Helen Rosenthal is the Councilmember for District 6. Helen’s office helps thousands of residents stay in their homes, providing monthly housing clinics with free legal service. Through her legislation, Helen has almost doubled the income requirement to qualify for rent stabilization for both seniors and people with disabilities. Helen heard from hundreds of parents, teachers, and residents, about school rezoning and supported the parents who voted to approve new zone lines to alleviate overcrowding and concentrated poverty. She has empowered workers, giving them a fair share of their work, through her worker cooperatives initiative. Helen continues to make our streets safer, our schools stronger, and our parks greener.
At City Hall, Helen introduced legislation to recognize Meatless Monday in New York and encourages residents to eat more plant-based meals once a week. Helen has also fought for animal rights and humane treatment throughout her tenure. She was a proud co-sponsor of legislation, which recently passed, to ban the use of wild and exotic animals in public performances. Further, she co-sponsored and passed a series of bills in 2014 that heighten pet shops code and standards throughout the City. You can learn more about Helen at www.helen2017.com.
Caryn: Hello everybody! Hello. How are you? I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food. I happen to be in the Manhattan Studio at Progressive Radio Network and we are video streaming, not just audio streaming today. So, if you want to say hi visually, hi! I’m here. You know…you can call in with comments and questions any time during this program today, any other time. The number is 1-888-874-4888. Fantastic! We have a great show today. I’m really looking forward to it. On the way here, walking to the studio, I was so excited because I discovered that there’s a new location of Beyond Sushi and it’s right on 37th Street in Manhattan. Very close to the theater district. There’s never really been for a long time a good place to get vegan food if you’re going to a Broadway show. Although there are plenty of great restaurants in the area, but not completely vegan. Now we have 2 and Beyond Sushi is one of them. If you have a chance, check them out. They are phenomenal. The other one, which maybe I will talk about later today, is P.S. Kitchen. I happened to be there a few days ago. I’m quite excited about that restaurant too. But, lets bring on my guest. We have Helen Rosenthal. She is the Council Member for District 6 here in New York City. Helen’s office helps thousands of residents stay in their homes, providing monthly housing clinics with free legal service. Through her legislation, Helen has almost doubled the income requirement to qualify for rent stabilization for both seniors and people with disabilities. Helen heard from hundreds of parents, teachers, residents about school re-zoning and supported the parents who voted to approve new zone lines to alleviate over crowding and concentrated poverty. She’s empowered workers, giving them a fair share of their work through her worker cooperative initiative. Helen continues to make our streets safer, our schools stronger, and our parks greener. At City Hall, she introduced legislation to recognize “Meatless Monday” in New York and encourages residents to eat more plant-based meals once a week. Helen has also fought for animal rights and humane treatment through her tenure. She was a proud co-sponsor of legislation, which recently passed which we talked about on this program, to ban the use of wild and exotic animals in public performances. You can learn more about Helen at helen2017.com. Helen, welcome to It’s All About Food!
Helen: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be on your show.
Caryn: Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time. I can imagine being part of the NYC Council that you are very busy.
Helen: A little bit. But this is important. What we put in our bodies. How we keep ourselves healthy is critical so I love talking about this.
Caryn: Well it’s my favorite subject, food. Now I had the opportunity to meet you, maybe a month ago or so and there was a nice gathering in Manhattan. We spoke briefly. But it was exciting for a lot of us because you made an announcement about your particular eating habits and I just wanted to talk about that a little bit. Why you made those decisions and how you came to it?
Helen: Well, over the past, I think this was over the past 6 months. Truly, over my lifetime I’ve been quasi-vegetarian. But, in December I really started being aware of how food affected my body and how I felt and learned more about a plant-based diet. I also came to realize that I have some major allergies. Which makes it a little easier for me to be vegan. I’m really allergic to milk and also night shade vegetables. So unfortunately potatoes, tomatoes and peppers are out for me. And mushrooms, which I love. But no wonder my face was so blotchy my whole life. Anyway, I’ve cut out everything and am really eating and enjoying a plant-based diet. It wasn’t hard to do because it has made me feel so much better. I don’t have stomachaches anymore, my face isn’t erupting. There are so many things going on in the world that we cannot control. What we put in our mouths is something we can. I have found it, I mean you were just talking about new restaurants in the City; I have found it not to be difficult to eat a vegan diet. I go out to eat. Today I was at a restaurant that’s not vegan but more and more and certainly at this place, the “V” is showing up on the different items so you can rest assured what you are putting in your mouth. I love having that control. I’m a big eater. I really like food. This has been the greatest thing.
Caryn: Really glad to hear about that. I just want to add an aside. There are a gazillion different kinds of plant foods so the world is vast, there’s a lot of variety. If you can’t eat something, that’s OK there’s just so many other things out there. But, as the inflammation from eating the wrong foods gets resolved, and you heal, you may be able to eat some of those foods that caused you a problem. Just something to think about in the future.
Helen: Maybe. I don’t know. I have to say, well I have to go to the Doctor for sure, but little bumps that had been appearing on my body that are natural with aging are actually dissipating and going away.
Caryn: Because they’re not natural with ageing!
Helen: Thank you. The house I grew up in it was natural with aging, but not for me I guess anymore.
Caryn: Great, well this is great news. I want to know, I don’t know how many people are familiar with New York City and our government here, but can you tell me what the Council does and starting with how much you get to spend in the New York City budget?
Helen: The New York City budget is around 85 billion dollars. It’s the fourth largest budget of any municipality, including states, in the United States. The responsibility of a Council Member is threefold- one to hold oversight hearings about how the Mayor is choosing to spend that 85 billion dollars and push back or make changes at the end of the day it’s the Council that passes the budget. We also have the responsibility for land use, where anyone who wants to build something that’s out of what their allowed to do, it’s the City Council that votes on whether or not they can do that. Third, to connect people to city services. As you mentioned in the beginning, I have a storefront office in my district where we see thousands of people and our job is to connect them to city services. Sometimes when that’s not happening enough, we will bring city services to the district. Over the last few weeks, we’ve brought the Department of Finance into my office and offered people the opportunity to come just right around the corner, they don’t have to go Downtown, to sign up to freeze their rent. For example, if they’re seniors and they’re in rent regulated homes. In terms of how much money each Council Member gets, it’s a drop in the bucket in the context of the budget but it can lead to meaningful support in somebody’s district. Roughly every year, the city sets aside 5 million dollars; at least that’s what it’s been during my tenure. 5 million dollars in capital expenditures and I’ve been able to use that money to invest in our local schools and parks and senior centers. If a principal says to me that they need a new science lab or library or computers, I can actually allocate funds that way. Similarly, on the expense side, we’re given funding to support whatever we want but I support art education in school, primarily and also funding for art programs in senior centers and in our public housing. One thing that the City Council, about 20 members of the 51 member body, one thing that we do is turn over 1 million, at least 1 million of that 5 million dollars to the residents who live in the district and they are the ones who both suggest the ideas of what should be funded, and then do the final vote. Whatever the final tally comes up with, that funding goes in as the resident’s of this district has chosen. The process if called participatory budgeting. It’s a mouthful, but basically in the fall we let people know if they want to volunteer to work on this project, come up with ideas, shape them into real projects that the city would fund. Over the last 3 years, we usually go from about 80 ideas, just things people are brainstorming about, down to about 12 or 15 that actually get on the ballot. Then, over the years, we’ve upped our numbers. Our first year roughly 2,000 people voted. This past year it was 3,000. In our district, anyone who is 14 years or older can vote. It has nothing to do with electoral politics, so you don’t have to be registered but it would be helpful if you came with your ConEdison bill or your driver’s license or school ID. Then, people vote! This year we voted online, too. Very exciting.
Caryn: Yes. Very exciting. People need to realize that they do have a say and they can be heard. You just have to get involved.
Helen: Absolutely. By the same token, I want to hear from everyone but there are maybe times when I come to a different conclusion than somebody else comes to. I make it a point to always hear everyone out. That’s very important.
Caryn: My focus is food.
Caryn: I believe that food can solve a lot of problems and cause a lot of problems. We’ve seen in a variety of different places. For example, in schools when a school decides to kind of get old fashioned and have their lunch room serve freshly made meals, not meals that are just add water from a packet and stir it up, but freshly made meals. The behavior of the students improves. The performance of the student improves. Excellent nutrition can only do good things. I also believe that the costs go down because it’s believed that serving fresh, healthy food is expensive and it doesn’t have to be. Beans are the cheapest things that we can eat and they’re so good for us. So, what’s going on with the Council in terms of food and food policy that we can get involved and excited about?
Helen: I think one of the most important things is addressing hunger. The issues of poverty. The City Council has pushed very hard to make sure that anyone can have lunch or breakfast at school. So, we’ve done away with charging people. Anyone can get a free lunch. That’s critical. I don’t think we’ve gone far enough though in terms of serving healthy foods. There are non-profit groups that come into some schools if the principal will let them and bring healthier eating habits to the school and healthier eating choices. They’re not; it’s not the Department of Education’s policy yet to do that. I have a school in my district where one of the leaders in wellness in the school sent his child there and their lunch room is not set up for a full kitchen or even a kitchen at all. So, they have not been able to have healthy foods. We have to push harder to fix that problem. I think the schools have to, can’t be stopped by something like that. There has to be work arounds or other solutions. Whenever a principal says to me they want to do it but they can’t, we have to work harder to find solutions. I’m still looking for a non-profit in the area that would lend their kitchen to this school and just transfer the freshly cooked food over from the non-profit to the school. But, bad bad food habits are entrenched in our country because so much of unfortunately so many states count on dairy and corn and soy as agricultural products to sustain the state. That’s really where we need to address the problem. Is to move those states into other industries that can serve the larger population and be just as desired. The way the Federal Government works is they subsidize the farmers who are giving the rest of the country food we shouldn’t be eating in the first place. I’m not a big fan of American cheese. Never was, never will be. That is fundamentally the root of the problem, right? Because schools are, if you want free food from the Federal Government this is the junk you get.
Caryn: Yeah. Lets talk about Meatless Mondays. You are for Meatless Mondays and what is it going to take to get that to be something that’s supported by New York City?
Helen: Fernando Cabrera who’s a Council Member from the Bronx and the other vegan in the City Council and I, have decided that in the next council should we both be re-elected, we’re going to start a vegan caucus. With the determination of this new caucus, we’re going to get it through. I think that as a whole, Council Members don’t respect the importance of resolutions as compared to changing a law. So, people don’t invest as much time and if you look, or as much energy into resolutions. If you look on the City Council website and you pull up the number of resolutions passed versus the number of laws passed, certainly laws by far outweigh the number of resolutions. A resolutions means that we can’t control, we can’t pass a law dictating this, but it is something that we would like people to do. Whether is be the State, the Federal Government, or people in their eating choices. I think that if we could get this resolution through, so many other groups including yourself on radio, or restaurateurs who want to support this, can use the fact that the City has passed this resolution as a call for people eating meatless at least once a week. I come from a public health background so the second someone had suggested this to me it resonated immediately. I’m very proud to be the one carrying this resolution. We just have to get it passed. We have to get our colleagues to take it seriously, which I have every intention of doing in the next council.
Caryn: Excellent. Well resolutions are not binding, but they start to conversation and they put the idea out there and it’s a great opportunity for some free marketing in terms of press releases and different media outlets taking advantage to announce it and then people can get curious and learn more about it.
Caryn: I support it resolutions.
Helen: Exactly. Would you have me on when we pass it? I’d love to have our victory conversation.
Caryn: Yeah! And then we’ll go over to Beyond Sushi or somewhere and celebrate with some healthy food.
Helen: Absolutely. Although I have to say I’d invite you to my district so we might go to Candle Cafe or Blossom…
Caryn: OK, no problem.
Helen: But I hear you!
Caryn: Yes. Well the studio is here on 37th, which is right down the street from Beyond Sushi. But everyone that listens knows how big a fan I am of Candle, all the Candles. And Blossom!
Caryn: I’m so glad that we have them in this city. I’ll have to confess, I’ve eaten vegan all over the world for over 30 years now. New York’s the best place for vegan restaurants.
Helen: Good to know.
Caryn: Yes. I mean there are some fun places definitely. But there’s no place like New York. OK I’m biased.
Helen: There’s so much choice.
Caryn: But, there are.
Helen: And also, I mean I think in a way that’s not surprising, people come to New York to follow their dreams and their passions. Whether it be a vegan restaurant or Broadway, to come into New York.
Caryn: Yes and I want to say if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. Vegan restaurants are making it here so we can make it anywhere!
Helen: That’s great. I love that attitude. That’s wonderful.
Caryn: So I want to thank you for supporting that into 1233 for the ban of the wild and exotic animals.
Helen: Oh, absolutely.
Caryn: I know it took 11 years to get that through.
Helen: 11 years and a terrifying the day of the vote.
Caryn: I heard about that!
Helen: But we got it through.
Caryn: It’s complicated and it’s difficult. I know a lot of people get frustrated with the Mayor for example because he’s promised things and said that he would push to get things done. But, he’s not the only one making choices. He’s got your 51 members to deal with in the Council.
Helen: That’s exactly right. Lets talk about the horse ban.
Caryn: Lets talk about it…
Helen: I’m with him 100% on that. The reality is to get a law passed you need enough people in the Council who would support it. We’re not there yet. We’re not there yet. People are opposed to it for all sorts of different reasons. Lets face it; it took 11 years to get the wild animal ban through the Council. When you want something that’s very important and it’s hard to get, it’s hard to get. That’s why it’s hard. But that doesn’t stop you. If it’s important you fight for it.
Caryn: What a lot of people don’t understand, and I got some comments with regard to this bill, 1233 the ban of wild and exotic animals using them in performance here in New York City. They were complaining that activists were wasting their time and not pushing the broader agendas of plant-based diet, not exploiting animals period, and they’re quite frustrated. In my heart, I would love that we didn’t exploit anyone or anything on this planet.
Helen: Of course!
Caryn: But, looking at history and knowing what’s going on day to day. Meeting all the people I do and the people I love and know, we don’t all agree and it’s hard to make a big step. It’s hard to make a little step. But it’s easier to make a little step, then to make a really big step.
Helen: It’s definitely true. You want to keep setting the bar higher and higher and higher. Eventually, you’ll get to where you want to be. There are legislative ideas where I’ve come in and at first wanted something. Wanted to change a certain aspect of how government works. If it’s not going to hold up to a court challenge, or it’s not going to get the support of my colleagues, then I can’t get that passed. I either have to work on the legislation itself, the idea, and get it to a place where it could pass. Or I have to wait for the right moment in time to move it through. One needs for the stuff that’s important and is a really big change, it often takes a variety of things coming together to a sweet spot where it gets through. I don’t know how far off the topic of food you want to get, or the horses, but we’ve had an opportunity to desegregate two schools on the Upper West Side. There was all of the sudden this sweet spot moment of a brand new school opening and parent leaders who would vote to desegregate. That all the sudden, that moment happened and I was so proud to stand up and support these parents who chose to want to go that way and chose to say the reason segregation exists is because people always say let’s study it more or wait until next year. There was no waiting. A brand new school was about to open. You’re either going to set it up for integration success, or not.
Helen: I’m very proud to stand with them. It’s taking a long time to get here. People have tried different things, they didn’t work. This is a plan that I think is going to work. It’s a shame that it would be opposed but sometimes you have to stand up and just do the right thing.
Caryn: Yes, well thank you Helen Rosenthal for standing up and doing the right thing as often as you do. I really appreciate that and I’m glad I got to meet you. I’m excited to see what you’ll be doing with the Council. When are you up for re-election?
Helen: There’s a primary on September 12th and so on the upper left side of Manhattan it’s all about the Democratic primary. I have two people challenging me in the primary who are running on the Democratic line. I hope people will look at my record over the last 4 years and know that I am very serious about continuing to work for them and to pass legislation that I’m still working on, including Meatless Mondays.
Caryn: OK great. Helen, I wish you all the best. Thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food.
Helen: Thanks for having me on! Keep eating!
Caryn: Keep eating! Thank you. Keep eating delicious plant food, yes thank you. That’s Helen Rosenthal, the Council Member of District 6 here in NYC. Fantastic.
Transcribed by Adella Finnan 8/22/2017