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Rethinking How New York Buys Food

Legislation introduced by Senator Michelle Hinchey would allow municipalities to buy from more socially conscious food producers.

State Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-Saugerties) announcing a new bill that would realign local food-purchasing priorities with social and environmental values, at Indian Ladder Farms on January 27.
Courtesy of the office of Senator Hinchey
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New York’s existing food procurement policies require municipalities and local institutions such as schools and hospitals to contract with the lowest responsible bidder. This model tends to drive business toward whoever can mass produce products in the fastest, cheapest way possible, regardless of consequences.

But a new bill would change that. The Good Food Purchasing Program, sponsored by Michelle Hinchey in the Senate and Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes in the Assembly, is designed to promote food sustainability and ethics by introducing a values-based procurement model. It would allow municipalities to award contracts to suppliers that uphold environmental sustainability, racial equity, fair labor practices, animal welfare, fair pricing for farmers, local sourcing, and nutritional value, as long as their bids are within 10 percent of the lowest bidder.

The proposed law would revolutionize the way municipalities purchase food, says Hinchey, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. “New York’s food procurement laws are stuck in the 1970s, as that’s the last time they were updated. Our bill is needed because it is finally bringing New York’s food purchasing strategy into the 21st century.” 

The bill follows the framework of the Good Food Purchasing Policy adopted by Los Angeles in 2012. Since then, similar programs have been implemented in 60 institutions and 24 municipalities across the country, which combined spend more than $1 billion on food per year. (Nationwide, food service institutions spend an estimated $125 billion annually on procurement.) New York would be the first state to pass a values-based food procurement law, and Hinchey is hopeful it would start a trend.

“The way New York goes, so does the country,” she says. “We should recognize the power for big innovative ideas such as this to show that it is possible not just on city scale, but on a whole state scale. To be able to really roll that out from our state as the first is really exciting.”

Local and Humane

In recent years, values-based procurement has gained some traction on the municipal level in New York State. New York City, which began working on establishing a Good Food Purchasing Program in 2015, spends a half-billion dollars and supplies 230 million meals annually. Buffalo city schools, which supply 10 million meals each year, began working on a program in 2017.

“That’s real purchasing power, and with that comes an incredible responsibility and an opportunity to greatly influence how food is produced,” says Bill Ketzer, senior director of state legislation for the ASPCA Eastern Division. He says the bill not only aligns with the ASPCA’s mission, but with societal values. “We know that New Yorkers want a more humane food system. They want a system that is more compassionate to animals, to farms, to consumers, to workers, and to the environment.”

In a survey conducted by the ASPCA, nine out of 10 Americans said they are concerned about the impacts of factory farming, and more than 70 percent are seeking out more local or high-welfare animal products. “They’re increasingly becoming more aware of where their food comes from,” Ketzer says.

According to the Sentience Institute, 99 percent of farm animals in the US are living on factory farms. Farming in New York, however, tends to be on a smaller scale, with 98 percent of the state’s 33,438 farming operations being family-owned businesses, many of which find it difficult to compete with out-of-state factory farms.

The Good Food Purchasing bill would give priority to suppliers that source 51 percent of their raw materials from within the state. But that is just one of seven ways a producer can qualify for extra consideration, and the New York Farm Bureau believes it could actually put New York farmers at a disadvantage.

“To receive preference, the bidder should be required to be able to attest that 51 percent of the food product ingredients contain locally produced raw agricultural materials grown and harvested,” the Farm Bureau said in a statement. “As the bill is currently written, a bidder from another state could qualify by just meeting one of the other criteria. New York farmers and food processors already lose business to out-of-state farms and food processors that can offer products for lower prices.” 

Assembly member Chris Tague agrees that the bill diminishes the importance of sourcing in-state goods by making it just one of seven options. “Rather than supporting this bill, I am co-sponsoring another bill, which would establish procurement goals and preference for New York State food products purchased by state agencies, ensuring their purchases support our state’s farmers when possible,” he says.

The Farm Bureau also questions who would evaluate a farmer’s eligibility: “Will the local government have the expertise in this field of knowledge to lay out scientifically based requirements?” The agency recommended that farmers demonstrate their eligibility through already existing programs, such as the New York Grown and Certified Program.

Other Criteria

The Good Food Purchasing bill offers a number of additional pathways farmers can qualify for extra consideration during the bidding process. One is an equity provision for minority- and women-owned businesses. While women represent a growing share of New York’s farmers, they still accounted for just 37 percent in 2017. BIPOC farmers made up only 1.3 percent.

Another criterion concerns fair labor practices, giving a boost to employers that respect and protect workers’ rights to unionize and collectively bargain, an important lever in a $5.75 billion industry that employs more than 55,000 people. Josh Kellerman, director of public policy for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents more than 45,000 workers, says this provision will incentivize employers to support their workers. 

And arguably the bill’s most complex provision concerns the criteria for environmental sustainability, which are broken down into seven categories of ways that farmers can mitigate their impact on the environment: eliminating or reducing the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; avoiding the routine use of hormones and antibiotics; preserving and rebuilding soil quality; protecting and enhancing wildlife habitats and biodiversity; avoiding impairment of water or air quality; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and reducing energy use, water consumption, and food waste.

“I was struck by the diversity of initiatives that farmers could potentially be rewarded for with a higher price,” says Laura Ten Eyck, general manager of Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont, a local orchard that is throwing its support behind the bill, along with more than 80 organizations at the state, national, and local level. “Bringing together a lot of these issues into one piece of legislation highlights the complexity of the environment that farmers are working in and how critically important it is that we succeed at all these things.”

The Farm Bureau, for its part, contends that New York farmers are already meeting higher standards in terms of the environment, animal welfare, and workers’ rights. But according to Kellerman, more can and should be done to reward employers who operate in socially responsible ways.

“Values-based contracting puts public dollars where our values are,” he says. “It puts it in the hands of employers who treat their workers as full people, with families to support and meaningful lives to pursue. It puts public dollars in the hands of employers who protect the environment, that treat animals with respect, that are local, that honor racial diversity…And it disadvantages those whose only goal is greed.”