Tompkins County Council of Governments
for August 9, 2023
by Councilperson Robert Lynch
Enfield TCCOG Representative
The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) met on July 27, 2023. I had pre-filed a Resolution asking TCCOG’s membership to urge Governor Kathy Hochul to veto pending legislation that would move all town elections and many county elections from odd years to even years. The Tompkins County Legislature June 20th urged such a veto, even though our Enfield Town Board earlier had not chosen to do so. Yet at the July TCCOG meeting, the clerk acknowledged she had inadvertently overlooked my proposed resolution in her inbox and not circulated it among other members. TCCOG agreed to delay taking up my resolution at that late point in their meeting. Should Governor Hochul have not acted on the legislation by TCCOG’s next meeting, September 28, TCCOG will consider it then.
Two major presentations consumed most of TCCOG’s July meeting.
1. Tompkins County Food System Plan: Don Barber, former TCCOG founding Chair and now Chair of the Tompkins County Food Policy Council, spend nearly 45 minutes both detailing the preliminary findings of the Food System Plan’s so-called “Roadmap for our Future,” and fielding TCCOG members’ questions. Stated most succinctly, the “Roadmap” encourages efforts to: 1) increase the local production of locally-consumed foods; 2) improve the quality of the foods we eat; 3) reduce food insecurity; 4) improve nutritional outcomes; and 5) diminish the percentage of food that’s thrown away. Statistic-laden and aspirational, the Roadmap’s summary escapes an easy description and leaves one wondering whether the report’s authors found problems easier to identify than to solve. One could also conclude that the Food System Plan’s architects attempted to tackle too many problems at once.
“Food is a necessity of life.” Don Barber stated the obvious as he began his presentation. “And it comes to us via a global food system which is impacted by environmental and geopolitical events around the world,” he continued. “So as such, it is vulnerable.” That set the tone.
And reflective of Tompkins County’s political leanings, an anti-corporatist, class-sensitive, regulation-friendly message crept into the presentation. “Inequality results in rampant food insecurity within our community,” Don Barber told TCCOG. “Much of the local food stuff available is unhealthy, heavily-processed, loaded with salt, sugar and carbohydrates causing chronic illness,” he asserted. “We need a plan to meet our community’s food needs and not left to the profit motives of corporations.”
Indeed the Food System Plan’s “Roadmap” frequently steered toward the negative. Don Barber sounded the alarm that 24 per cent of Tompkins County adults are obese, as are 12 per cent of our children. But a multi-year Forbes study, accessed for this report, found the adult obesity rate nationally at nearly 42 per cent, with childhood obesity nationally more than 50 per cent higher (19.7%) than that reported locally.
Another alarm bell sounded: “Thirty-five percent of the food we buy is not eaten,” Barber reported. “We must do better,” he said. Barber would double the level of local food production and halve food insecurity rates. But to eliminate food insecurity, he said, $7.4 Million more (in presumably-public money) would need to be spent.
The study’s resident survey concluded that increasing access to healthy food stands as the community’s highest food-related priority. And to improve that access, the study recommends that more of what we consume locally be produced locally. The Roadmap would have more families growing their own food, preparing their own food, and making daily meal preparation a family event.
“Engage differently with the food system,” Barber recommended, “by resisting corporate foods (despite their) ease or convenience… and center your daily activity around food.”
The Food Policy Council Chair made the point of urging residents to take the Tompkins Food Future “Food System Pledge.” Barber urged TCCOG’s municipalities to adopt the pledge too. But that symbolic gesture’s emphasis points to the Food System Plan’s core weakness. It’s heavy on promises; not action.
Example: The plan’s “Roadmap” recommends Tompkins County “double local food production to sustainably meet community food needs and support the viability of local farms.” Caroline’s Mark Witmer, whose town stands amid deep debate over new land use controls, asked Barber what he’d recommend to “prioritize and protect prime farmland.” Barber’s answer I found less than reassuring:
“The Food System Plan is trying to allow the players to develop solutions, and we’re just putting forward the goals and so on and recommendations but not trying to prescribe exactly how it happens,” Barber offered in reply.
I got my own turn to question:
“We’re looking at a roadmap for the future,” this TCCOG member observed. “I’m getting impatient. I’m wondering when we’re going to start driving and riding the road.”
I continued: “I say that because I volunteer once a week at the Enfield Food Pantry. Our pantry is serving often more than 600 families a week. Multiply that by three, four, five people; and you see the thousands that we serve. We’re operating out of a cramped, 1948-era fire house converted for it. We don’t have enough space. We don’t have enough freezer space, refrigerator space. I know that for a fact…. Our Town Board in Enfield spent $45,000 in ARPA money for helping the Enfield Food Pantry buy the land for its new site…. But I’m a little impatient. I want to see something that will actually be more than nice words and aspirations, and maybe something that’ll actually make some progress.”
“Well, I would have to say that your impatience is shared by me,” Don Barber responded. “We’ve identified 15 priorities for 2023, and working with the food pantries is one of them,” Barber added. We get reports out about every two-three months on the activities that are taking place. So I know there’s a grant that’s been applied to support the food pantries. But it’s not the infrastructure or support that you are asking about. But we’re very much aware of it,” he said.
2. ReUse and Planning for a Circular Economy: Kat McCarthy, Waste Reduction and Recycling Coordinator at the Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management Department, and Diane Cohen, CEO of the non-profit corporation Finger Lakes ReUse, briefed TCCOG on an ongoing initiative, “Rethinking Waste in Tompkins County.” It’s the County’s 10-year plan, mandated by the state, to in McCarthy’s words, “evaluate current materials management practices in Tompkins County” and to provide “projections for waste disposal and reduction.” In plain-spoken terms, the program’s goal is to cut down on refuse sent to the landfills and give as much of what we’d otherwise throw away a meaningful, resource-conserving second life.
At times, McCarthy employed jargon not often spoken beyond the recycling center’s offices. Example: “We’re really leaning into the “Four-R” programming to increase diversion,” McCarthy said: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rethink.” Similarly spoken: “There’s tremendous opportunity to foster a local circular economy where materials are used for the highest and best value for as long as possible, and products at their end life can become feed-stocks or in-pipes for new systems” How would McCarthy attempt to “rethink” refuse? This way: “To redesign systems that creates a positive feedback loop for managing waste.” Perhaps such is how people speak in the world shadowed by the garbage truck.
Diane Cohen of Finger Lakes ReUse related the organization’s 15-year history and touted its accomplishments. She reported ReUse returned 750,000 items to local use in 2022. Over the last five years it diverted 9.7 Million pounds of materials from the landfill and recirculated 2.8 Million items.
Cohen promoted ReUse’s goal of establishing a “Hub,” a large warehouse to store ReUse’s immense and growing inventory. The agency must currently rent warehouse space and has more than 700 pallets of materials in storage, employing rented space. Nonetheless, Cohen conceded, too much gets thrown away. And among her goals is to “create a more effective system” on the college campuses so that students “have a better choice than the dumpster.”
What seldom gets asked in conversations like these is how aspirations turn into accomplishments. And if the expert, indeed, finds the connection, the resulting burdens could prove tough to sell in a throw-away society. The experts briefing TCCOG never offered firm answers. They could be too painful.
Barb Eckstrom, the retired Director of the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management, is reported to have once famously said, “We’re not going to sort through everyone’s trash.” But to achieve current goals for a “circular economy,” might that promise need to change?
I drew to the discussion the case of the old Tompkins County Library, demolished by its site’s redeveloper with “asbestos in place.” The procedure required all demolition materials to go to the landfill. “How do we deal with that?” I asked Cohen. “Is there regulation we should change that would prevent contractors from being so cavalier in their demolition practices?”
Diane Cohen suggested “Deconstruction Ordinances,” laws that would compel repurposing materials during demolition. She said such laws exist in San Antonio and Portland, Oregon. “There’s a push to get the City of Ithaca to adopt something,” Cohen said. She suggested New York State may act as well.
Ulysses Supervisor and TCCOG member Katelin Olson offered perhaps the keenest observation. “The greenest building is the one already standing,” she said. In essence, demolition wastes resources.
Nonetheless, in the broader sense, Olson acknowledged, “The dumpster is winning with a lot of recyclables currently.” She suggested the dumpster wins because the list of acceptable materials for recycling keeps changing. Human nature as it is, Olson concluded, residents get tired at receiving rejection notices and simply throw questionable items into the trash.
Robert Lynch, Councilperson
Enfield TCCOG Representative