Food Procurement as an Opportunity to Improve Local Food Systems

Lea Howe spent several years working on Farm to School programs in the Washington DC area and knew she was ready to take it to the next level, she just wasn’t sure how. That’s when her work with DC Greens led her to the 2016 National Farm to Cafeteria Conference and she heard Alexa Delwiche, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Good Food Purchasing (The Center), talk about the transformative work they had done with food procurement for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“This was incredible to me,” said Howe. “I had become disillusioned with how loose the definition of ‘local food’ had become, and the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) core values seemed to more elegantly articulate what was originally intended in the Farm to School movement.”

That holistic look at our food system and procurement pipeline was the lens she had been missing. Over the next year, Howe and her team at DC Greens worked with the food service director of the District of Columbia Public Schools to adopt the GFPP. Eventually, with the support of the DC GFPP Coalition that Howe put together and local policy makers, the GFPP was adopted into law via the Healthy Schools Act of 2010.

Let’s look at four steps you can take to begin this work in your community.
 

1. EXPLORE CONDITIONS

When starting any community change project, it’s always good to gather as much information as possible about your current environment. The Commons features 7 Food System Trends That Give Us Hope for background information. Check out this tool from Broadstreet that offers a Community Food Assessment report to help you get started.

We created a Washington D.C. Food Assessment so you can see what the report looks like for this area.
 

2. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITY

For Delwiche, her interest in food systems began when she worked for The United Farm Workers. “I was horrified by the working conditions farm workers faced,” she explained. “When I started with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, I realized that the only way to really build a food system that works for everyone was by aligning people across sectors around a shared set of values.”

From that, food procurement became a key lever the Los Angeles Food Policy Council used to promote change. “Food procurement offers this extraordinary opportunity to work on ensuring our most vulnerable communities are nourished with the highest quality food served by public institutions while ensuring that the billions of dollars that are spent each year by public institutions are invested in a food system that supports good jobs, environmental sustainability, high food standards for animals, regional producers, and protects the health of our communities,” explained Delwiche.

Public institutions across the US spend billions of dollars each year on food purchases and this leads to exciting opportunities to influence food system change. The GFPP encourages large institutions to direct their buying power toward five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare and nutrition. “What cuts across each of those values and connects them is equity, transparency and a broader definition of health,” explained Delwiche
 

3. BUILD COMMUNITY

Colleen McKinney, Director of Engagement at The Center, said that a key part of starting this work is building a coalition around those five values. “Bring together groups that are already centered around the different values and then decide, as a coalition, what the priorities are. Then approach an institution and say ‘This is a priority for us. We think the power of procurement has a lot of potential to help us meet some of the goals that we have as a city around health access and sustainability. Let’s pursue this and see what it would look like.’”

From there, McKinney suggested looking for your Champions; those people that have influence over how public procurement dollars are spent and are receptive to the goals of your coalition.

Finding a champion worked well for Howe. She already had a strong relationship with DCPS Director of Food and Nutrition Services Rob Jaber and his team, but took it to the next level by setting up calls with food procurement directors across the country that were already working with the GFPP framework. “I think it was great for him to hear firsthand from other food service directors about the flexibility of the program to meet each institution’s unique needs. It was about celebrating incremental change and not punitive in any way,” she explained.

At this same time, Howe was pulling together her coalition — which consists of about 40 people she considers local experts in the five value categories, institutional procurement and the Mid-Atlantic supply chain. “Those people helped provide the information and background that Rob and his team needed to feel secure about the program,” said Howe. “They told him “Yes, we know how difficult this is. We are here to support you. Here are resources to assist you in this journey.”

Delwiche said all of that community building work really sets the foundation for taking action. “An engaged coalition, an internal champion, a few political champions; without one of these legs of the three legged stool, it can lead to delay or completely stall the public policy work.”
 

4. TAKE ACTION

Once an institution has committed to the values of the program, The Center helps them establish a baseline — a snapshot of how their purchases align with the five values at the start of their participation. Sometimes the baseline helps reinforce that they are succeeding in the areas that they are focusing on already — such as purchasing from local farmers or producers, or purchasing chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics. Other times, it helps identify value aligned purchased they’re already making that they hadn’t been aware of, such as sourcing from union manufacturers. And it can help set direction for the next priorities, such as increasing environmentally sustainable and high animal welfare purchases.

The Center works with institutions to use the baseline assessment to set an action plan that takes all of these findings into account, and then measures progress year over year to show how the actions translate into improvement in the program. Ultimately, institutions strive to achieve a star rating and Good Food Provider status by meeting goals in all five values.

The Center stays engaged by providing technical support, especially with the more challenging aspects of the program. “We look at the barriers that have come up and help address them,” said McKinney “One big area is the animal welfare category. Sometimes there are limited products available that are affordable to large public institutions. How can we use the collective purchasing power of large institutions, to help find or create products that will work for them?” For Howe, it was also about assessing what food actually is available in the mid-Atlantic region and how much of it is accessible in the necessary quantities.
 

LONG TERM SUCCESS

For Delwiche, the long term issues are much bigger than salad greens and locally sourced wheat. “We really see food service directors, procurement officials and public institutions like school districts and hospitals, government agencies, universities, along with local policy makers and grassroots coalitions at the forefront of a major movement. We know that our food system is a major driver of poor health, climate change, and a host of other intractable problems.”

Food gives an opportunity to be a solution. “This is a moment that requires bold leadership and action,” she explained.  “And when it comes to solutions, coordinated municipal food policies that offer multiple benefits are key strategies to solve these pressing problems. From there, local policies become the model for national actions.”

The innovative work and collective leadership of procurement leaders and policy makers and coalitions in cities across the country is what will build momentum for change at the state, national and global levels.

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