Tracking the Ripple Effects of LA’s Good Food Purchasing Program

Alexis Stephens

In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — the largest school district in the nation — shifted its food purchasing processes to promote equitable food systems, healthy eating, and the local economy. This shift was made possible by The Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), an effort developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council to provide city institutions with purchasing guidelines and strategic support centered on the procurement of local, sustainably, and humanely produced foods.  The program has improved the labor and environmental practices of LA’s local food producers, while gaining the attention of school districts and government agencies in LA and beyond.

With LAUSD’s expenditures of nearly $125 million, the Good Food Purchasing Program ensures that 650,000 K-12 students have access to healthy food on a consistent basis. It has also had a domino effect on regional producers, processors, and distributors. In the first two years, the percentage of locally purchased fruit and vegetables shot up from 9 percent to 75 percent. When the district instituted a “Meatless Mondays” policy to comply with the new nutritional and environmental standards, they decreased their annual meat spending by 15 percent, saving more than 19 million gallons of water.

Similar to LEED certification, institutions that participate in the GFPP are scored according to values-driven standards in five impact areas: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. As detailed in a new PolicyLink case study, the program incentivizes vendors to change the way they do business in order to earn or retain contracts with the city.

Since the adoption of the policy, LAUSD’s bread and produce distributor, Gold Star Foods, has risen to the occasion, strengthening its values-based practices to meet the GFPP’s goals and purchasing guidelines. So far, Gold Star Foods has added 65 full-time, living-wage jobs as a result of their new way of sourcing products. Additionally, after searching for local mid-sized wheat farms willing or able to meet GFPP standards, it reached out to Shepherd’s Grain in Portland, Oregon, resulting in the expansion of the Shepherd’s Grain network of over 40 independent local wheat farms from the Northwest into California. Gold Star now purchases 160,000 annual bushels of wheat from the sustainable agriculture company.

To achieve widespread change throughout the food system beyond Los Angeles, the Good Food Purchasing Program gave rise to a stand-alone organization: the Center for Good Food Purchasing. Alexa Delwiche, the Center’s executive director, said that over the past couple of years a lot of effort has been put into building communications systems between institutions and vendors and facilitating tracking and data collection, so that the full force of the program is measured and sustained. “When you develop a policy that’s multifaceted and includes additional values like labor practices and environmental sustainability, you have to get a certain level of detail, so that you are able to actually build transparency into the system,” she said. “That transparency doesn’t really exist in the food supply chain for a number of reasons, so it has been a huge learning [process] for us.”

The program — and its core premise that public institutions can impact the local economy and healthy food systems through their purchasing power — is gaining the attention of other schools and universities in the state. This year, the Oakland Unified School District is considering adoption of a Good Food Purchasing Program informed by LA’s. The California State University System, comprising 23 campuses, has pledged to shift at least 20 percent of their food budgets toward local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources.

The principles of good food purchasing are spreading. The Equitable Food Initiative, launched in 2013, is a cohort of food retailers, growers, and farm worker organizations that has developed a compliance standard for farms based on working conditions, pesticide management, and safety. The New York Times has reported that 12 growers are a part of the group, with six of those certified so far, covering 2,000 workers. The Initiative’s expansion would help to protect some of California’s most vulnerable workers: one-third of America’s farm workers are in California and 67 percent of those (over 500,000 people) are unauthorized immigrants.

Doug Bloch, political director with Teamsters Joint Council 7, represents workers in Northern California, the Central Valley, and Nevada who pick, process, package, and distribute food and beverages in California. The Teamsters represent 25,000, mostly immigrant workers in the state who process food, including the workers of Taylor Farms in Salinas, a vegetable supplier to Oakland Unified School District. “The workers make a living wage and get benefits, and they get treated with respect,” said Bloch. Taylor Farms is the largest supplier of fresh-cut vegetables in North America, though not all of its farms are unionized.

Commenting on the good food purchasing model and its impact on labor, Bloch said that one of the regional challenges for both workers and purchasing institutions is the constant consolidation along the food chain, such as a proposed acquisition of U.S. Foods by Sysco that was defeated by the Federal Trade Commission this past summer. “Where I think it helps is that the Good Food Purchasing Program can really encourage the district to buy local, healthy, and organic,” says Bloch. “Depending on how the district applies the GFPP, it could encourage purchasing from a small, Oakland-based company that’s producing some sort of specialty item, as opposed to frozen or canned food that comes from 500 miles away.”

With any of these models and initiatives, it is important to appreciate the level of community organizing that goes along with developing and getting policies adopted, Delwiche said. Partners participate in monitoring and evaluation of the program in order to ensure successful implementation. Over 100 stakeholders and procurement experts were involved in the planning and execution of the GFPP. “I think the really powerful piece to this is that once a public institution has adopted a policy, that policy really becomes one [that belongs to] both the institution and the community,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the community to continue engaging public officials and the public institution and hold them accountable to the values they’ve adopted.”

Now that Los Angeles has additional systems in place to track the progress of vendors and to set actionable goals and benchmarks, she added, the LA Food Policy Council and its partners are beginning to influence more cities like Oakland, so that, “as the cities adopt their own policies, the learning curve will be more diminished, and we can support institutions in a more streamlined way.”