Global Food Institute and Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition Convene Federal Food Procurement Experts

GFI founder José Andrés, U.S. Reps. James McGovern and Chellie Pingree and USDA officials were among the speakers at a two-day summit.

April 3, 2024

U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) speaks at “The Future of Federal Food Purchasing" summit at the Milken Institute SPH. (William Atkins/GW Today)

U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) speaks at “The Future of Federal Food Purchasing" summit at the Milken Institute SPH. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The federal government directly purchased about $9 billion worth of food in 2022, including supplies for school districts, food banks, low-income seniors, Native American reservations, prisons, military bases and more. Each of these sectors represents a plethora of choices about what food to buy and where to buy it from—but what do those choices mean, and what are their repercussions? How can federal food procurement policy address the United States’ climate goals, health priorities, economic needs and the necessity of an equitable and inclusive American workforce?

In March, federal policymakers, agency officials, researchers and other food experts engaged with these and related questions at “The Future of Federal Food Purchasing: Transforming Policy & Practice,” a two-day summit co-hosted at the George Washington University by the GW Global Food Institute (GFI) and the Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition (FGFPC).

Topics of discussion in the breakout sessions and plenaries included the climate impact of increasing plant-based food options in federally funded programs, efforts to increase equitable procurement at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and job creation and racial equity in food purchasing.

Food is a necessarily interdisciplinary issue, GW Provost Christopher Alan Bracey said in his introductory remarks Monday, which is one reason GFI and this conference are natural fits for GW.

“GW, as an institute of higher education, is now in its third century of working across disciplines to find innovative solutions to the world's most pressing problems,” Bracey said. “We do this by educating generations of leaders, by conducting and disseminating impactful research and by convening subject matter experts and thought leaders from around the world to discuss challenges and to drive solutions. This summit is an excellent example of how GW is fulfilling its commitment in that regard.”

Elected officials weigh in on federal food purchasing

U.S. Reps. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) and Chellie M. Pingree (D-Maine) both delivered remarks. McGovern, who has been the top Democrat on the powerful House Rules Committee since 2018 and also serves on the House Agriculture Committee, expressed pride in the Biden administration’s “long-term holistic strategy” on hunger, nutrition and health in America and its “commitment to see that strategy through.”

“Hunger is not going to be solved simply as a federal action alone, and the beauty of the national strategy is that it gives us all an assignment in this fight,” McGovern said.

Still, McGovern said, the buck ultimately stops with the system holding the greatest purchasing power. “It is up to us as the federal government to set a good example,” he said. “By more aggressively implementing values-aligned food procurement, we can begin to transform our food system into one that better supports local economies, improves worker protection and wages, promotes racial equity, advances environmental sustainability and public health and bolsters animal welfare.”

Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture with decades of hands-on expertise as an organic farmer, said she is heartened by the evolution of interest and investment in creating sustainable, responsible local and national food systems since she first took federal office in 2009.

“When I first came, because it was the thing I did every day, I couldn't wait to be on the Agriculture Committee—but it was kind of a place where people got assigned to represent the commodities in their district—cotton, corn, soybeans,” she said. “Today, in the last round, we had a fistfight over who got to hold the seats on that committee. And nothing could be better than that fighting over those seats.”

The federal government can and should take big swings, Pingree said—to reduce atmospheric carbon, to increase soil health and to protect existing farmland, as well as investing in other programs that stimulate rural economies by incentivizing ecologically responsible farming practices.

Ultimately, Pingree said, federal procurement decisions come back to the concerns of constituents.

“Every time we can change the mind of a consumer—where we can educate people, where they get good information so they know exactly what to fight about, or they hear about the legislation that we're working on—they can be engaged consumers, and that makes a world of difference with my colleagues,” she said. “I've seen a world of difference in 15 years, so I know that we can get there from here.”

The role of federal offices and agencies

Christine J. Harada, senior advisor in the White House’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, delivered the summit’s closing keynote. (William Atkins/GW Today)
Christine J. Harada, senior advisor in the White House’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, delivered the summit’s closing keynote. (William Atkins/GW Today)

At one keynote session, USDA administrators Cindy Long and Bruce Summers discussed the services the agency has developed in pursuit of more equitable and robust American food systems. Both Long and Summers pointed to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s stated goal of using the USDA to transform the American food system for the better.

Summers, administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), said the agency is pursuing a number of initiatives toward its goals of “building a more resilient supply chain, creating a fairer food system, making nutritious foods more available and affordable for consumers and also emphasizing equity.” Through the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program, for instance, the AMS provides state, tribal and territorial governments with funding to purchase foods produced either within the state or within a relatively small radius of the delivery location.

Long is administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which touches one in four Americans as the overseeing body of about $150 billion worth of program benefits. This represents an enormous purchasing power which can be leveraged toward new and more equitable ways of obtaining food. As an example, Long cited the Patrick Leahy Farm to School Program, which helps child nutrition program operators incorporate local foods into school lunches, summer food assistance programs and others. The program now implements activities in more than 65 percent of school districts.

“We are deeply committed to ensuring what we call a nutrition-secure future for every American, which means they have access to the nutritious foods they need, no matter who they are or where they live,” she said.

Christine J. Harada, senior advisor in the White House’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, delivered the summit’s closing keynote. The federal government is the single largest purchaser in the world, she said.

In her role at the OFPP, Harada helps shape the policies and practices adhered to by federal agencies in obtaining dog food, satellites, and everything else. That’s a broad mandate, but also one that opens creative avenues of possible improvement in the lives of many Americans, Harada said.

While some may automatically assume that federal guidelines are restrictive, Harada said, “it's not about taking away, but rather expanding choices and options.”

“Efforts to advance and improve federal food purchasing…[should] be viewed holistically,” Harada said. “It's got to build a more just, healthy, and sustainable system. It needs to improve the working conditions of those who pick and produce our food. It’s got to create a more equitable, diverse, and low cost supplier base. It's got to advance the environmental sustainability of agricultural production. And of course, it needs to promote nutritious and healthy food offerings to federally funded food programs.

“Procurement can be a catalyst for change.”

Andrés and Rodríguez on the critical role of farmworkers

Arturo S. Rodríguez, the UFW president emeritus José Andrés called a "legend," discussed bringing farmworkers to the table in the conversation on food.
Arturo S. Rodríguez, the UFW president emeritus José Andrés called a "legend," discussed bringing farmworkers to the table in the conversation on food. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Farming viability and consumer engagement were also major concerns voiced by chef, humanitarian and GFI founder José Andrés and Arturo S. Rodríguez, president emeritus of United Farm Workers (UFW), who participated in a “fireside chat” moderated by Tara A. Scully, GFI’s director of curriculum development, associate professor of biology and director of the sustainability minor program.

Rodríguez, whom Andrés called “a legend,” worked with trailblazing labor leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta during his 45-year career with UFW. Farmworkers are perhaps the greatest untapped pool of subject-matter experts on the American food system, he pointed out. From irrigation to food contamination—not to mention labor and worker wellbeing issues—farmworkers have important skills and a hands-on understanding of the nuts and bolts of food production and security. Yet they have only recently been allowed a seat at the table when it comes to federal food policy. 

“Nobody recognizes the fact that they are the ones that really have the knowledge and experience to be able to deal with a lot of the issues that we face,” Rodriguez said. “There's a tremendous, tremendous resource that's not being taken care of.”

Many farmworkers are themselves unable to afford the food they produce or, due to their immigration status, to access federal aid. Rodríguez cited a study estimating that 75 percent of farmworkers in the U.S. lack legal status.

Andrés called the problem of hunger among farmworkers “a conundrum of biblical proportions” that must be solved by any serious approach to responsible federal food procurement.

He pointed out that the U.S. is not without its own major food access problems: “There’s no reason we should have poor neighborhoods in America that don’t have a public market.”

And if these relatively fragile and inequitable food systems become overstressed, whether by climate change, migration or an unforeseeable disaster, a nation’s wealth may not save it from the repercussions, Andrés said.

“If we don’t take food seriously, mayhem may be about to happen.”