- Laura Edwards-Orr
Values-Based Purchasing: Opening Markets for Mid-sized and Smaller Farms
By Laura Edwards-Orr
“Good Food Purchasing is an idea whose time has come, and many different entities in our community - from city policymakers to university food buyers, to farmers, to schools - now have a clearer vision of what a more just food system might look like for our community, and how to start making that shift.” Kelli Brew, Farm to School Coordinator, Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services
The Good Food Purchasing Program is a collaborative, cross-sectoral initiative aimed at using the power of public food procurement to fundamentally shift the way that food purchasing decisions are made; with equity, community accountability, and transparency at the core. The Center for Good Food Purchasing is the national home for the Program, and staff supports public institutions and the communities they serve to use their food purchases to support local economies, environmental sustainability, a valued workforce, animal welfare, community health and nutrition, as well as the core values of equity, accountability, and transparency. Using purchasing data to establish a performance baseline, the Center empowers institutions to set purchasing goals and develop strategies to make incremental improvements through their solicitations and contracting process as well as their menuing and operations. At the same time, community-based Good Food Purchasing coalitions work to develop and implement policy adoption, at the institution, city, county, or even state level, to formalize purchasing within the five-value framework and commitment to transparency and accountability.
Working peer to peer and city to city, the Program is building large-scale market demand for values-aligned farmers, ranchers and food manufacturers - with over $1 billion in food spent in 24 cities, across 10 states and Washington, DC. Beyond the Good Food Purchasing Program, the Center is also working with Healthcare Without Harm and Real Food Generation, through the Anchors in Action Standards Alignment Project, to better coordinate demand between higher ed, healthcare, and city or county-level public institutions and create clearer pathways for diverse supply chains. These include purchasing thresholds from historically excluded farmers, alternative pathways to verification for non-certified growers, and strategies to address barriers to entry for small and mid-size producers.
While there is quite a lot of focus on individual institutional operators to turn procurement frameworks into three-dimensional and locally relevant programming, the real work often comes down to building relationships and feedback loops between suppliers, community-based organizations, and policymakers to build a responsive pathway to success for the long haul. This means that whether selling to institutions is a near-term goal for local farms and food suppliers, or a distant one, there are two main ways farmers can participate in the Good Food Purchasing Program.
Selling Good Food
The first pathway for farmers interested in participating in a local Good Food Purchasing Program is likely selling to the participating institution(s). While the institutional market can be a challenge to serve due to bureaucratic processes and strong price sensitivity, it can also be a meaningful and steady market when supply, demand and values align. As with any new customer, starting small and focusing on building a strong relationship is usually the best way to determine whether it’s a good fit.
Institutions often hold special events or bring in local products for Harvest of the Month or other themed campaigns. These may fall under the small or micro-purchase threshold (set to $10,000 by federal regulation, state or local threshold may be lower) and eliminate the need for any engagement with a formal procurement process. Once relationships are established, distribution capacity can often be a barrier to scaling institutional customers for individual growers so partnering with a food hub or values-aligned distributor is another way to establish a connection to the market without taking on additional financial risk or infrastructure. For those with the distribution capacity and product volume, pursuing larger contracts still under the simplified acquisition threshold (set to $250,000 at the federal level, state or local threshold may be lower) may be the next logical step.
The team at the Center supports institutions to meet their local purchasing goals in a number of ways. First and foremost, we establish a baseline of purchasing from suppliers located within 250 miles (unless otherwise defined by the institution in partnership with community representation) that are also locally owned and operated - local franchises of national businesses or publicly owned corporations do not qualify. Then the team at the Center, along with local partners, will help develop and support strategies to help an institution to meet its purchasing goal. Across the program, institutions average 14% of their total food spending with local suppliers and individual purchasing goals range from 15% to 30%. Common strategies for participating institutions include:
Partnering with local organizations to provide technical assistance to identify and promote market opportunities, like the Chicago Food Policy Action Council’s Guide for Growers & Food Businesses: Selling to Your Community’s Institutions.
Sharing current purchasing data to offer product level volume and pricing context to inform crop planning and product development, as the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy in New York City began doing in 2021.
Structuring solicitations to address barriers to entry for small and mid-size suppliers, as when Minneapolis Public Schools partners with local growers to invest in infrastructure and long-term contracts.
Peer-to-peer learning to share best practices in partnering with local farmers and developing solicitation materials to attract values-aligned suppliers.
In some cases, the Center partners with a local organization or institution to develop advanced technical assistance programming to support further data and market analysis, buyer-supplier convenings, supply-size TA for producers, or developing collective action strategies for a group of institutions with shared purchasing goals. Some recent examples of this kind of work include a Bay Area aggregate purchasing dashboard that details progress towards purchasing thresholds as well as a supplier database, which will support and inform a larger supplier engagement strategy moving forward, and “Food Forward NYC: A 10-Year Food Policy Plan” which will guide how the city supports values-aligned purchasing as part of a larger municipal strategy.
Breaking Down Barriers
The theory behind the Good Food Purchasing Program is to focus public dollars on maximizing public benefit - ensuring that taxpayer dollars are reinvested in local businesses and with suppliers that reflect community values. And yet there are countless reasons why the institutional market as it is today doesn’t work for local farmers: complicated solicitation processes, inflexible product specifications, complex delivery logistics, mismatched volume requirements, food safety requirements, and costly third-party certification requirements - all while expecting the lowest retail cost and highest quality. For local growers who are also striving to produce sustainable and high-welfare products and create good, safe jobs for their employees, a low-cost price structure can be too far from the true cost of production to consider selling at scale to such a customer.
As addressed above, institution or municipal-level policy establishing a commitment to local and values-aligned purchasing as well as data transparency is an excellent first step. Establishing a baseline and commitment toward purchasing goals can bring to light underlying structural impediments to achieving those goals. In response, many states and cities are piloting incentive programs and best-value procurement codes (which enable evaluation beyond cost in awarding public contracts) to level the playing field and create stronger access points for local and values-aligned suppliers seeking entry into the institutional market. Advocating for these kinds of supportive policies is critical to creating equitable and resilient regional food systems.
Good Food Purchasing Coalitions across the country are responding in various ways but are always grounded in the priorities of the communities they serve and the purchasing data of their local institutions. Farmer participation in these advocacy efforts are critical to ensure that policy solutions are grounded in the operational realities of local suppliers and to give voice to that direct, positive impact to policy and decision-makers. Two initiatives that we’re particularly excited about right now are underway in New York and California.
The Good Food New York Bill, is proposed legislation that has grown out of dedicated efforts of the Good Food Purchasing Coalitions in New York City and Buffalo to update the state procurement code to empower public institutions to prioritize values and equity-driven purchasing, including a price allowance for aligned suppliers and products, as well as strong provisions for supply chain transparency and accountability. Sponsored by Senators Michelle Hinchey and Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, this bill will be reintroduced in the next legislative session and farmer engagement and support of the coordinated campaign will be critical to its passage.
In the summer of 2022, California's Governor Newsom and the state legislature agreed on a budget that authorized $100 million for California school districts, after a rigorous and multi-sectoral campaign of advocates and stakeholders from all five value categories. Grants to school districts will augment budgets for local, sustainable, fair, and high-welfare products and will be administered by the California Department of Education, in consultation with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
There is no one-size-fits-all in this work. The Good Food Purchasing Program is different in each community in order to ensure that change comes from the ground, informed by the people growing and eating the food, breathing the air and drinking the water, caring for the animals, and bringing food from the farm to the plate. That said, no matter where you are and whether you are looking to focus on growing the best carrots for as many people as possible or transforming the food system there is a seat for you at the table. If you are interested in getting involved and supporting good food purchasing in New York, contact Taylor at email@example.com to learn more about the New York State Good Food Purchasing Coalition.
Links for reference:
Chicago Food Policy Action Council’s Guide for Growers & Food Businesses: Selling to Your Community’s Institutions.
Vermont Local Food Tracking Report (contains inventory of state incentive programs)
Value over cost: How Philadelphia is committing to better food procurement practices
For more information, please contact:
Laura joined the Center for Good Food Purchasing as the Director of Institutional Impact in 2020 to help build the capacity of institutions to act as leaders in the good food movement. Prior to joining the Center, Laura worked on the Program team at Farm Aid and at Red Tomato, a Northeast regional food hub, where she served as the Executive Director for four years.