NYC Is on the Cusp of Making Its Food Purchasing Sustainable. It Won’t Be Easy. | Civil Eats

NYC Is on the Cusp of Making Its Food Purchasing Sustainable. It Won’t Be Easy.

Students eating lunch in school cafeteria

February 16, 2022 update: Last week, Mayor Eric Adams signed an executive order formalizing New York City’s Commitment to the Good Food Purchasing Program.

This January, “Hamburgers & Cheeseburgers Deluxe” will be on the menu for New York City’s public-school students just once. “If you were to look at menus that were posted five years ago, we were serving burgers four or five times a month,” explained Stephen O’Brien, a 30-year veteran of the city’s Department of Education (DOE) who is now the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Policy in the Office of Food and Nutrition Services. “That impacts the sustainability score, the nutrition score, and the animal welfare score.”

O’Brien was referring to scores assigned through the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), an initiative designed to help institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons purchase food that aligns with five values: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition.

The idea is simple: Given institutions’ buying power, shifting their budgets toward food that’s good for people and the planet will lead to a level of change no individual grocery shopper could initiate. Some of the country’s biggest school districts and cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, have signed on to date.

But with its agencies spending a combined $500 million on food each year, New York City represents the golden (free-range) goose. Its agencies serve more than 8 million city residents, including more than 1 million students enrolled in public schools, which were regularly serving more than 800,000 meals per day pre-pandemic.

The Center for Good Food Purchasing, which runs the GFPP, estimates that if NYC shifted just 15 percent of meat purchases to plant proteins, it would decrease annual greenhouse emissions by over 100 million pounds of carbon-dioxide equivalent—the same as taking nearly 10,000 passenger vehicles off the road.

“The impact of moving this much food spend toward an equitable, sustainable, and healthy food system is huge,” said Sara Elazan, the director of data insights at the Center.

While the city formally signed on in 2017 and expanded its commitment to all agencies in 2019, implementing the GFPP has been a slow climb. In September, the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy took a big step forward with its first “Baseline Report,” evaluating how current food dollars are being spent in relation to the program’s metrics and setting goals to improve the data and shift purchases further over the next few years.

A number of forces seem to be converging to support those goals. This month, incoming mayor Eric Adams—a passionate plant-based food advocate who has said he would push for “accelerated implementation” of the GFPP—appointed the first-ever mayoral transition team dedicated to food policy. And a December executive order from President Biden included shifting public food procurement in a plan to advance climate and sustainability goals.

However, the same scale that maximizes opportunities also maximizes challenges. After several years of transition, the city’s baseline report demonstrates the painstaking work still ahead. While New York City is meeting ambitious targets on nutrition, only 1 percent of the food the school district purchased met GFPP’s standards on environmental sustainability, and data on the source of the food exists for less than half of the total purchases due to gaps in traceability. Agency leaders like O’Brien are contending with challenges around costs, complicated procurement processes and contracts, and whether producers and distributors can even supply food that meets the standards at such a high level of demand.

A closer look at how New York City is working to meet the environmental, nutritional, and social goals of the GFPP within its purchasing offers insights into how institutions of all sizes could follow suit.

The Power of Procurement and the Realities of Implementation

The stakes are high. Institutional procurement has been in the spotlight for years as a vehicle for large-scale food system change, especially since public schools, hospitals, and prisons are often feeding sizable populations that may not otherwise have the buying power to access healthy, sustainable food.

Farm-to-school initiatives and efforts to make hospital food more nutritious have gained the most traction, but the GFPP goes several steps further by tackling so many different, interrelated issues at once. That comprehensive approach aligns well with Food Forward NYC, a 10-year policy plan released in February that seeks to make the city’s entire food system more equitable, sustainable, and resilient, beyond agency purchases, said Kate MacKenzie, who Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed as the director of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy in 2019.

“[GFPP] is one of many specific strategies to execute on Food Forward,” MacKenzie told Civil Eats. “If we excel in Good Food Purchasing, we’re going to make it easier for people to eat healthfully, we’re going to be working with more modern supply chains, and we’re going to certainly . . . align food and climate in a much more hands-on way.”

But the on-the-ground reality of finding and procuring food that fits the purchasing program’s criteria could not be more complicated. The first hurdle is improving their data collection; MacKenzie said the city’s number one goal is to understand where city departments spend their food budgets.

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The complexity of NYC’s food procurement processes means it’s not as simple as asking distributors or big food companies to provide information. For example, the city enters into “human service contracts” with hundreds of senior centers and homeless shelters to provide their services to residents. That contract includes money for food, but the city leaves it to the contractor to handle procurement.

“So now we’re two layers removed,” MacKenzie explained, “And by the way, many of these places are small and very strapped. Think about a senior center managing COVID restrictions and just coming back to congregate meals at reduced size and capacity, and now we’re asking them to also take all of these extra steps with their food vendors.”

Even when there are fewer links in the supply chain and an agency can simply ask distributors or suppliers about the origin of a food item in their own cafeteria, the information is often lacking, especially for prepared foods like frozen pizzas which have multiple ingredients that travel from farm to processor to manufacturer to distributor. At the DOE, one of the biggest chunks of missing data comes from purchases made through USDA Foods, the federal government’s distribution service that offers low-cost foods produced domestically. Elazan said many school districts have encountered this hurdle and that the Center for Good Food Purchasing team has had initial conversations with the USDA about improving traceability.

Despite that gap, NYC’s DOE is out ahead of other city agencies in implementing the GFPP thanks to years of small improvements to school food from multiple angles. The department has been working on nutrition tweaks including reducing sodium and processed meats and switching to whole grains since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed more than a decade ago.

As a member of the Urban School Food Alliance, the district also worked with others around the country that had already implemented the GFPP and in 2014, the Alliance’s members committed to sourcing only antibiotic-free chicken. New York state has also supported various farm-to-school initiatives, New York Thursdays, which has allowed them to highlight foods from in-state farms once a week since 2015.

Those improvements have been most squarely focused on making food healthier and supporting local growers. And because the DOE’s portion of city agencies’ food purchases is so large—accounting for $200 million of the $500 million total; for comparison, the city’s Department for the Aging spends $55 million per year and the Department of Correction spends about $16 million annually—its success on the nutrition and local food metrics contributed to the fact that those were the highest scores reflected in the Baseline Report. In 2019, 77 percent of the city’s total food spend met nutrition goals, and 15 percent was locally sourced.

In some cases, shifting purchases helped the city make progress on multiple metrics at once.  Spending nearly $1.5 million to purchase organic yogurt from Stonyfield Farms benefited local dairy farms while also giving the DOE points on environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and nutrition. However, other purchases demonstrate that sometimes making progress on one metric could hurt scores on another. For example, another way the DOE met its local sourcing goals between 2017 and 2019 was by buying snacks from Westchester-based Linden’s Cookies and Long Island’s The Cannoli Factory, purchases that likely didn’t align with nutrition goals.

Strategies for Success

As city agencies reach to meet bigger GFPP goals, part of the process, then, is figuring out how best to gather information from suppliers about where their ingredients come from and how they are produced, O’Brien sad.

“We had to start doing a lot of research to figure out ‘How do we use the correct language in our specifications . . . to meet the criteria?” she said. “We’re really trying to understand within a legal framework what we can actually require in contracts.”

And once suppliers know what agencies are looking for, whether it’s a whole-grain pizza made by unionized workers or chicken tenders from Certified Humane chicken farms, much larger questions loom about whether they’ll be available.

“We need to make sure the supply chain is ready to meet our demands, especially because of our scale and because of the logistics of that last mile. The warehousing and distribution in New York City are like no other,” O’Brien said. But he was confident that making careful, deliberate progress is possible by working closely with current suppliers and seeking out new ones. The week we spoke, for instance, DOE representatives were headed to the Plant Based World Expo at The Javits Center to survey suppliers of vegan foods.

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And in other cities, even at volumes lower than NYC’s, producers, manufacturers, and distributors have made changes to win large contracts. Elazan said that in Los Angeles, one supplier raised its wages by 40 percent in order to sell its product to LAUSD. Another reformulated its baked goods to include local whole grains. And MacKenzie said these kinds of changes have already happened at the DOE, when city schools first began shifting menus to meet the changing federal nutrition standards.

“It was the case then that many vendors did not produce, for instance, a whole-grain pizza,” MacKenzie said. But the current federal school lunch standards require at least 51 percent whole grain and “having the New York City market is a pretty big feather in your cap, and so a lot of the big manufacturers reformulated to meet the revised specs,” she added. In 2019, DOE purchased “round whole wheat cheese pizza” from three local distributors, Driscoll Foods, Teri Nichols, and Maramont, an item none of them offered prior to the change in nutrition standards.

And of course, all of this, in the end, must be done while staying within tight budgets. In December, CBS New York reported that the NYC comptroller’s office found the DOE has been overspending on food products. Relying on the creativity with which all school meal providers navigate cost and nutrition, O’Brien noted that their shift to serving fewer burgers, for example, improved their scores on multiple GFPP metrics and allowed them to cut costs.

If mayor-elect Eric Adams makes good on his promises, his team and the staff members handling procurement at other agencies might have even more support.

“My office has repeatedly pushed for the accelerated implementation of the Good Food Purchasing Program, as well as holistic ways of utilizing the power of procurement to shift to a more healthy, sustainable, fair, and humane food system,” he told voters in February. “My strengthened Office of Food Policy would ensure that schools and any other institutions have the proper resources to adopt it in a timely manner.”

Adams added that he’d go above and beyond the GFPP within city procurement to track greenhouse gas emissions, cut food waste, and eliminate processed meats.

This month, Alexina Cather, who is co-leading his food transition team, told Civil Eats that the formation of the team itself—which includes respected leaders on food access and equity, nutrition, sustainability, and urban agriculture—is intended as a clear signal that he is serious about the issue.

And despite the hard work ahead, those already carrying the baton for what they see as better food for their city are ready. “It’s only going to get better,” O’Brien said. “We’ve only just started.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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