by Marlie Wilson, Chicago Food Policy Action Council
Imagine if the cafeteria at your local hospital was considered one of the best, most affordable, restaurants in the neighborhood. Not only is the atmosphere warm and inviting, but the food is fantastic: creative salad options with legumes, tofu, seeds and nuts; spicy stir fry dishes, healing soups and stews, and options suitable to all dietary restrictions. The hospital’s main food buyer sources as much of the ingredients from local producers as possible, working with a local food hub to provide a steady stream of just-harvested flavor in the warm months, and flash-frozen options in the off-season. The hospital especially works to support small farmers and food businesses run by people of color in the communities they serve, knowing that economic vitality is a social determinant of community health. Most of the menu is veggie-forward, but when the cafeteria chefs use meat, they work with Animal Welfare Approved chicken and turkey, raised by a cooperative of producers in the region.
Imagine this, too: the cafeteria’s staff scratch-cook most of the meals in their state-of-the-art kitchen facility, and staff are compensated with a living wage and benefits for their high level of culinary skill and attention to food safety. Staff are frequently celebrated for their contributions and are considered peers of the nurses, doctors, and dieticians serving patients at the hospital. After all, the food served to patients and their families is a critical part of patient care.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Given the prioritization of low-cost ingredients, out-sourcing of foodservice management, and discounting of food’s contribution to public health, few hospitals or other institutional meal providers look like this today–but some are starting to make the shift. A growing number of hospitals and higher education institutions, in addition to public meal programs served in places like schools, parks, and jails, are beginning to see the value in investing in their food service to benefit community health and wealth.
It’s not just individual champions making these shifts happen. While it’s wonderful to have motivated leaders choosing to make a transition to healthy food and supporting local farms, often their vision doesn’t carry on if they leave their positions. Across the country, community-based anchor institutions are going further, passing organizational policies to ensure that good food purchasing practices are actually codified as standard protocol. So, even if rockstar personnel move on from their positions, the policy will remain in place to guide future practice.
In 2017, Chicago City Council, Chicago Park District, and Chicago Public Schools all adopted the Good Food Purchasing Policy, leveraging more than $300 million in government food spend to advance a more transparent, equitable, and healthy food system. The Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) directs City of Chicago departments and sister agencies to assess current purchasing, set goals, and take progressive action over time in five value categories: nutrition, local food economies, fair treatment of workers, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare. Some of the public meal programs covered by the policy include senior home-delivered and congregate meals, summer meals for children, school breakfast and lunch, the cafeterias at City Colleges of Chicago, city-run food festivals, and O’Hare and Midway Airport concessions. While minimally purchasing food of their own, Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) plays a critical role as the main coordinator of all GFPP implementation activities within the city.
In 2018, Cook County Government joined the City of Chicago in adopting GFPP for their public hospital system, jails, juvenile justice facility, and vending environments–an estimated $15 million in purchasing. As with Chicago’s management, the Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH) is taking the lead in coordinating GFPP implementation. Chicago and Cook County are the first city and county outside of California to take the bold move of comprehensively adopting GFPP for all departments and sister agencies that procure food. Together, CDPH, CCDPH and their partners at the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC) are partnering to successfully implement GFPP across both governments as part of their shared Good Food Purchasing Initiative (GFPI).
GFPI has three main objectives:
- Fully implement GFPP with public departments & agencies across the city and county
- Foster a more racially and socially equitable regional food supply chain to meet the demand for good food
- Normalize values-based procurement in community-based institutions across the region, inviting area hospitals, cultural institutions, and higher education facilities to join the City of Chicago and Cook County in both adopting GFPP and advancing GFPI goals.
To fully implement GFPP with City of Chicago and Cook County departments and agencies, the local GFPI team is working with the national Center for Good Food Purchasing, which provides public departments and agencies across the country with annual food purchasing data assessments using their Good Food Purchasing Standards. Both CDPH and CCDPH are also convening quarterly Good Food Task Force meetings within their jurisdictions to address barriers and opportunities to GFPP implementation with key city and county stakeholders, and meeting one-on-one with each department and agency to collect food purchasing data and create GFPP action plans. In addition, CDPH, CCDPH, and CFPAC are monitoring when food-related contracts expire, and providing technical support to departments and agencies to include language about GFPP compliance in all future solicitations for food delivery or food service management.
By assessing food spend, developing action plans, and monitoring progress, GFPP implementation is designed to increase demand for good food by institutional meal programs. As demand increases, however, the GFPI team acknowledges the necessity for market research, local producer education, and supply chain infrastructure development to ensure that small producers, especially those who identify as black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), have access to this emerging market opportunity.
With the support of a USDA Local Food Promotion Program Grant and an Illinois Specialty Crop Block Grant, the GFPI team will be hosting three GFPP-focused trainings in the next year in partnership with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and Urban Growers Collective. The team will also be developing a GFPP resource guide for producers and holding a series of “Buyer/Supplier Mixers” to provide in-person space for relationship-building across the supply chain. In addition, GFPI is working with researchers in the Midwest Consortium on Equity & Research in Food (MCERF) to conduct a food hub feasibility study to serve BIPOC producers in Metro Chicago, which will be completed by December 2020.
GFPI is still in its beginning stage, but already coordinators are excited to see the potential power that institutional food procurement can have on the food system. Since the Good Food Purchasing Policy’s passage, Chicago Public Schools has started sourcing antibiotic-free chicken drumsticks from Indiana, switched to compostable trays and cutlery, increased their local sourcing of produce, and moved to a Meatless Monday menu. Chicago Park District, which had their first GFPP assessment more recently, is in the process of action planning for their summer meal program to reduce food waste, increase locally sourced products, and promote their vegetarian meal options. While GFPI’s main focus is on public departments & agencies, there has been growing interest from local private anchor institutions in joining the initiative as well. During the 2019-2020 school year, for example, Northwestern University piloted GFPP for their campus dining halls with involvement from the Northwestern University Real Food (NURF) student group. GFPI is working to create a cross-sectoral network of institutions so that there can be increased collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, and aligned goal-setting across the Chicago Metro.
Looking ahead, CDPH, CCDPH, and CFPAC hope to help create a more inclusive, transparent, and accountable institutional procurement system, with more opportunities for small farmers and food businesses. In improving institutional meals, the GFPI team aspires to make good food a right, not just a privilege. We can’t achieve this ambitious vision alone: whether you’re a researcher, farmer, institutional leader, or community member, we need your help! If you’re interested in joining this initiative, please contact Marlie Wilson, CFPAC’s Good Food Purchasing Project Manager: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, please visit:
Center for Good Food Purchasing: www.goodfoodpurchasing.com
Chicago Food Policy Action Council’s Procurement Page: www.chicagofoodpolicy.com/procurement