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Food, Glorious (and Ethical) Food!




Thanksgiving is our national food-focused holiday–but Los Angeles has an all-year-round reputation for food obsessions: Paleo diets. Veganism. Juicing. Fasting. Fusion food trucks, kimchi pizza, chorizo-filled potstickers with duck sauce reduction (yes, that is a real recipe).

What gets a lot less foodie press, though, is the City of Los Angeles’s innovation in creating one of the most progressive food policies in the nation.

Cities around the country have established programs to improve the availability of nutritious food for residents and set ethical and environmental standards for the suppliers to the multitude of public institutions that feed millions every year. In 2012 the city established the L.A. Food Policy Council to develop an equitable food policy for Los Angeles and to answer some key questions: How does a city that buys tons of food every year define “locally grown” food? How do purchasing policies sustain small farmers? Reduce the city’s footprint?

And beyond these questions, what does a city do to support stores and supermarkets to make sure poor neighborhoods have access to food other than energy drinks and Cheetos? How do city contracting policies make sure food suppliers buy from companies that protect worker rights and support union contracts? Or assure humane conditions for animals?

The answers potentially have far-reaching impacts on food production and the availability of nutritious food around the country.

It has to do with scale and purchasing power. Cities, counties and school districts contract with such food service companies as Sodexo and Morrison to provide food to park and recreation lunch programs, senior citizen centers, jails and public hospitals.

The supply chains that ultimately drop a lunch onto a cafeteria plate are long and complicated—they stretch from the fields and packing shed, the stockyards to the slaughterhouse, along shipping routes by truck or train.

Companies that acquire and process all that food for local municipalities apply for lucrative contracts to meet these large-scale needs and must meet the standards by which contracts are awarded.

Since cities have a say-so before awarding contracts about how food is sourced and under what circumstances, the sheer market power of municipal purchases can help set national standards for sustainable and just food production. Cities such as Chicago and San Francisco have food procurement policies that stress nutritious food availability, local purchase and sustainable production—but City of Los Angeles standards include those metrics and take a few extra steps.

“It’s the only food procurement policy in the country that includes labor standards,” says Clare Fox, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council’s Director of Policy and Innovation. Fox compares L.A.’s cutting-edge food purchasing standards to the LEED green building industry model established for environmentally compliant buildings.

In most big cities companies apply for food supply contracts based on a point system—the better a company can meet standards set by the local municipality, the better chance  it has of winning a contract.

The Good Food Purchasing Pledge in Los Angeles, however, goes even further and makes labor standards, including union contracts, part of the point system. Sourcing from companies that assure humane animal treatment is also part of the requirements to obtain a contract—another Los Angeles innovation.

With those contract requirements in the mix, food suppliers can put pressure on food producers to raise their own standards, “The supplier,” Fox says. “can say, ‘You must comply with labor standards or I’m taking my business elsewhere.’”

In Los Angeles each department that contracts for more than $10,000 in food services is part of this pledge, says a spokesperson for City Councilmember Paul Koretz, an early supporter of the Good Food policy.

Four city entities with a high volume of food delivery are presently using the compliance standards when contracting for services.

These include: the Department of Parks and Recreation, with its free summer lunch program for school-age kids at 100 locations; the Department of Water and Power, which operates a cafeteria that offers reasonably-priced lunches to downtown workers and those on jury duty at the nearby Superior Courts; the Department of Aging that provides one meal a day to senior citizens at 100 locations and delivers meals to those who are homebound; and the Los Angeles Convention Center, whose food contract services provide meals to thousands of visitors each year.

Increasing the reach of the Good Food Policy has been the addition of the L.A. Unified School District, which each day delivers meals to a city’s worth of students—750,000 (including 350,000 breakfasts), according to L.A. Unified food services director David Binkler

The LAUSD also supplies the summer meals program in city parks. When school is out for the summer, the Parks and Recreation program can assure that the more than 520,000 students who qualify for free or reduced meals can continue to get breakfast and lunch.

“That’s four million meals over the summer,” Binkler says. The entire production equals 128 million meals annually of fruit, vegetables, grains, milk, meat or meat alternative. “You definitely get a different perspective,” Binkler, a chef by trade, says about the task of large-scale food procurement and distribution.

The district has managed to handle this food supply workload with a staff that’s been reduced by 20 percent over the past five years.

The Good Food Procurement resolution’s adoption by the LAUSD ensures a standard of wages and working conditions for food producers. The standard of local food acquisition, Binkler adds, means “we can see where the cattle are raised in Chino, see the standards for ourselves. Certainly in different ways [this] produces environmental savings. It’s not food from Florida or Texas—so there’s less of a carbon footprint.”

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