Pittsburgh Uses School Lunches to Take On Environmental and Labor Issues

An-Li Herring

Pittsburgh Public Schools will review where it buys food this winter as part of an initial assessment for a “good food purchasing policy” it adopted in the fall.

The plan seeks to promote healthy eating, environmental sustainability, local businesses, fair labor practices, and the humane treatment of animals.

The PPS board of directors approved the idea in October after more than a year of discussions with the region’s “good food coalition.” The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council convened the group, which included the Allegheny County Health Department, local health care providers and food justice organizations.

Given the district’s roughly $15 million food budget, advocates hope the initiative will spark broader change in the region’s food system.

For now, however, PPS will focus on its own suppliers.

“We’ve [already] reached out to some of our vendors and said, ‘Hey, this is the direction that we’re moving in. And this is a product that we buy from you that we would love to see if it can be a local item,’” said Malik Hamilton, PPS’ food services production and purchasing coordinator.

“And we are finding that the market has already started to kind of adjust, so some of [these changes] will be easy,” he said.

But he added, “There are definitely going to be some products that the people that we work with or purchase from are not going to be willing to make those changes, and we will have to find a different product.”

Hamilton noted that, because much of the school year coincides with the winter, PPS could struggle to purchase produce locally for the more than 23,000 meals it serves a day.

But he said the district hopes to find a vendor in the area that will freeze and store fresh fruits and vegetables to be consumed in the colder months.

By reducing its reliance on faraway suppliers, the district can decrease the distance its food must travel to school cafeterias, Hamilton said. COVID-19 has revealed the fragility of far-flung supply chains. And Hamilton noted that reduced transportation needs promise to help the environment and could decrease the district’s overall food bill.

Other changes, however, could come with higher prices.

For example, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council project manager Sarah Buranskas said the district might opt for paying more for the same item if the cheaper version is processed in a facility that doesn’t offer a living wage or good working conditions.

“Traditionally, the guiding purchasing policy for large public institutions has been [achieving] the lowest cost,” Buranskas said.

But because their “funding is coming from the community,” she said, they should consider, “What are the community’s values and how can we buy food in a way that reflects that?”

She noted that the University of Pittsburgh and some UPMC locations have also implemented policies with similar aims as PPS’ purchasing initiative.

Such efforts are “designed to be able to move large amounts of money and in that way, influence providers and vendors,” she said. “Large public institutions have and can continue to have a really important role to play in what our food system looks like.”

Featured image: An-Li Herring/90.5 WESA