By Professor Ivy Ken, GW Food Institute Faculty Coordinator
“Procurement” is a dull word for a vital practice. It essentially means spending lots of money to buy lots of food to feed lots of people. Major institutions, such as school districts, prisons, and hospitals, often provide hundreds of thousands of meals a day, which means that their purchases are significant. The Los Angeles Unified School District, to take just one example, has an annual food budget near $150 million – a substantial chunk of the yearly demand that food suppliers rely on.
While an individual school somewhere in the US may be able to send a food service worker to a local farmer’s market to source a single day’s meals, this is not typically how things are done. Instead, decisions about what to buy are made in centralized offices by people who are under pressure to contain costs. This means that people who eat meals in these institutions—such as students in school cafeterias—consume a lot of food products, manufactured to conform to precise nutrition guidelines and price points.
But are these products the best procurement choice? Do they maximize environmental sustainability? Are they good for public health? Can they be produced and served by workers who are paid and treated well?
These are some of the questions being asked by labor unions, animal rights advocates, nutritionists, environmentalists, and local growers in cities and states around the country. Quite recently, the school districts of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland implemented something called a Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). A GFPP addresses issues in five areas that are vital to a healthy, sustainable food system: (1) local economies, (2) environmental sustainability, (3) valued workforce, (4) animal welfare, and (5) nutrition. These are “values” that a city or institution adopts, and the GFPP is a series of metrics that allow these values to be measured and tracked.
Understanding these areas to be interdependent parts of a whole system is key in this effort. This requires coalitions across interest groups and a shared understanding that the well-being of eaters, workers, animals, and the environment are linked.
In Washington, DC, the DC Food Policy Council is beginning to work with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Center for Good Food Purchasing to assess how these principles could be put into place here. As with the other cities that have adopted GFPPs, the efforts are beginning with the public school system. The next meeting of the Food Policy Council’s Sustainable Procurement Working Group, where the potential for a DC GFPP will be discussed, is scheduled for March 1 at 6:00pm. With millions of dollars to spend and local communities to support, DC’s participation in this initiative could be transformative.