Report: activists secure public contracts to advance food justice

Food activists released an extensive report on Tuesday showing how reforms in the public food procurement process — from schools to hospitals to municipal governments — could shift the nation’s food system and advance food justice policies.

The report, from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the HEAL Food Alliance, assessed the results of their Good Food Purchasing Program, an ambitious effort by a scrappy network that has helped secure more than $540 million in public contracts.

But in a press conference on Tuesday, advocates also acknowledged that the contracts amount to a “small slice” of the money spent on public procurement every year.

Every year, cities across the country spend billions of dollars in taxpayer money on food for publicly-funded institutions, from hamburger meat served in school cafeterias to the off-brand fruit cups at hospitals. As the report’s authors point out, many of these publicly-funded institutions serve the neediest members of society, including children, the elderly and the sick.

The report notes the public food procurement process is dominated by a small handful of powerful corporations. Food service management companies Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group make over half of their revenue supplying food to schools and healthcare centers, and meat and poultry giant Tyson makes 29 percent of its sales through food service contracts. The report says that many of these corporations also treat their workers notoriously poorly, and that the food they provide to consumers can be low quality.

“Their stranglehold on this market means they get away with feeding low-quality food to vulnerable communities, exploiting their workers, and harming the planet — all to increase their profit margins,” the report says.

Through the Good Food Purchasing Program, food justice advocates are urging municipalities to purchase food that adheres to their communities’ values. By adopting Good Food Purchasing Policies (GFPP), public agencies can redirect spending away from large corporations and towards local and independent food suppliers, while also upholding basic environmental, labor and health standards.

In the past decade, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance and their allies have successfully passed GFPPs in 10 cities, and the report highlights multiple success stories. In 2012, for example, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued an executive order that required city agencies to purchase food from suppliers who uphold basic labor standards, including workers’ right to organize. A few years later, the Los Angeles school district threatened to terminate its contract with a local vendor who was caught union-busting delivery drivers, because continuing the contract would violate the city’s GFPP.

“The Good Food Purchasing Program became an indispensable tool in our fight that culminated in the drivers achieving a life-changing first collective bargaining agreement,” says Randy Cammack, the Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 63, in the report.

Around that same time, the Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network (ACN), a farmer-owned cooperative operated by predominantly farmers of color in New Mexico’s South Valley, received an influx of state funding and began supplying food to schools, hospitals and senior centers in the Albuquerque region. At Tuesday’s press conference, Agri-Cultura director Helga Garcia-Garza said the shift to local food producers was initially challenging for school district employees, many of whom were unfamiliar with what produce could grow locally.

But the report also found that many GFPPs were unenforced, and that some food suppliers have violated the standards in public food contracts without facing consequences. At Tuesday’s press conference, report researcher Winston Moore noted the lack of supply chain transparency can make enforcement particularly difficult. “Procurement markets are incredibly opaque—and corporations love that,” he said.

Institutions need the tools to enforce the Good Food Purchasing Policies they adopt, he added, with consequences for suppliers who violate them.