Earlier this week the nonprofit I lead, Keep Food Legal, filed suit in New York State Supreme Court against New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office and his health department. We allege the Bloomberg administration has wrongly denied and ignored our repeated requests—first made in summer 2012—for information on the development of food policy in the city under the mayor’s leadership.
We sought to obtain the information under New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), which, like related state laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act, is one of the most important guarantors of fair and open government. As the New York State legislature declared in enacting its FOIL, “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions.”
Once we had exhausted our appeals through city administrative appeals, we were left with no choice but to sue in state court.
It’s no secret that the Bloomberg administration has been perhaps the most aggressive opponent of food freedom in the country over the last 5-10 years. Laws like the city’s trans fat ban, mandatory menu labeling law, restaurant letter grade system, ban on providing food meant for the homeless and less fortunate, and soda ban are a few examples both of the administration’s zeal and of the policies about which we sought to obtain more information. Other examples include proposals to limit salt or sodium in foods, restrict tavern licenses and happy hours, adopt so-called “Meatless Mondays,” restrict urban gardens, and crack down on food trucks.
We want the Bloomberg administration to disclose to us information that it is legally required to reveal under FOIL about the basis of these current and proposed city food policies and, importantly, about the people, groups, and federal, state, and local agencies involved in that policymaking. We then hope to review and disclose that information in order to raise public awareness about how the Bloomberg administration makes food policy and which people, groups, and agencies influence that policymaking.
I won’t speculate here whom those people and groups might be. But here’s some of what we do know already.
The city’s health department is one of several agencies around the country that has used money from federal grants doled out as part of the federal stimulus to launch various campaigns targeting food freedom, including this memorably ridiculous and offensive example.
In another instance, a New York Times columnist used FOIL in 2010 to obtain emails from the city’s health department. The emails revealed embarrassing details about overwhelming dissent both inside and outside the agency over a proposed anti-obesity campaign targeting (what else?) soda.
Internally, the emails showed health department staff found the messaging so off-base that they feared scientists would make “mincemeat” of the campaign. And an email from a Columbia University professor to health department staffers (sent at the request of the health department) suggested that adopting the policy was unsound because its “asic premise doesn’t work.” The health department head, Thomas Farley, ignored this advice and proceeded with the campaign anyways.
This battle over food freedom of information in New York City has national implications. Many opponents of food freedom around the country have hailed the Bloomberg administration as a laboratory for cooking up and testing misguided, outrageous, and often unprecedented food policies. They hope these policies will catch on across the country. I hope otherwise.
States around the country are beginning to pass so-called “anti-Bloomberg laws” to help draw a line in the sand against local opponents of food freedom. Keep Food Legal’s litigation to reveal how food policies in New York City are made can help undergird those efforts.
There’s no question that policy sausages get made in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York City only with his knowledge and approval. What Keep Food Legal wants to learn is where the sausage comes from—and who’s manning the grinder.