Hearing: Oversight – Local Food Procurement
Date: January 14, 2020
Testimony From: CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute

Good afternoon committee members. By scheduling this oversight hearing on local food procurement, the Contracts Committee is working to ensure that the City purchases food not only to improve the health of New Yorkers but also to support our region’s economy. Local Law 50 of 2011 encourages City agencies and vendors to purchase food grown or produced in New York State and Local Law 52 of 2011 requires the annual food metrics report to account for the money spent on local or regionally-sourced food. Both laws have provided the building blocks for improving the city’s local procurement practices. Now, nearly ten years after they were enacted, it’s time we look for additional ways to grow our local food purchasing.

The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute has done extensive research on how public procurement can provide healthier food for New York while requiring good, fair practices by the producers and distributors doing business with the City. We are the research lead for New York City’s Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) coalition, and recently published a study showing how large cities like New York can use the GFPP to support food businesses that contribute to health and wellbeing.

Last September the Council reviewed Intro 1660, the proposal to create a good food purchasing program. This was an important step towards adopting a values-based procurement approach. The GFPP’s core values: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability, should be as critical to deciding which vendor is awarded a bid as price is. The council can play a vital role in supporting the adoption of a GFPP values-based framework by enacting Intro 1660, which will expand upon Local Law 50 of 2011, and by ensuring that strong oversight be the cornerstone of any eventual law.

Our current procurement landscape is one where State procurement law and New York City’s Procurement Policy Board (PPB) rules work together to avoid corruption and ensure that city agencies are getting the best possible product for the lowest possible price. More specifically, New York State’s General Municipal Law (GML) 104 requires that contract awards go “to the lowest responsible bidder.” While GML 104 does a fine job at speaking to fiscal responsibility it falls short on filtering out bad actors with poor records on issues like environmental safety, fair labor standards, and support for local economies. Similarly, the Procurement Policy Board establishes and maintains rules for soliciting bids or proposals and awarding contracts. However, the board is guided by the restrictions laid out in GML 104, and in doing so reinforces the law’s shortcomings. Although, this does not need to be the case. The council can call for a review of the City’s contract specification writing process in an effort to identify opportunities for changing its approach to contracting. The City can do much more to use its procurement specifications to achieve important public goals like improved health, labor standards, environmental protection, and economic development. While GML 104 requires municipalities to procure from the lowest responsible bidder, the city has leeway to restrict its buying to responsible bidders who produce healthy products that are grown, raised and processed responsibly – for workers, animals, the environment, and the local economy. We urge the City Council to consider requiring the PPB to adopt GFPP procurement guidelines similar to those found in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Several issues limit the City’s ability to improve local food purchasing. One of our recent research projects revealed the operational limitations faced by some city agencies. We investigated procurement practices at early care centers, senior centers, and emergency food assistance providers (e.g., food pantries and soup kitchens) in Central Brooklyn and identified a number of barriers to increasing local food procurement. These included delivery challenges, lack of local procurement knowledge, high prices, lack of on-site storage and equipment, quality of the food, and finding adequate suppliers. These barriers represent strategic entry points for change that the Council can and should take note of when thinking about ways to advance healthier and more equitable food environments through local food procurement practices.

Lastly, as part of a comprehensive approach toward improving local food procurement we believe New York City also needs to better understand the shortcomings of our current food system when viewed through a food and health equity lens. In August of 2019 Speaker Johnson’s office released an excellent food equity report, which highlighted issues related to food governance, food insecurity, food access and a number of other related factors driving food system inequality in New York City and throughout the region. The council can begin to address these issues by enacting Intro 1664, another bill brought before the council in September 2019 that would establish a food plan for the City. With a food plan for New York City in place, we can then begin working with state and regional jurisdictions to develop a regional food equity plan, one with food procurement front and center. The City of New York with its enormous buying power can and should play a leading role in shaping food procurement policy at the regional level. Our Institute is working to identify evidence to support local and regional food planning efforts and would be happy to work with the Council on this issue.

Enacting a New York City food plan, helping to address the operational barriers of agencies looking to buy more local food, and adopting the GFFP standards are just some of the ways that the city can improve on its local food procurement efforts. Additional recommendations for improving local procurement include:

  • Requiring a percentage of food purchased using tax-levied dollars be locally grown and incorporate this mandate into the next iteration of the New York City Food Standards.
  • Invest in the creation and maintenance of local food hubs in all five boroughs using city-state partnerships to enable just-in-time delivery of food and thereby reduce the need for individual organizations to have on-site storage equipment.
  • Increase outreach and provide more resources to minority and women owned business enterprises (MWBEs) to help expand the number of certified local food suppliers and distributors. This would build local procurement knowledge and grow a network of suppliers for city agencies, local businesses, and organizations.
  • Track and consistently report on local food purchases in all future New York City Food Metrics Reports.

By Craig Willingham, Deputy Director, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute & Institute Staff