Image Credit: NYC Food Policy
Last year, New York City made two important commitments to values-based food procurement, the process by which governments establish social, environmental health and other criteria for the food they buy in addition to cost parameters and technical standards. In February 2022, NYC’s Mayor Eric Adams signed Executive Order 8, which commits the city to Good Food Purchasing based on a national program to help public agencies to procure food that supports five values: local economies, environmental sustainability, a valued workforce, animal welfare, and healthy nutrition. The city also signed on to the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Pledge, which commits signatories to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the food they buy and serve by 25 percent by 2030, relative to a 2015 baseline. These commitments, in addition to existing criteria like nutrition standards and longstanding policies to prioritize minority and women-owned businesses, make New York City a leader in using the so-called power of the public plate, the dollars the city spends on more than 200 million meals a year, to promote sound agricultural and business practices that solve seemingly intractable problems like climate change.
The implementation of values-based procurement is complex, especially for a city that spends about $312 million on food each year. Tracing the producers and distributors of all that food, and their production, labor, environmental, and other practices from farm to cafeteria is a data-intensive task. City officials have worked with the Center for Good Food Purchasing to review food procurement records of all major food-buying agencies (Department of Education, Health and Hospitals Corporation, Human Resources Administration, Department of Corrections, Department of Human Services, and Agency for Children’s Services). The Center has assessed agency adherence to the five value areas, including how much of each type of food procured has met or exceeded the criteria established by the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP).
Estimating the greenhouse gas impacts of food procurement requires New York City to annually compile food purchase amounts by composition and weight and to use national and regional figures to estimate the GHG emissions of each type of food. An inventory is required to establish a baseline, with annual data to track how much changes to the mix of the food procured reduces GHG impacts. Cool food signatories report purchases of animal and plant proteins, which comprise 80-90 percent of food-related GHG emissions. World Resources Institute’s “cool food calculator” analyzes this data to show GHG emissions by food type, annual trends, and comparisons with other institutional food buyers.
The city has begun to make publicly available the data used to assess the extent to which the city’s food purchases support the GFPP values and help to mitigate climate change. On the city’s good food purchasing website (https://www1.nyc.gov/site/foodpolicy/good-food-purchasing/agency-detail.page) the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy (MOFP) has posted raw data on food purchases (for FY 2019), baseline assessments by the GFPP of the extent to which those purchases meet the five value categories, and a plan by each agency to increase values-based food procurement. In May 2022, the MOFP created an interactive dashboard showing the carbon footprint of the City’s food purchases by type of food and by agency (see also the Institute’s urban food policy forum “Cities, Institutional Food, and Climate Change”). At present, only FY 2019 data are available, but data from subsequent years will be added over time.
There are several important potential users of the city’s GFPP and cool food data: procurement officials who can track progress and identify barriers to carrying out the GFPP; officials in charge of municipal climate change policy, who can see whether, to what extent, and how rapidly food purchases can contribute to climate mitigation; and non-profit organizations concerned with all of the values that the GFPP seeks to advance that can use the data to identify opportunities to more fully achieve GFPP goals and track the city’s progress. Individuals interested in issues of social justice, regional food systems, animal welfare, the environment, and health can also use the data to learn more about how food affects each domain. Armed with this knowledge, they can speak more effectively in public forums, from school board meetings to city council hearings, about the consequences of different programs like vegan Fridays in the schools to policies about the food sold in city vending machines on broader issues such as climate change, animal welfare, and the vitality of the region’s farms.
How can advocacy organizations and interested individuals use the new dashboard to track the city’s progress in values-based procurement and recommend changes in menus and related food practices? The following questions the dashboard data can answer provide some ideas for how the tool might be used.
Which agency buys the most food, and therefore which is an important lever for change?
Of the 196.9 million meals served by NYC, the Department of Education is responsible for 84%, or 165.3 million. The graph “Food spending by agency” shows that the Department of Education (DOE) is the agency that spends the most, by far, on food, some $250 million in FY 2019. The next largest purchaser, Health and Hospitals, spent more than an order of magnitude less ($19.4 million) in 2019. This means using food as a lever for change requires engaging the school system, and that changes to the school meal program can have a much larger effect on issues like climate change, animal welfare, labor, health, and the region’s agriculture than changing the ingredients bought by other city agencies. This doesn’t mean that advocates should ignore the practices of other agencies that buy and serve food, as the smaller scale of their purchases might make them more amenable to changes in suppliers. Moreover, changing practices at an agency like the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, which serves a much smaller amount of food than the Department of Education, can be influential because the city’s hospital system is a significantly larger food buyer than equivalent agencies in other US cities.
What type of food does the city buy most, by weight?
The “Food purchases by weight” graph shows that dairy is by far the largest food category bought by city agencies. Clicking on the bar reveals that nearly 40% of the food bought by the city is milk or cheese. In Fiscal Year 2019, the NYC Department of Education spent a little over $9 million ($9,013,497) to buy more than 50 million (50,547,636) containers of chocolate milk alone. Most of the milk served in schools was purchased from Dairy Maid, a dairy processing facility based in Frederick, Maryland. It is owned by Dairy Farmers of America, a national milk marketing cooperative.
Fruits and vegetables are one-quarter of the food bought for city schools. But the large numbers for dairy purchases are skewed by DOE, which is required by USDA to serve milk in schools. All other city agencies purchase primarily fruits and vegetables, which comprise 34.8% of purchases by weight. This means that changes to milk procurement can have a big effect on the city and regional food system. Currently, the DOE buys its milk from a Maryland processor. An interested person might raise questions about whether Maryland is sufficiently local to help the regional economy, whether a shift in purchases to upstate farmers would help regions like the Catskills, Hudson Valley, and northern counties, and whether the animal care and labor practices from upstate dairies would be better at protecting workers than the current vendor. These are just a few questions about milk; similar questions arise when considering fruit and vegetable or meat purchases.
What are the foods that contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions?
Once again, dairy has an outsize effect. Of the 333,067 metric tons of greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalents), 43.3% are attributable to dairy. Yet a third of the emissions come from ruminant meats (e.g., beef), so hamburgers and other forms of beef on the menus of city cafeterias contribute to climate change as well. Understanding the climate impacts of different foods allows for a more nuanced discussion about whether and to what extent we should limit meat on cafeteria menus, and what alternative sources of protein would be preferable from a health, gastronomical, and cultural perspective, as well as economic and logistical criteria.
While illuminating, the data in the city’s dashboard raises other important policy questions, particularly the effectiveness of good food purchasing over time, and how New York City compares to other US cities. Currently, the dashboard provides a snapshot of one year’s procurement data, but over time advocates and researchers can track changes and their impacts. And until there are consistent, reliable data from other GFPP cities it is impossible to measure whether New York City is more or less effective than others at supporting the five value categories.
Article by: Nevin Cohen, PhD, Associate Professor at CUNY SPH and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute