Opinion: Feeding Social Change through Good Food Purchasing

Each day, every one of us has to make decisions about food for our daily survival and personal health. But the food choices available to us as individuals are shaped by policies we set as a society and economy — policies that currently make healthy foods unaffordable for too many and that exacerbate inequality. Many low-income communities are food deserts without access to fresh produce or healthy foods as a direct result of decades of big business pushing food policy toward corporate profits and efficiencies that threaten public health, the environment, fair working conditions, animal welfare, and local farming.

But there is a growing movement at the municipal level to invest in conscientious food choices and strengthen local food producers who keep jobs in our community. Boston should take the lead to create health, sustainability, and greater opportunity for all by passing the Good Food Purchasing Ordinance.

Each year, the City of Boston spends about $18 million of public dollars on food procurement, providing 11 million meals per year to Boston Public Schools students. The policy decisions we make about which foods to purchase and offer our young people are foundational for food access and nutrition for families across the city. 71% of our students live in economically disadvantaged households, including 3,500 students reported as experiencing homelessness (this is almost certainly an underreported number; the reality may be closer to 5,000 students). Overall, our students receive 30% to 50% of their daily calories from meals in school, and that nourishment is essential for their bodies and minds to be ready to learn.

Boston Public Schools has already made strides under Director of Food and Nutrition Services Laura Benavidez to expand access to fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate foods. Working with community partners, the My Way Cafe program has introduced fresh, nutritious meals prepared in-house through a pilot with four East Boston schools last year, and the program is slated to expand to thirty schools by the end of this school year. This is an excellent example of bold ideas and big thinking when it comes to student nutrition. We can do even more.

By directing the City’s power of the purse towards conscientious food purchasing policy, we can take the next step to unlock the future potential of our students and the untapped power of our local, sustainable farms to bring social change along the entire food supply chain.

This week the Boston City Council hosts our second public meeting on the proposed Good Food Purchasing Ordinance that I introduced a few months ago. The Good Food Purchasing Program is driven by five core values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. This policy would redirect a significant portion of the Boston Public Schools food budget to local farms, fishermen, and food producers. Boston would be the first city on the East Coast to pass the policy, setting a powerful precedent for other cities in the region.

These standards would harness the city’s tremendous purchasing power to support a vibrant regional food system — one that provides better nutrition for our students, good jobs for food workers, humane treatment of animals, and a healthier environment. We can advance these values while operating a responsible purchasing program.

In addition to investing in students and households across the city, incorporating locally produced foods into school meals, at a competitive cost with non-local foods, nourishes our region’s farmers, fishermen, and food entrepreneurs as well. Every dollar spent on direct farm purchases in Massachusetts generates an additional $1.12 in local economic activity. School meals operate with federal funds provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Choosing to buy locally grown and produced ingredients for school lunches means harnessing federal funds for economic development right in our community.

In 2015, Massachusetts adopted the Local Food Action Plan to guide the Commonwealth in developing a food system that best serves our residents and supports our natural resources. Employing one in ten Massachusetts workers and representing nearly five percent of the state’s economic activity, this food system is much more than just the food we eat. Boston, as the Commonwealth’s largest city, can move Massachusetts closer to achieving the goals outlined in this plan by adopting Good Food Purchasing.

As a city, we take pride in our long history of national leadership, but in this area we fall short. Other cities, including Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Chicago, have already adopted Good Food Purchasing Programs. In Los Angeles, the program has directed $30 million annually to local food purchases and created 220 Good Food jobs.

By adopting the Good Food Purchasing Ordinance, Boston has the opportunity to become the first city in the Northeast to use its purchasing power to move our community toward a healthier, more just and sustainable future–setting an example for other major institutions, such as our universities and hospitals, to follow suit. This is a change that would nourish our families, workers, local economy, and planet.

Michelle Wu is a Boston City Councilor At-Large. Joe Czajkowski owns and operates Czajkowski Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, where he specializes in organic and conventional fruit and vegetables servicing schools, universities, farms and grocers.

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