Meet Nadia Johnson: The Woman Who Helped Lead the Campaign to Legalize Beekeeping in New York City

To bee or not to bee? For Nadia Johnson, who led Just Food’s successful campaign to legalize beekeeping in NYC, it was no question.

New Yorkers: whether you knew it or not, it wasn’t always legal for you to keep bees. Now you can though, and you can thank many dedicated local organizations and individuals for that, including Just Food‘s Nadia Johnson.

Nadia joined Just Food in 2008 and as the food justice program coordinator, she works to increase awareness and action around local food and farm issues through organizing community advocacy trainings, food justice workshops and conferences. She also does policy advocacy and leads campaigns to help New Yorkers take ownership of their local food system — hence the bee keeping ruling.

But her work should not be reduced to that one act. We reached out to her to learn more about her role in the beekeeping legalization campaign, her part in organizing the first city-wide mayoral candidate food forum, and the NYC Food Forum.

Edible Brooklyn: A few years ago you led Just Food’s successful campaign to legalize beekeeping in NYC. Why was it important?
Nadia Johnson: Bees were in fact on the list of “all venomous insects” issued by the NYC Department of Health (DOH) making beekeeping illegal in NYC. The exception for that was educational; the botanical garden for instance was allowed to have bee hives. But in community gardens, rooftops and backyards, beekeeping was not allowed. There had been several instances where beekeepers who were doing it regardless of the law, had to show up at hearings and were being fined (the rates were between $200 to $2000).

However, as an organization, we really see beekeepers as heroes in championing our food system and supplying folks with delicious honey. Bees are indeed really critical to our ecosystem and our food supply. Our goal was thus to have the health code changed so that it took bees off of the list of prohibited infectious insects.

Other cities around the country had already legalized beekeeping — Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco and Denver to name a few. Beehives had even been installed on Chicago City Hall rooftop.

EB: What was it like to run such a campaign?
NJ: In December 2008, Just Food launched a petition to the NYC Departement of Health to review their code and remove bees from their list of prohibited “venomous insects.” If petitioned, the Department of Health is, in fact, required to respond to a petition. Sometimes petitions look like they don’t have that much of an impact, but we knew that we would get a response that way. So we started going to different events like CSA pickups, farmers markets and community gardens to both inform people that it was illegal to beekeep in NYC and then hopefully collect their signature. People were actually pretty schocked that beekeeping was illegal in the city.

We then welcomed people who were beekeepers as well as supporters, gardeners and sustainable food lovers to really get involved in our campaign and volunteer their time during National Pollinator Week in June 2009. The idea was to address people’s fears, educate them about bees and their importance in our food ecosystem and food system. Fot instance, we did a video called Hidden Hives Tour that looked at all beekeepers around the city that were doing it illegaly. We also had honey tasting events and held a press conference at the City Hall. The National Pollinator Week was sort of the turning point of the campaign. I got a phone call from the Department of Health saying that they were interested in meeting with us to discuss changing the code. These discussions eventually led to the legalization of beekeeping in New York City on Earth Day in 2010.

It was thus a two-year process but a lot of fun as well. It was a great educational and collaborative campaign. There’s now a beekeeping meetup group, a New York City Beekeeping Association and several other places that have experts training others who want to become beekeepers. Beekeepers are also supposed to register their hives at the DOH. However, for the moment, there is little administrtaive oversight. The DOH didn’t create any sort of quotas. For example, at some point there could be communities without any beehives and others with too high of a concentration of beehives.

EB: In July 2013, Just Food in collaboration with 11 other organizations held the first city-wide Mayoral Candidate Food Forum. Could you tell us more about this forum and your impressions?
NJ: During every mayoral campaigns, fora are being held to address different issues like housing, environment, etc. But there had never been a forum addressing questions related to our food system. Just Food was one of 12 organizations that helped to coordinate, plan and convene the first mayoral candidate forum on food. We had six candidates coming including the eventual Mayor De Blasio. The forum turned out to be a big success. We were beyond capacity and we had 1100-1200 people online watching the live-stream of the event.

It was fascinating to get candidates into our room and ask them questions about food-related issues. In fact, where few candidates had clear records on food issues that we could actually refered to, for a lot of them we didn’t actually know what they felt about urban agriculture, school foods, anti-hunger proposals or healthy food access. That was fantastic.

After the event, the 12 groups that were involved in planning the event, we decided to keep the momentum going  and founded the NYC Food Forum. The mayor candidate forum was sort of the jumping off point.

EB: What is the NYC Food Forum as an organization? How can we get involved?
NJ: The NYC Food Forum is basically a group of organizations that have come together to achieve their shared vision of a better food future for every New Yorker. A little more than 90 organizations signed on to a “Primer for Our New Mayor” that puts together a list of proposals for the next Mayor in areas of school foods, urban agriculture, anti- hunger issues and food governance.

One of the interesting thing that came about in the process of starting to push forward some of these proposals is that it took a while for people to get hired into the administration. We were actually without a food policy staff person within the Mayor office until last April.

One of the challenges that arouse was: How are the affected communities that we’re collectively advocated on behalf of really engaged in this process and how can they get engaged in the process? And by affected communities, I refer to people that are living in communities that don’t really have access to fresh and healthy food, clients of food pantries, soup kitchens and using SNAP. Those communities were not really engaged as much as they should be in the process of advancing policies that affect them.

Thus, in June we took a little step back and decided to work on advancing principles, shared values and a platform and structure of equity within the food forum. On October 10, we held our first event called “Why Equity Matters to NYC and our Food System” to address racial and economic inequities in our food system and reflect on how and why engaging in a meaningful way affected communities in advancing food policies. I’m very excited about this equity building process that we’re in right now. There’s definitely an interest in really making a coalition work around food equity in the city.

How can people get involved? We’re sort in a transition phase. We had our first training workshop a couple of weeks ago. Next steps are to really have some sort of  planning and envisioning game plan for advancing food policies in an equitable way. At this moment, I’m not sure yet! There will be ways. For the moment we do have an email address that people can email us if they want to be put on the list to get on the list to receive our lastest updates. We’re still in the early stages. So far our focus has really been on bringing together organizations that are working and committed to advancing food policy, equitably and inclusively.

EB: What does your ideal New York look like?
NJ: It would be great if we didn’t need food stamps because everyone had good living wage jobs and could afford the food they need for themselves and their families. We would have farmers markets, CSA and food co-ops for everybody and communinty gardens on every block.

EB: Based upon the changes you’ve observed over the last ten years, what are you expecting to happen for the next 10 years?
NJ: This is actually my first experience working with a new mayor and working through a transition from one administration to the next. Within the de Blasio administration there seems to be a very firm principle and commitment to equity whether it’s on food or other issues.

There have been a lot of advances in the last few years on urban agriculture and I hope that we’ll see, within this administration, some firm code changes and legal changes that would make existing community gardens permanent.

One thing is to create more oppurtunities to access healthy food, but if you’re not supporting a system where people can get off of food stamps then the cycle continues. Reversing the income inequalities that have been escalating over the past few decades is obviously a huge challenge but one that we hope in the next 10 years. Increasing the minimum wage, improving labor laws, having better tax policies and working to bolster our economy are today’s challenges but parts of tomorrow’s solutions.

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Eleonore is an intrepid traveler and a passionate eater. Food and travel have been her two passions since she started walking and feeding herself. Originally from Paris, France, she's now eating her way through New York City and getting her M.A. in Food Studies at New York University. When she's not eating or thinking about what she's going to eat next, you can find her on her bicycle with her camera snapping shots.