How Good Food and Ethical Apparel Can Create Good Jobs 

An Interview with Paula Daniels, Founding Chair of the Center for Good Food Purchasing

Labor 411’s editor Sahid Fawaz sat down with noted expert Paula Daniels, head of the Center for Good Food Purchasing, an LA-based non-profit that brings locally grown, good, healthy food to our public schools and government institutions. Now the Good Food Purchasing Program can be found in cities across the country. We are interested in its model program as we pursue a similar tract with locally sourced t-shirts, uniforms, and other apparel for our public colleges and government agencies in Los Angeles. Our goal is to explore the government’s role in providing good jobs and sustainable apparel.

As co-founder, Chief of What’s Next, Paula has been at this for a long time. She started with the LA Food Policy Council in 2011, then spun off to help create the Center for Good Food Purchasing four years later. Paula has served as Senior Advisor on Food Policy to Mayor Villaraigosa of Los Angeles; as a Los Angeles Public Works Commissioner; a commissioner with the California Coastal Commission; board member of the California Bay-Delta Authority; and as a commissioner with the California Water Commission.

SF: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about the Good Food Purchasing Program. Can you tell us about the program and share your role in bringing the program from idea to reality?

The program’s roots were in the LA Food Policy Council, which I led as an initiative of the office of then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The LA Food Policy Council started with the 30th anniversary celebration of farmers markets in Los Angeles. The group was convened by Larry Frank, who was then a deputy mayor. (He’s now at the UCLA Labor Center.) I was among the many people he invited to these large meetings in the mayor’s press room.

The point of farmers markets is important here because when they started, their whole mission was to support small farmers who have difficulty getting access to markets and to provide for folks in inner city areas that didn’t have enough grocery stores to have access to healthy food.

That’s important because what it meant was that the industrial food system was bypassing folks at the margins. So, the industrial system was only operating at a large scale and it left small farmers out of the equation. And because of the profit-driven model, it also left a lot of lower income communities without access to healthy food. So, farmers markets were an ingenious way to do a workaround on that and to create opportunity for small farmers and to provide access to food to low-income communities.

So, we were planning to celebrate that, and the thinking was “how do we move this to the next level and to the 21st century?”

I have been very interested in food policy myself because of my own background in Hawaii, where the agricultural lands in Hawaii were completely taken over, and not voluntarily, to industrially produce sugar. And it completely eclipsed the economy of Hawaii, which had been a diverse, sophisticated economy. Instead, it became an agricultural backwater. The only jobs were in fields and factories; and they weren’t very good ones either. My dad was raised on a plantation there.

In addition to that background, I have been very involved in water policy in California. I had been appointed by Governor Davis to the Bay Delta Authority. It oversaw the state water project, which irrigates the Central Valley of California, resulting in the largest agriculture producing area in the country. It’s all irrigated agriculture and their use of water was concerning to me. I personally thought that we should work on a market-based approach to provide the economic opportunity to produce food that is more sustainably produced along with other attributes that we would want in a food system.

Los Angeles, as a consuming entity, is a county of over 10 million people. If we organized our purchasing power and said we want food that is more sustainably produced, recognizes fair labor, and supports small local farmers, we would get it.

We’ve seen that happen with organic food, which started coming into play in the 1990s after the Organic Food Production Act, and how much that market share grew. I mean, you see it everywhere now. So, taking that example or thinking, we need to do more of that, you know, create more markets. So that was my interest in taking this idea of moving food policy forward. So, we created the LA Food Policy Council, and the mayor gave his full support to it. We worked on many things. Street vending was one of the things we worked on to create opportunities for micro-enterprises. We worked on healthy neighborhood markets, community gardens, urban agriculture, all those things.

One of those things was this procurement program. We took two years to design it and to get feedback. It was stakeholder-driven, and we had a lot of support. Most significant from a labor standpoint was Joanne Lo who then was the Executive Director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. She had also been part of developing the city’s sweat-free purchasing ordinance. We brought in NRDC to help inform the environmental part. We worked with the Secretary of Food and Agriculture and others for the small farm local economy part. The ASPCA got involved and we had the LA County Department of Public Health helping us with the nutrition part. We also had businesses help us understand the supply chain. We had the school districts involved because we knew that we would want them to be engaged in the program. So, we had a really big tent.

We researched purchasing policies around the country. We found maybe about 10 at the time but they were more aspirational and were mostly focused on local. And some were focused on sustainability. There were none that had labor in it at all, and none that had metrics or that had any type of accountability or verification built in

We developed very specific metrics because we wanted to make sure there was accountability. To enroll in the program, organizations would have to show us their purchasing information. This way we could verify, basically audit, what they’re doing and then be able to reflect that back to them.

We created a 15% baseline. We knew that there was the capacity, the ability, and the supply to do 15% environmental, 15% sustainable, 15% local, and so on. We knew they could do it. They just had to put their effort in that direction.

SF: When you say “local,” does that mean at a city level or is it more statewide?

We made our own definition of local. In Illinois, for example, it was statewide. I felt that it should be more of an area of economic influence. I think we could just know by living here what the economic influence is from the standpoint of what economists would all indirect and induced impacts. So that means where you are buying your supplies from and then where you spend your money when you’re the one who’s getting that local dollar for your good or service. So, I just figured Southern California and then did some research on the 10-county region around Los Angeles. And we settled on that.

We did a lot of work on the program and eventually it was adopted by the mayor for the City of Los Angeles. I want to take a moment to give former Mayor Villaraigosa a lot of credit here. It’s important for me that he is acknowledged for this program because we brought this new idea to him, and he understood it and went with it. He said, “We’ve got to try this. It’s a bold idea. Let’s try it.”

SF: What was the first school district to adopt the program?

The LA Unified School District. And we had some immediate success. It went from less than 10% local sourcing of produce to an average of 60% in a year.

It made a huge difference and that redirected $12 million in that first year into the local economy. And it created 150 new jobs in food processing. And there were other ripple effects. They started sourcing sustainably grown wheat. One of the distributors was organized – became a union distributor.

SF: How did the program grow outside of LA?

Villaraigosa was president of the US Conference of Mayors and I recommended to him that we create a food policy task force at the US Conference of Mayors, and he agreed to that. So, then we had this affinity group of mayors working on food policy issues. Folks heard about our program. They were very interested in it, wanted to do something like that. And we realized that rather than have them pick it apart – that is, it should always be all of the five values: local economies, environmental sustainability, fair labor, animal welfare, and nutrition. Those are inseparable. If you talk about what people now call a regenerative food system, all of those things are part of what would make a thriving food system: community health and well-being and planetary health and well-being; community includes not only public health but worker well-being. You can’t do one without the other and have it be a good food system.

So, we decided to spin out the Good Food Purchasing Program into the stand-alone Center for Good Food Purchasing so that other cities can adopt it and not feel like they’re having to adopt something from the LA Food Policy Council. So that’s what we did in 2015.

SF: Are the percentages standard for all cities or are they adjustable due to local differences?

No. Our standards and rating criteria are set. What’s different is what the performance level is. So, we don’t change our criteria. But what we tell people is how they’re doing against it. And different places do differently. So, they get their score.

SF: When you take a more macro view of what is going on in food purchasing, what are your thoughts about the near future and the program’s role in it?

What we’ve been able to uncover from looking at the trend analysis from the purchasing that we’ve been analyzing is that these large food institutions are struggling in certain value categories. They’re very much struggling in the environmental sustainability category. So, from that standpoint, what that tells me is that an incentive fund like the one we created in California (we were part of creating a $100 million incentive fund for school meals in 2022, thanks to Senator Skinner) is important. There are currently a lot of subsidies in the economy going to the large-scale production side of things. That has changed over time.

I want to give credit to Biden’s administration and Tom Vilsack II. It’s his second time as Secretary of Agriculture and he’s been instrumental in creating a lot of funding streams to support smaller farmers and climate smart agriculture. Those are just beginning to happen and to take hold. But we need more of that to really level the playing field. And so, I think a very targeted purchasing incentive is the way to go. We’ve done it in California. We hope to do it at the federal level. But if it’s not going to happen at the federal level, we’d like to see more state-by-state campaigns to see incentive funds in place. to buy the food that supports these core public interest values and then if you show increasing benefit from that, I think you can start making it hopefully a permanent source of funds in some way or another, not a one-time grant.

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