sure that their elected officials know what their priorities are, and that those officials are signed on to legislation that will improve food access and will focus on food issues, and that further, they should feel empowered. We always welcome people to join us at our First Fridays, the first Friday of every month from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and they can come have a conversation with me. They can also join us for policy night, from 6:30 on the second Tuesday of every month, and it’s an opportunity to come talk about what policies they’d really like to see where there’s not movement.
I’m only one person, and I have three years, one month and 25 days left to get something done, but if somebody is passionate and willing to put the time in, they can join our office, they can volunteer, they can focus on a policy area they care about, build community support around something, and really make it happen. On the flip side, if they really do want to see it happen, they don’t have to wish for someone else to do it for them, it helps put the responsiveness in context and allows there to be mutual accountability.
EM: What does your ideal New York look like?
BK: It looks like a livable city where anywhere you might be when you’re hungry, you have access to a healthy meal. Where obesity is a thing of the past. Where children grow up healthy and begin their lives and go on to their careers having a healthy relationship with food. Where every street corner has a composting, recycling and a much, much smaller landfill bin, so that sustainability and health are primary focuses for every New Yorker and just a part of the way we live. If government can do this right, we can create a society where it is easier for individuals to lead healthy lives and minimum impact on the planet.
EM: What are some of your favorite things to grow and make at home?
BK: I do not have a garden, but I am the chef in my family. We are big fans of quinoa, and curries and anything spicy. I try to eat Kosher at home, and I tend to eat vegetarian outside my house, so I love all the city’s many vegetarian and vegan restaurants. I love Red Bamboo, it’s one of my favorites, and I took my wife on one of our first dates to Candle 79.
* The amount of time Kallos had left in office at the time of this interview.