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Fairer food for Philadelphia: Providing better meals through open contracting

The City of Philadelphia, Sunlight Foundation and Open Contracting Partnership launch a new open data project to provide nutritious food for residents and better opportunities for local business as part of the City’s shift to value-based food purchasing.

At any given time, hundreds of thousands of people living in cities may rely on their municipal government for meals. The City of Philadelphia spends up to $25 million every year on food and food services for residents, whether through providing lunches for children at summer camp, or feeding people experiencing homelessness and living in a shelter. Indeed, about 14.5 million meals are prepared annually for people living in public institutions, such as shelters or prisons, and to children in summer, recreational, or after-school programs.

As essential as it is, food procurement is more complicated than it might appear. Like any regular shopper buying groceries at the supermarket, City decision-makers can now assess the nutritional value and sourcing of their food products to ensure that residents are getting the healthiest options. But while citizens feeding their own families may have to choose between ALDI and Whole Foods, the City of Philadelphia must choose from a number of different vendors, balancing the need to provide healthy, nutritious meals to residents while using taxpayers’ money efficiently.

Cities seeking the best possible vendors and the best quality food must ensure that they are casting a broad net in enabling competitive, new business partners and that they are making their nutritional and public health priorities clear to potential vendors. This approach is known as “value-based food purchasing.”

Unfortunately, complicated platforms and processes make it difficult for some vendors to effectively bid on contract opportunities. By inadvertently excluding these vendors, the City risks losing out on opportunities to both empower local businesses and to improve the quality of food provided to residents.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration recognizes that better, more transparent contracting practices will be important to start buying healthier food for local communities. As the City’s Good Food Purchasing Coordinator Molly Riordan notes, “the goal is ensuring that Philadelphia’s food contracts supply nutritious, sustainably grown, fairly produced, and locally oriented food as much as possible.” As the City shifts its strategy toward values-based food purchasing, Riordan and her partners across the City will need to ensure that long-standing City partners understand new public standards for nutritious food.

The City recently passed an update to its procurement policy, shifting to Best Value procurement. Best Value allows City buyers to evaluate potential business partners — in this case, food vendors — in terms of the quality of their product, instead of requiring the City to always award the contract to the lowest bidder. This allows the process to consider factors such as sustainability and improvements in nutrition, and also takes into account past performance and other value-based metrics. Ideally, a shift toward Best Value will allow more vendors to compete for City bids and will help further another City goal — to support local minority-owned, women-owned, and other small businesses in winning city contracts.

The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team and the Open Contracting Partnership are excited to announce a project with the City of Philadelphia’s Chief Administrative Officer and Open Data teams to bring better quality food to Philadelphia’s residents.

The project will identify how improved open data and data management practices for food procurement can increase accountability in the process, help the City be a better buyer to its vendors, and provide better access to higher quality food for citizens. Although the City already shares some data on public contracts as open data, our teams will collaborate to find innovative opportunities to share this data and information.

Through this project, we hope to identify solutions that can support the City’s efforts through:

The City of Philadelphia has long been known for its commitment to innovation and
transparency, particularly with open data. By dedicating time and resources to improve partnerships with local businesses, the City hopes to support local sustainable food vendors and better preserve the environment, prevent food waste, and support the local economy.

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