How data can help governments buy better food

Most people might not think of local governments as a link in the chain of food insecurity. But they buy food to serve people in their hardest moments and there's little data to show for it.

There’s something I feel about my work that maybe others who do this work also feel: I’m doing my best work on data when I’m not talking to people about data. 

In 2019, I spent a few weeks working with a team to interview people who buy food through the City of Philadelphia's purchasing program. I didn’t ever expect that in trying to improve local data, I’d be in kitchens, food warehouses, and shelters learning about how food moves around a city.

The project was a collaboration between the Open Contracting Partnership and the Sunlight Foundation. We wanted to help the City learn how publishing open data about purchasing could lead to providing better food to residents. 

When we set out to talk to residents, we had a list of questions: who was being contracted by the City to provide food, who was serving the food the City was buying, and who could speak to its quality? And importantly, what did community institutions working on food already feel about the issues? 

We talked to local food cooperatives and people in the food industry to understand whether or how they view city purchasing (also called public procurement). We interviewed people serving food at summer school programs, temporary housing shelters, and juvenile detention centers. If our project had been scoped at a county level — which it wasn’t — we would also have interviewed people serving food at prisons, jails, and schools. 

What we learned was that the City could take steps toward serving healthier meals by: a) overhauling data systems so they could start publishing the right data about what they’re buying, and b) making the bidding process for city contracts more accessible so that high-quality local food providers could start working with the City. 

Across our interviews, people were interested in seeing the City lead a shift toward healthier food supply chains in Philadelphia. But old school processes for purchasing were making it hard for leaders to execute on that vision.

If people think about public procurement at all, they likely don’t think about food. In the Twittersphere and among my colleagues, there’s a growing focus on reforming how governments purchase technology, which matters because governments increasingly deliver services digitally. But food, which brings people together and sets the foundation for community well-being, is just as essential as anything else cities buy. 

By looking at how governments buy food, we can start to understand how systems like procurement can affect public health outcomes or inequalities. 

According to research by Feeding America, food insecurity affected one in five children in the US during the pandemic and one in seven adults overall. The disaggregated data shows that Black, Latinx, and Native American families face food insecurity at least at twice the rate as White families. 

While food that’s purchased by local governments is just one link in the chain of food insecurity, city food programs serve people at some of their most vulnerable moments. 

Local governments, by necessity, have to fill the gap created by food apartheid. Government institutions feed children who qualify for free or reduced lunch, they feed people or children who are incarcerated, and they feed people who are without stable housing.

At a community summer meals program where kitchens primarily serve kids who get free and reduced lunch during the school year, staff said that their food vendor’s performance was unpredictable. Sometimes, a number of pre-packaged meals for their kids would show up damaged, meaning they were unsafe to eat. Other times, food would arrive spoiled or they’d receive the wrong order. 

Everyone understood that mistakes happen, but the problem was that there were few ways to let the City’s procurement department know about vendors’ recurring issues. The unpredictability would cause some people working at youth programs to avoid city procurement altogether and buy food for their kids out-of-pocket

This isn’t just a problem in Philadelphia. The vendors who were supplying food to the City during our project were a few of the same ones who supply a majority of local governments and large-scale food providers nationwide. 

Companies like Aramark, Sodexo, and US Foods regularly contract with cities like Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (which you can find by searching their contract databases of varying quality). These companies don't prioritize selling good food, but instead prioritize delivering quantities of food, trucked across the country on time, at a low price. 

Most local governments are legally obligated to buy products from the lowest bidder, regardless of quality, across all types of procurement. That means most cities are hardwired to prioritize low cost over actual value.

When local governments overlook value in their purchasing processes, they miss crucial information about communities’ needs. Giving food contracts to the lowest bidder means prioritizing the needs of taxpayers who want to save a buck instead of focusing on the needs of those who are eating the food the government is buying.

Understanding the value of what local governments are buying means having multiple and varied types of information captured in procurement data systems.

Philadelphians voted to amend their city charter to allow “best value” procurement in 2017. But transitioning to “best value” would mean overhauling tech platforms that are primarily designed to track data points like cost and timeliness, not necessarily vendor quality or feedback. After our research together, Philadelphia decided to start using the new “best value” rules to buy food and improve the quality of contract data published on their data portal

Molly Riordan is a Good Food Purchasing Coordinator at the City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is one of just four city governments in the country participating in the Good Food Purchasing Program, which “transforms the way public institutions purchase food by creating a transparent and equitable food system.” 

Like any champion for innovation in cities, Riordan was one person doing the work of many to compile insights about food procurement, start hiring better vendors, and improve processes for getting food to people who need it. She has continued working with the city’s public health and contracting departments to update Philadelphia’s nutrition standards and other departments have responded with initiatives like smart city challenges to meet food needs during the pandemic.

In too many cities, sweeping reforms rely on the legwork of individuals without sufficient investment in overhauling the systems they’re working within. 

Better data systems could save individuals from doing ad hoc work to understand how processes like food purchasing are working. 

Local governments have to digitize their procurement processes so that information is standardized across departments and easier to publish. And it’s essential for local governments to publish procurement data online so that their communities have an opportunity to give input on what they’re buying.

But here’s the real situation: Most local governments are not able to answer basic questions about how vendors perform over time using their current contracting data systems. These are just a few questions that data systems should be able to answer about contracts, vendors, or products to buy better food: 

  • Which vendors have consistently delivered damaged, expired, or spoiled products?

  • How many times has a contract with a vendor been renewed, and why? 

  • How many different departments are buying from the same vendor?  

  • What are the public health outcomes resulting from the city’s purchasing choices?

The more public data systems can be improved to answer these questions, the better the data on cities’ open data portals will be.

More transparent data about food purchasing won’t make a difference in food injustice until leaders take real action to get better food into marginalized communities. And we have to hold them accountable. But having the right public information to track bad vendors and pressure cities to shift to healthier local alternatives could mean a person who’s struggling gets a better meal in their hardest moment. 

Making that shift toward tracking and publishing better procurement data has to come from a place of understanding that people deserve to know not only how their money is being spent but how people in the government’s care are being treated. The most important part of reforming data in local government is knowing that in the end, the data has to serve something greater. 

Before you go further, I want to hear from you: Is there a topic you want to see in a future CS post? Is there a story you think should be heard? Send me your thoughts! 

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It’s Not a Food Desert, It’s Food Apartheid - An interview with food justice activist Karen Washington on community organizing, urban gardening, and the food justice movement.

Value Over Cost: How Philadelphia’s Committing to Better Practices - Former Sunlighter Becca Warner on our work in Philadelphia and main recommendations. 

Piloting Open Contracting Reforms in LA and Philly - Short public summary of our report written for the cities of Los Angeles and Philadelphia about proposed open contracting reforms. 

18F’s De-Risking Guide - Geared toward large-scale government software projects, these guides from 18F have a lot of gems of advice that end up being about procurement. 

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