New York State Assembly Albany, New York 12248

News from the
Assembly Task Force on
Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy


Carl Brink with
his calf.

Photo by Doris Brink
Tioga County,
First Place;
NY Farms!
Photo Contest

Sheldon Silver, Speaker Diamond Felix W. Ortiz, Chair Diamond Fall 2001

Message from the Chair...

Chair, Felix W. Ortiz Fall, 2001

Dear Friends,

In January, I was appointed the new Chair of the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy. Although I now represent the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, I am familiar with agriculture. When I was growing up in Puerto Rico.

I worked on my grandfather’s farm. I arrived in New York as a student, I spoke only Spanish and with no job prospects government food assistance helped me as I worked to improve myself. I have a special concern regarding nutrition-related conditions because I have family members affected by diabetes and food allergies. All of these experiences help me to better understand food policy issues as I serve and assist New Yorkers all over the State.

Those of you who have met me know that I am an enthusiastic and committed legislator who will work hard on the wide variety of Task Force issues. Already this year, we have explored mad cow disease, childhood obesity, dietary supplement regulation, food allergies, farm-to-school connections, school food service needs, and donated food. You can read about the specifics elsewhere in this newsletter. I want to continue our momentum and push for concrete action in protecting our food supply, improving our nutritional health, and providing nutrition assistance for our needy children, families and seniors.

After the events of September 11th, the issue of food security has become even more important. The threat of bioterrorism is real for consumers, farmers and food businesses. Whether it is Foot-and-Mouth Disease that could be spread at dairy farms or food poisoning intentionally introduced into the food supply, we need to be vigilant. In the coming months, the Task Force will be holding meetings to determine the need for government action to prevent or respond to these concerns. Fortunately, our past hearings on food safety and animal health diseases have given us a head start. Additionally, our work to maintain a strong New York agriculture sector allows consumers the option of buying local and knowing where their food comes from.

In responding to policy issues I may develop legislation, work for funding in the State budget or use my office to bring diverse groups together to resolve a problem or highlight it in the media. All of these approaches can generate positive results as demonstrated by my successful efforts to ban hand-held cell phone use in cars in New York State.

One of my goals is to build successful coalitions by helping various groups recognize mutual interests. When farmers work with food retailers or food service directors, they can develop new markets and bring nutritious, local food to consumers. Increasing the consumption of high-quality, nutritious New York-produced foods will benefit upstate farmers, downstate consumers, food programs and businesses everywhere, a win-win for all New Yorkers.

Please feel free to contact me with your ideas and suggestions, my door is always open. I would also be very pleased to visit your community to learn more from you, so do not be surprised if I show up at your farm, business, soup kitchen or health facility. I look forward to working with all of you in the coming year to improve the quality, accessibility, safety, and affordability of food available to all New Yorkers.


Felix W. Ortiz
Chair, Assembly Task Force on
Food Farm and Nutrition Policy


Assemblyman Ortiz participates in "NY Harvest for NY Kids Week" activities with school children and farmers at the Union Square Green Market in Manhattan.

Budget News

Throughout the year, Assemblyman Ortiz, and his Assembly Majority colleagues fought hard for tens of millions of dollars in proposed anti-hunger budget additions for seniors, summer food programs, legal immigrants, Food Stamp outreach and school breakfast program incentives. However, because the State will be incurring huge costs and a drop in revenues, due to the World Trade Center attack and a downturn in the economy, it was difficult to win support for new spending. Assemblyman Ortiz was successful in securing an additional $12 million in TANF (federal welfare) surplus funds for emergency food programs. This was the third year in a row a Task Force Chair has targeted these funds for nutrition assistance. The money is sorely needed in communities where the number of unemployed are growing, families are hitting time limits on federal welfare programs, and food pantries are turning away hungry people. The budget will also continue extra TANF funding for the WIC program providing additional nutrition services for pregnant women, infants and children.

The NYC Coalition Against Hunger found that the demand for food is so strong that over 47,000 hungry people per month were turned away from soup kitchens and food pantries because the programs lacked adequate resources. At the same time, less than 50% of working New Yorkers eligible for Food Stamps are receiving them, and less than 30% of seniors who need home-delivered meals are being served. Proposed Task Force legislation (A.7004, Ortiz) would make the Food Stamp program more accessible to the working poor, provide support to local Food Stamp offices that increase participation, and provide State-funded benefits to more legal immigrants who have lost federal benefits.

In addition to anti-hunger efforts, Assemblyman Ortiz also requested funding for programs to sustain New York’s food production capacity and improve nutrition, health and safety. The child obesity and school food safety equipment initiatives are described elsewhere. The following new proposals were also requested:

Box New farmer development program Photo

The average age of farmers in NYS is over 55 years. The lack of potential replacements contributes to the continued loss of farms and farmland, a major concern among agriculturists, environmentalists and economic development advocates. However, there are many immigrants in NYC who came from agricultural backgrounds and desire to return to the land. This funding would support expansion of an existing program run by NYC Greenmarkets, Cooperative Extension and other agencies to provide training and technical assistance to NYC immigrants and other individuals who want to become farmers or farm managers.

Box Small-scale food processing

This proposal would provide economic development grants to sponsors of shared-kitchen food processing facilities. Small-scale processing programs can benefit distressed areas by providing entrepreneurship opportunities, job training, and employment, especially for women and minorities in urban and rural communities. They can also benefit the farm economy by providing value-added food production opportunities for New York farm products.

Box Food-animal safety

The threat of BSE (i.e., Mad Cow Disease), its related human disease, and Foot-and-Mouth Disease requires us to increase our vigilance to protect the State’s farm animals and maintain consumer confidence in New York meat products. This program would fund a pilot project to test New York cows and any other at-risk animals at Cornell University’s Animal Disease Lab.

Protecting Consumers

Food safety has always been a concern of the Task Force. We have cosponsored hearings in the past on the performance of our State and federal food protection agencies — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and the NYS Department of Health. This year, our hearings on Mad Cow Disease and our efforts to help school food service programs improve their food safety equipment continued that commitment. In the coming months we will be examining the threat of bioterrorism to our food supply.

Two other issues also on the Task Force agenda this year regarding protecting consumers were: the regulation of dietary supplements and increasing awareness about food allergies.

Box Dietary supplements

Nearly 160 million Americans spend over $17 billion each year on dietary supplements, such as herbal products, that some critics believe may be unsafe, ineffective and mislabeled. The recent high profile deaths of young athletes, who were taking supplements containing ephedra, just banned by the National Football League, heightened concern about supplements. The Task Force cosponsored a hearing in New York City to inform the Legislature about the adequacy of government regulation of the safety, effectiveness, labeling and health claims of dietary supplements.

Virtually all witnesses, including industry representatives, criticized FDA oversight and enforcement actions against products that make exaggerated claims or may be unsafe. Some critics voiced concerns that a 1994 federal law regulating supplements was not strong enough, and inhibited FDA from acting quickly to control the marketplace, although the FDA and the industry groups disagreed. Assemblyman Ortiz plans to develop a State response that protects consumer access to these products, while monitoring health risks and assuring both product quality and valid, reliable information on labels and promotional materials.

Box Food allergies

More deaths are caused by food allergies than by any other allergy, including insect stings and medication reactions. Children with both a food allergy and asthma are at a higher risk for fatal reactions. The FDA and medical researchers report that six to seven million Americans, two million of them children, have food allergies, including three million with an allergy to peanuts or tree nuts. Every year, approximately 2,000 hospitalizations and 200 deaths occur. Even a very small amount of a food allergen may be fatal to an allergic person.

Food allergy activists are pushing for:

Box improved food labeling;
Box oversight by regulatory agencies;
Box better production and preparation methods to prevent allergenic foods from contaminating other products;
Box improved training for food service workers;
Box public education about the problem; and,
Box increased availability of epinephrine, a drug used to treat allergy-induced anaphylactic shock.

Assemblyman Ortiz plans to convene a meeting with food manufacturers, restaurant organizations, school health officials, medical professionals, Emergency Medical Technicians, and food allergy activists to discuss potential solutions to the severe dangers faced by affected individuals, their families, and schools or other institutions caring for food-allergic children.

Strawberries Peanuts Peppers Lobster

Child Nutrition

Every day, school cafeterias in New York State serve nearly 2 million lunches and breakfasts, with revenue to the schools of over one-half billion dollars. These programs provide opportunities to improve our children’s health and educational achievement, and support our local food economies. The Task Force has worked on several issues this year affecting food programs and schools.

Box Farm-to-school

Millions of school meals are served everyday. However, besides the carton of milk, not much of the food served comes from local farms. The Task Force worked with farm and school food service advocates to develop bill A.7684 (Ortiz), that would create a farm-to-school program to help increase local farmers’ share of the school food service market. The legislation would require the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Education Department to exchange and disseminate information to school districts and other educational institutions interested in purchasing New York farm products, and to New York farmers, farm organizations and businesses that market New York farm products.

New York State government should maximize opportunities to use government funding for school meals to purchase nutritious, locally produced foods to benefit the health of students, our local economies and environment, and provide new opportunities for upstate/downstate and city/rural residents to support each other. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting approval by the Governor.

Box Donation of unused food from schools

Even when school lunch managers run very efficient food service operations, excess food is often left over. When schools experience bad weather, high absenteeism or other unforeseen circumstances that result in food that would be thrown out, they can and should provide it to the emergency food assistance network. A Task Force bill, A.4089-a (Ortiz), would authorize the State Education Department and the Department of Health, the agency interacting with emergency food programs, to develop a program to assist schools that wish to donate excess, edible food. The schools would continue to follow federal and State rules designed to minimize food waste and meet food safety guidelines. A.4089-a passed the Assembly this year.

Box School breakfast program incentive

Research studies have demonstrated that school breakfast programs lead to improved academic performance among low-income children and reduce tardiness and absenteeism. The Task Force sponsored a 1993 law to expand school breakfast programs. However, due to scheduling problems, lack of promotion and outreach, and administrative neglect, New York has a low percentage of children participating in the breakfast program, compared to the national average of other states. This situation is counterproductive to the rest of the efforts undertaken by the State and school districts to improve educational standards and performance. Task Force bill A.7002 (Ortiz) would provide a financial incentive to school administrators to remove barriers to participation and provide an additional tool to ensure that the millions of dollars the State spends on improved educational outcomes are used effectively.

Box Food safety equipment

Many school meal programs are using cooking and storage equipment that is outdated. This equipment needs constant repair and is energy inefficient. Federal food safety standards are becoming more stringent and many schools will have to upgrade their facilities. Assemblyman Ortiz has proposed creating a State fund that would allow schools to purchase new, efficient equipment to keep food safe in schools.

If you have any questions or comments about the issues discussed in this newsletter, please contact:
Assemblymember Felix W. Ortiz
Room 542 Legislative Office Building
Albany, New York 12248
(518) 455-3821

Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy
Room 547 State Capitol
Albany, New York 12248
(518) 455-5203

Animal Health and Food Safety Concerns Addressed at Hearings

Assemblyman Ortiz cosponsored two public hearings, in Albany and New York City, and a roundtable discussion at Cornell University to examine emerging food-related animal health diseases, including Mad Cow Disease (i.e., Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE) and Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD). The outbreak of these two diseases in Europe has raised concerns in the United States.

In the 1980s, researchers found that cows contracted BSE from eating animal feed contaminated with animal parts. Animal feed was often mixed with discarded animal parts as an inexpensive way to boost the protein content. In addition to animal health problems, BSE has been linked to a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), a fatal neurological disease in humans, which has killed nearly 100 people in the United Kingdom (UK). vCJD is believed to be caused by eating beef products that were infected with certain proteins — called prions — that also cause BSE in cows. The problem prions survive heating and other treatments that usually sterilize potentially contaminated products such as meat, feed and even surgical instruments.

FMD is a highly communicable viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing animals, such as cows, pigs, sheep, and deer. It causes painful lesions in the mouth and on hooves. It also affects milk and meat production. Because the virus can live on humans, vehicles, hay, feed, water, and even be spread through the air, FMD is extremely difficult to control. FMD spreads so widely and rapidly that it is the most dreaded animal disease faced by farmers.

Over the last 10 years, millions of cattle have been destroyed to prevent the spread of BSE in Europe. During the past year, FMD outbreaks have also led to the destruction of millions of cattle and sheep in Europe, mainly in the UK. Although BSE, FMD and vCJD have spread from the UK to other European countries, there are no known or suspected cases of BSE or vCJD in the US to date, and there have been no cases of FMD here since 1929. FMD is not considered a threat to human health, and there is no link between BSE and FMD other than their presence in animals. However, both diseases are a serious potential threat to animal agriculture in New York and the rest of the country.

The hearings were held to address public unease about FMD, BSE and vCJD. The potential for FMD to dramatically affect New York’s animal agriculture industry is great. There is often confusion about the differences between BSE and FMD. Questions have been raised, in relation to these diseases, about the safety of animal feed, food, blood, human organs, surgery, autopsies and other potential routes of disease transmission. Many believe that prevention and public education efforts here need to be improved.

Several witnesses testified that more testing of cows and further restrictions on animal feed would be beneficial to help protect New York agriculture and the food supply. Others, including State officials and agricultural organizations, assured the panel that federal and State regulatory efforts were adequate to protect farmers and consumers.

Assemblyman Ortiz believes more needs to be done, especially to prevent BSE. He wrote to President Bush calling for an expanded federal ban on the use of animal parts in animal feed. Great Britain has banned the use of all mammalian animal parts in animal feed, while the US bans the use of most mammalian parts in ruminant feed. Ortiz feels the US approach relies too heavily on correct labeling and record-keeping to make sure the right feed is given to the right animals. The hearing revealed that implementation of these federal rules can be inconsistent.

In the absence of federal action, Ortiz introduced legislation, A.7931, that would authorize the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets to establish a program to certify feed mills and farms that did not produce or use feed containing any animal parts including meat, bone, blood, gelatin and any other potentially risky components. The animals from those farms — and food produced from those animals — could also be certified. The McDonald’s Corporation recently asked its meat suppliers to certify that no meat and bone meal were fed to their cattle. A State certification program would allow restaurants, stores, schools and consumers to identify meat and other foods that meet standards as strict as or stricter than the UK and McDonald’s. This program would enable our farmers to successfully market their meat products to concerned consumers here in New York State, around the country and overseas.

The Task Force Chair also called for more BSE testing of cows here in New York as a demonstration project at Cornell University. However, Assemblyman Ortiz discovered that Cornell’s Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory would not meet the standards for performing these tests because its labs need to be upgraded and such projects require increased funding. He called on the Governor to increase support for the Cornell lab, so it could contribute to testing and monitoring all emerging diseases. Now that bioterrorism is a threat, these improvements are more important than ever. Ortiz also urged federal and State health officials to increase monitoring of CJD cases to assure New Yorkers that the food-related vCJD will not affect us.


Assemblyman Ortiz serves meals at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen on Hunger Awareness Day

Task Force Addresses Childhood Obesity Epidemic


Miss New York State, Kelly M. Falgiano, who campaigns to improve children’s health, joins Assemblyman Ortiz to promote legislation which would address the problem of childhood obesity.

In March, Assemblyman Ortiz sponsored a roundtable meeting on childhood obesity in Manhattan. Experts in childhood obesity from the leading New York medical centers and nutritionists from other organizations and private practice came together to define the problem and examine solutions. Topics included childhood obesity and its relationship to: diseases such as diabetes; emergency food programs; media; schools; and, pediatricians.

Research statistics indicate an "epidemic" of childhood obesity. The rate of childhood obesity has been on the rise both nationally and in New York State. The percentage of American children who are obese has doubled in the past 30 years. Currently, 20% of New York school children are overweight; in fact, New York State has a higher childhood obesity rate than the national average.

Black and Latino children have somewhat higher rates of obesity than White children: 22% of Black, 20% of Latino, and 19% of White sixth grade children are overweight in New York City. In Warren County, 42% of the children in a Head Start program were at risk for obesity as were 46% in a middle-school based health program. Over 45% of these obese middle-school students had high blood pressure.

Childhood obesity increases the risk of adult obesity with its well-known health complications. This past year, studies found an alarming increase of high blood pressure, sleep apnea, Type II diabetes, and decreased physical ability in obese children.

Overweight children are more likely to skip breakfast, consume larger quantities of high calorie snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, spend more time watching television, and be a member of a low-income household. Studies have shown that by ninth grade, about 70% of females and 50% of males do not participate in vigorous physical activity. The average child from 6 to 11 years of age watches 25 hours of TV a week and sees 10,000 food ads a year.

Children who are less active typically are stuck at home because their parents work late, playing outdoors may not be safe, and recreational programs are limited. Families with busy parents are also eating more food prepared out of the home and in many communities, especially low-income areas, the range of food choices is not the best. Restaurant meals and take-out food, consisting of larger portion sizes and higher calorie choices, now account for over 30% of a family’s food expenditures. A recent study suggests an extra soft drink a day gives a child a 60% greater chance of becoming obese. Although there may be medical reasons for increased obesity in children, we also need to look at societal changes.

Assemblyman Ortiz introduced legislation, A. 7939, that would create a Childhood Obesity Prevention Program in the NYS Department of Health. The program would:

Box develop media campaigns to increase consumption of low-calorie, high-nutrient foods and decrease consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods;
Box establish school-based and community-based childhood obesity prevention programs including physical activity;
Box incorporate strategies to prevent and reduce childhood obesity into government programs;
Box sponsor conferences to examine societal-based solutions to the problem of childhood obesity and issue recommendations for NYS policy; and,
Box develop training programs for medical and other health professionals.

This program would receive funding, initially $1 million, from a portion of State sales tax revenue from taxable foods which, in New York, are some of the very products that contribute to obesity: soda, candy, other nonessential foods, fast food and other prepared food.

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