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A Leading NYC Mayoral Candidate Thinks Roof Farms Can Save America’s Cities

On the Eater’s Digest podcast, Eric Adams talks healthy eating, urban farming, and food deserts

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Brooklyn food pantry distributes food for Thanksgiving holiday
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams distributing food
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Later this year, the voters of America’s largest city will elect a new mayor. New York’s next leader will contend with budget crises, a small business sector in a free fall, a struggling mass transit system, a school system in open revolt, and a grieving populous. They also have an opportunity to help the city redefine itself and its values and priorities.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, one of the leading candidates in the race right now, believes food is a key component in any future recovery. Passionate about urban farming, he wants to set up a citywide network of vertical and rooftop farms that feed hospitals, schools, prisons, and beyond while educating schoolchildren and getting trucks off the road. He believes in the ability of healthy food to fight the chronic illnesses the plague Black and brown communities across the city, having reversed his diabetes diagnosis with his diet. And he believes in cutting through the bureaucracy of city government to make it all happen.

Last month, Borough President Adams came on the the Eater’s Digest podcast to discuss why food needs to be central to any conversation around environmental, economics, and health.

Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts. And read below for the full transcript of our conversation with Adams.

Amanda Kludt: Today on the show, we have Brooklyn Borough President and New York City mayoral candidate, Eric Adams. I wanted to have him on the show because he’s very passionate about rooftop farming, getting healthy food to food deserts, and using food as a weapon against chronic diseases like diabetes, which disproportionately impacts African-American communities. Borough President Adams, welcome to the show.

Eric Adams: Thank you, Amanda and Daniel. It’s great to be here and you started out, you said what I was passionate about, and I am probably one of the few people who have reached this level of government that I’m passionate about our universe. I think far too often, when you are a part of government, you become so scripted and you do not have personal narratives that makes you and it forces you to look at life in a different way. I think that the dark moments in my life, I was able to take them from being burials to plantings. It led me to a journey of realizing the universality of our coexistence, not only with our mothers, but mother earth.

I view everything through that prism. So sometimes you speak with me and you’ll say, “Okay. He’s an elected official.” Then another time, you say, “Wait a minute, this guy’s a hippie.” Then another time you’ll say, “Hey, this guy is some type of Sage.” I moved through all of these universes and it’s scary at first until people finally say, “Wait a minute, there’s more to life and our purpose than what we were told.”

AK: I love that. To that end, do you want to tell our listeners a little bit about your background, just a quick bio for those who are not familiar with your work and what you do?

EA: I was born in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the largest borough county in the city of New York out of the five, 2.6 million people, extremely diverse, moved to Queens as a child. I was arrested by police officers who assaulted my brother and I, and that’s why the movement around police reform is so important to me. But instead of saying, “Woe is me.” I say, “Why not me?” I joined the police department. I started an organization for police reform and public safety at the same time. I became a Sergeant, Lieutenant, a Captain, and retired as a Captain. I went on to become a state Senator. Then after serving four terms, I became the first person of color to be the Borough President in Brooklyn. On the way, something called chronic disease hijacked or attempted to hijack my life. I was diagnosed with type two diabetes four years ago.

I woke up one morning and I could not see my alarm clock. I lost sight in my left eye. I was losing it in my right, had constant tingling in my hands and feet. That was permanent neuropathic nerve damage that would eventually lead to amputation, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, the American package. Instead of following the American route of using a prescription, I decided to use plants. In three weeks, after going through a whole full plant-based diet, my vision came back three months later, my diabetes went into remission, the nerve damage went away, and I dropped 35 pounds. I like to tell people I don’t have a six pack. I have a case now.

AK: That is remarkable. One of the reasons I wanted you on here is because you have ideas around rooftop farming. You’ve talked about how Queens and the Bronx were farmland originally. So can you talk about what you’d like to do there and what kinds of businesses you’d like to build for the city?

EA: I’m in this place where one solution solves a multitude of problems. So we were an agrarian economy at one time. We’re cycling out of COVID. We are going to have a real problem around food. COVID reveals that comorbidities and preexisting conditions led to a higher rate of hospitalizations and deaths. We’re dealing with food deserts throughout our entire city, particularly in economically challenging communities. So look at all of those areas and now say to ourselves, “Our environment is going through a terrible time because there are too many trucks on the road. So why not use our rooftops? Why not look at using vertical farming, using everything from hydroponics, and let’s start with our school system.” We feed 960,000 children a day.

AK: Wow.

EA: Why not say, “Let’s turn to food.” And by growing the food using rooftops, using classrooms, using empty factory spaces, the person who invents and expands this system now will have enough money to leverage long contracts. So if I go to the companies and state that, “Hey, I’m going to give you a five year guarantee contract that you’re going to grow the vegetables and some of the fruits that you’re about to provide to our school system,” you now can leverage that to go into the science and to expand. What do we do in the process? You’re going to teach my young children a nutritionally-based education so they can learn this multibillion dollar industry of urban farming. They’re going to be skillful in it. And these are the jobs of the future, because 40 percent of the jobs we’re training our children for now won’t be available because of computer learning and artificial intelligence. But we’re always going to eat.

Then we take the trucks off the road that are feeding our Department of Education. Then we have the children built into this civic educational plan of identifying food desert, food apartheid, and do nutritionally-based education in their communities so that you can go into the bodegas and local stores and storefronts and start making available fresh fruits and vegetables. Then we go to the Department of Correction and start feeding them healthy meals instead of the meals we’re feeding them. Then we supply them to the hospitals. So this will continue to expand based on the buying power and the leverage we have as a city.

Daniel Geneen: So have you actually been able to incentivize or figure out ways to incentivize or mandate some farms in Brooklyn already, or is this something you’re thinking about for the future?

EA: It’s here. We put a substantial amount of money into our schools, the Department of Education, one of the largest school systems in the country, and we put a substantial amount of money into schools with children, learning how to deal with growing food in the classroom. We partnered with an amazing organization called Farmshelf, and look at what happened with this group that we partnered with. They have this sort of unit that’s the size of a refrigerator with a growth of vegetables inside of the refrigerators in the classroom. The children are connecting with local public housing to give the freshly grown food to. But the children in this school, Democracy Academy, it was an alternative high school where the children were not coming to class. When we bought a couple of units and allowed them to be engaged with this farming inside the classroom, urban farming, the teacher said, “We can’t get them out of the school.”

They found a purpose. Education is not feeding the creative energy of children. They’re not into this rote learning. They’re not into not being able to really look at their creative energies and find purpose. So some of the programs we have in the Department of Education, they have been extremely successful. We are trying to turn a public housing development called Marlboro Projects, we want to spend close to $13 million to build a two-story greenhouse that’s going to teach farming, education around farming, and how to deal with food deserts. The bureaucracy that’s in the way is unbelievable. We have been working on this project for about three years and that’s one of the problems we’re having. Too many people in government just don’t get it.

DG: Is it about getting the money together or is it about building it? What signatures do you need that you’re having trouble getting?

EA: Great question. It’s not about the money. I am allocating the money. We already have the money. The money is sitting there waiting to be spent. We have dueling rules and codes in our city and we don’t have a universal plan on, “Okay. We want to do urban farming. We want to do rooftop farms. We want to do vertical farming.” So our city and the city’s zoning and policies are stuck in the 20th century when the entire planet is evolving, technology is evolving. So when you go to people in these various agencies, they are professional naysayers, they say, “Well, we can’t do that.” And you say, “Why?” “Because we’ve never done that.”

DG: Right.

AK: Do you think there are opportunities for private/public partnerships here too, working with a lot of the landlords who might be looking for new opportunities to use their real estate right now?

EA: Yes. I think that is something that we are exploring because when you think about everyone is going to take a financial hit or through COVID, when I save, I diversify my savings. So if one part of my savings, a stock or my CDs go down, at least I’ve diversified it enough, but now landlords must start thinking outside the box. How do you diversify your plan? How do you diversify your buildings? We see that in some of the towers that are placed on buildings for cell phone usage, we can actually diversify the rooftops like some of the establishments in Industry City, The Navy Yard, they have a different greenery grown on their rooftop. Our factories have an amazing amount of rooftop space. We’re not going to grow more land, but we have millions of feet of rooftop space that is underutilized and we believe we could use it a better way to grow food in a more healthier way.

DG: Because I assume education is a key component of this, but I imagine in a dream world for you, all of the rooftops would just be growing the food for New York to eat, right? It’s not just government controlled farms. You’d want a lot of people growing their own stuff as well, right?

EA: Without a doubt. I believe that we... I think that we should return to an agrarian economy. I remember saying this to my team two years ago and they all walked out of the room and said, “He must be smoking that weed that’s illegal.” Now, they started talking to finance experts.

DG: And they’re like, “What if we grow that weed on the rooftops?”

AK: That’s how you make the money.

EA: But we partnered with NYU’s finance team there. They’re looking at it. They’re crunching the numbers and they said, “Wait a minute, this guy is onto something.” We partnered with Cornell University. People are seeing the do-ability of actually doing this, and I feel that all about rooftops can play a role. We can repurpose these rooftops to ensure that we can grow our food. We’re going to take trucks off the road ... There’s a great opportunity to redefine ourselves as a city.

DG: What is the red tape like for a private institution to grow on their rooftop? We’re very familiar with trendy restaurants having a farm on their roof and they’re like, “After your aperitif, come check out our farm,” or whatever. But if I have a big apartment complex and I’m like, “I want to turn my roof into a farm,” what kind of legal hurdles are there? Or can I just start doing it?

EA: Two pieces, Daniel. And that’s very important what you just stated and I hope listeners heard you. Racism is built into the structure of our society. We’re comfortable with a trendy restaurant in an affluent community, saying, “When you finish your tea and you finish your Merlot, now, go on up to the rooftop and we’re going to handpick some of your micro greens,” and it’s acceptable. But now, you go out to Brownsville and you have a group of residents that have stated, “We have all of this footage, all of the square feet of rooftop. We want to grow and have our gardens here.” Now, all of a sudden, the rules come out. All of a sudden, it becomes impossible to do.

It’s as though in our mind, people in economically challenged communities are not deserving of some of the finer things that we placed in other communities. So what the Department of Buildings, the Fire Department, the Department of Health, all of these different entities have not come together and started to say, “How do we make this happen?” That’s what we have to go do. I partnered with the former Councilman in Brooklyn, and we came together and said it’s time to get all of our agencies together that are in this space and come up with ways of making this happen. That is one of the goals that we have because they’re all over the place, they’re disjointed and that prevents us from moving forward. So you’ll get an approval in one agency just for another agency to be a complete contradiction of another agency.

DG: Yeah. No, it’s a great point. It’s also the perception of what they’re growing too. The trendy, New York restaurant, the perception of what’s being grown, people would be excited about it like, “Oh, that’s so cool. It’s grown right here,” but if it’s more industrial and it’s grown in a lower income neighborhood, the perception would be that it’s more like crops for feeding and not anything that people should be excited about.

EA: So true. I think that people miss the connection that we long for and we need with nature, not only with the growing of food locally, the plants are not only going to feed your body, but it feeds the anatomy of your spirit. Living in a concrete environment, not seeing the health of the food that you’re growing, not being a part of, not being connected to nature, we don’t realize it, but it plays on us and it takes away from who we are as human beings. That’s why when you go around public housing, you see a high level of violence, high level of chronic diseases, a high level of stress, mental health illnesses. It’s because of the environment people are in. I truly believe that if you turn it into a more green environment, more inclusiveness with nature, you’ll get a different outcome.

AK: I think that’s a great segue back into your personal journey. You actually just wrote a book about this, “Healthy At Last,” where you talk about how you change your diet to fight chronic disease and how in so many communities, there needs to be a push for this. There needs to be a push for eating healthier. Can you talk a little bit about your goals there and how you want to change the way that people eat in certain communities?

EA: Think about this for a moment. Three months of going to a whole food-plant based diet, and I went from losing my vision, permanent nerve damage that was reversed, diabetes was also reversed, my ulcers went away, my blood pressure normalized, my cholesterol normalized in three months. Think about that for a moment. The people, and I spent the entire ... Has it been nine months now with COVID? Every day of those nine months, I have been in the streets and I’m sure I’ve been around people who have had COVID. I’m pretty sure I was in their presence. I would deliver in masks. I moved into Borough Hall and put a mattress on the floor and I slept here and I used it as a mobilization from my office in Borough Hall.

Now, if we would have spent the last three months — we were feeding people in this city for three months — if we would have said, “On our dime, we’re giving you healthy foods. We’re not giving you nacho chips. We’re not giving you processed food. We’re going to give you healthy food like quinoa, which is one of the most nutritional meals people can have. We’re going to introduce you to new food.” We would have number one, we would have fed people, which was important. Number two, we would have started the process of building their immune system so they can have a stronger immune system to fight off COVID-19. Three, we would have started changing the habits that people are so wedded to that believe they could only eat fast food, junk food. So we were missing a golden opportunity.

My goal is, as my program is at Bellevue Hospital, was first of its kind in New York, if not America, where we’re doing lifestyle medicine. 750 people on a waiting list, 230 people are in the program and we are helping people to cycle off their disease and medicine and using this new term called, “reversing chronic diseases.” That is what I believe our hospitals should do and what I want to continue to do to show people how you use food as medicine. That is what’s important. That’s what my book wanted to point out. Many people believe that their culture is tied to the food that’s poisoning them. I wanted to give a very real, honest story of exposing my weakness. “Hey, I’m the Borough President. Yes, I’m a former state Senator, but I’m just an everyday person that I was digging my grave with my knife and fork,” and I want to show people how they can live a healthy life. That’s why my 80-year-old mother was able to reverse her diabetes, also, get off insulin after only two months of going whole food plant-based.

AK: About restaurants in general, do you have a position speaking to your constituents about how they can get out of this crisis? Like many small business owners, they have been so impacted by COVID and I’m wondering if you see a path forward for them.

EA: Yeah, especially with my small restaurants. I hear some people say restaurants are for rich people. They should try the days when I was a kid and I was a dishwasher helping my mother pay the mortgage by washing dishes in a restaurant. Restaurants are for everyday people. Inside a restaurant is a cook, is a dishwasher, waiter, waitress, busboy/girl, low skill, low salary, they’re eking out a living and we have to get our restaurants back open. I believe that a bellwether of a city, if you don’t get them up and operating, it’s an indicator of how bad your city’s doing.

I think the city can do a better job. Stop purchasing our food from outside the city and outside the state. Let’s localize the production of food. Let’s allow our local restaurants to use their kitchens to supply the food. We are providing millions of meals. Let’s allow our local restaurants to handle this distribution of food to communities and really engage them to keep them afloat, to keep people hired right here in our city. We spend too much money out of our city and I’m pretty sure other big cities are spending too much money outside of their city limits going to places that it may be cheaper in the short term, but in the long term, keeping your people employed, engaged and your small businesses open is extremely important.

AK: Awesome. I love that. Yeah.

DG: So as you look to a mayoral run, how much of this are you incorporating into your platform? Are these the kinds of things that you will be talking about constantly, or is it just a portion of your plan?

EA: A substantial portion. Our crisis, our health system, Daniel, is not sustainable. We have 30 million Americans diabetic, 84 million are pre-diabetic. We spend 80 cents on the dollar on chronic diseases. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, leading cause of non-trauma limb amputation, leading cause of kidney failure. We can’t continue to go down this road. I am really disappointed. Which presidential candidate talked about food and healthy food? What candidates running for statewide, citywide offices all across this country, who’s engaged in preventive medicine about healthy food? Everyone is talking about access to healthcare. What good is it to have a fancy hospital when you go in there to have your legs cut off because of diabetes neuropathic nerve damage? We have to become proactive and that’s my message. I’m going to use health in hospitals to ensure we have a proactive approach and give people choices, so they don’t have a lifetime of being on prescriptions, but they could have a lifetime that’s healthy on being on plants.

DG: Final thing, you said in the beginning that some people call you a hippie or sometimes you’re a hippie. All right. What does it mean to be a hippie? And are you a hippie?

EA: I think I am. I should’ve been born in the sixties. I just really... Let me tell you. I think that we had a very unique cosmic shift in a universe where people are really looking for their purpose and they’re no longer looking to just go through the motion of being on Valiums and statins and going home every day being unhappy. In Bhutan when I was there, they judged their country not by the gross national product, they judge it by the happiness of their people. We may be financially sound, but we’re emotionally bankrupt and it’s time to really start investing in what’s important and that’s family, friends and happiness.

DG: All right. Let’s grow happiness.

AK: Thank you for your work and thank you. Your book is, Healthy At Last.” It just came out in October. Everyone should check it out. Thanks so much.