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Value over cost: How Philadelphia is committing to better food procurement practices

May 22, 2019 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This is a guest post by Becca Warner, a communications officer at the Sunlight Foundation.
For many, deciding what to eat on any given day is filled with choices. We can choose to eat healthy or splurge; we can pick out foods we like, and we can eat on our own schedule. But what if we didn’t get to make these choices?

At any given time, tens of thousands of people living in the City of Philadelphia may rely on the local government for food, from people experiencing homelessness needing a hot meal to children having lunch at summer camp.

Some of the City’s most vulnerable people rely on government services for balanced, nutritious meals. But within City Hall, decision-makers struggle to balance the need to provide quality food to residents with pressure to spend taxpayer funds efficiently.

In search of the ideal balance, the City partnered with  the Sunlight Foundation and the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP), two nonprofit organizations with experience in using transparency and contracting reforms to solve problems.

Sunlight and OCP reached out to community members with expertise in local food needs, including: farmers market vendors, kitchen staff at City-funded shelters, and City staff who interface with contracted food vendors. The team also spoke with City department staff, and other relevant stakeholders to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the City of Philadelphia provides food services for residents, and how they can do better by implementing more open, business-friendly and results-driven contracting approaches.

The interviews revealed a deep-seated desire for more transparent and human-centered business practices when it comes to food.  Some local business owners felt they didn’t have a fair shot when bidding for contracts with the City against more established competitors. Kitchen staff felt hamstrung and frustrated with the quality of the food provided by repeat vendors.

“They’re not thinking of service, or distribution — all the City is thinking about is the price [of bids],” said one  local business owner.

“In terms of the City, they might want to listen to the people who are cooking the food more in terms of what they are buying,” said a member of kitchen staff.

Using the information gathered from the interviews, Sunlight, OCP, and the City collaborated to come up with longer term open contracting reforms and short-term steps the City could take to address issues outlined by residents, like:

From our Partners

1. Committing to inclusive decision making.

The staff at homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and other agencies are responsible for preparing and serving the food purchased by the City. They have the most sophisticated knowledge of both resident food needs and food vendor performance, yet are not represented in decisions on food procurement. Beginning with a fresh produce contract up for bid in July, Philadelphia will include insights from kitchen and delivery receiving staff to draft Requests for Proposals (RFPs), the documents outlining what vendors are responsible to provide. This is the first time that these frontline staff will be able to inform the quality and value of the food the City will buy, rather than the contract simply being awarded to the lowest bidder.

2. A new standard for food quality.

Traditionally, government agencies are legally required to award contracts to the bidder with the lowest price. Best Value procurement gives agencies leeway to consider factors other than cost in selecting a vendor. Quality, expertise, and certification as a Local Business Enterprise (LBE)  are considerations that might weigh on a determination of the best value a vendor may offer. In 2017, Philadelphia voters approved best value procurement, and the City of Philadelphia, with assistance from Sunlight and OCP, are now drafting the first best value RFP for food. This is a key change, as best value practices levels the playing field  for smaller, local food vendors who struggle to compete based on price.

Based on the community’s input through this work, the City will continue to explore innovative ways to improve the quality of its food through better, more transparent procurement. These changes are a promising start to the City of Philadelphia’s ultimate goal: to provide quality, nutritious food to their residents, and to encourage a better business environment for local food vendors.

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