City food procurement is an investment in our planet

This piece was written by Kate MacKenzie, Executive Director at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, and Tia Schwab, Policy Advisor at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Food Policy in collaboration with Betina Bergmann Madsen, Chief Procurement Officer at the Municipality of Copenhagen, and Sofie Folsach Rasmussen, Communications Advisor at the Municipality of Copenhagen.

The theme of this year’s Earth Week is “Invest in Our Planet” – a timely topic as cities around the world harness their buying power to create a more sustainable world. In ICLEI Member cities Copenhagen and New York City, we are starting this work with our food purchases. New York City spends over $500 million per year on food and meals for New Yorkers, Copenhagen spends approximately $48,5 million per year on food for public meals, and this purchasing power can serve as an investment in the health of our local economies, communities, and planet.

In New York City, Mayor Adams signed Executive Order 8 in 2022, formalizing New York City’s Good Food Purchasing (GFP) program. As part of this program, the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy (MOFP) annually collects and publishes data on the food the city is buying and serving in a variety of settings, including schools, hospitals, older adult centers, shelters, detention facilities, pantries, and community centers.

The goal of NYC’s GFP program is to align the city’s food purchases with the values of transparency, nutrition, environmental sustainability, local economies, animal welfare, and a valued workforce. To do this, MOFP also supports city agencies with buying more minimally processed, plant-rich foods, which produce less carbon emissions than animal products. In addition, MOFP works with agencies to increase food purchases from minority- and women-owned businesses and New York State vendors. Already, NYC is on track to meet its commitment of reducing the carbon emissions of food-related purchases by 33% by 2030.

In Denmark, the government has implemented a Green Procurement Strategy with a national requirement of at least 60% organic food in public kitchens. In addition to this, the city of Copenhagen has launched its own ambitious Food Strategy with a target of purchasing 90% organic food and reducing the carbon footprint of meals associated with food service by 25% before 2025. The ambition of this strategy is to create more sustainable and nutritious public meals, reduce waste, and increase the organic farming area, which decreases pesticide use and protects biodiversity and food and water safety. Serving more than 70.000 meals every day in over 1,000 different publicly run institutions – primarily across childcare centers, schools, care homes, and social care services – with an 85% organic purchasing rate, the city is steadily progressing towards meeting its commitments.

Over the past year, our two teams have been collaborating closely to share best practices and workshop approaches to sustainable public procurement. While New York City and Copenhagen have different legal, demographic, and cultural contexts, both cities share a common goal: Healthier, more environmentally friendly meals with no increase in operating budgets. 

In Copenhagen, the municipality has covered the organic price premium by reducing waste, buying seasonal foods, and converting to a more plant-based diet with reduced use of meat. To support this transition, the city has along with their culinary advisors, Meyers Madhus, created a recipe database with 900 climate-friendly dishes tailored specifically for their public kitchens, available free of charge for all to use – both public and private. By adopting these measures, the city not only supports the organic transition with no extra cost but also promotes sustainable and healthy meals for its citizens.

New York City has achieved cost savings by increasing purchases of plant-based, minimally processed food and reducing animal product purchases. The city’s Food Standards require one plant-based entree per meal type per week, accomplished through initiatives like NYC Public Schools’ Plant-Powered Fridays. The plant-based default meals program for patients in public hospitals has seen 50% of patients sticking to the plant-powered option and resulted in an initial cost savings of 59 cents per tray, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 36% in the first year of implementation.

Both Copenhagen and New York City have also seen that healthy, sustainable procurement necessitates an investment in the culinary workforce and food education. As agencies change the food that they are buying, culinary teams need new skills to ensure plant-rich meals are delicious and satisfying, and consumers want to know the “why” behind the food they’re eating. In New York City, a partnership with Wellness in the Schools is rolling out culinary training to staff in all five boroughs, and a partnership with Hot Bread Kitchen is training all culinary staff at the Department of Correction and Administration for Children’s Services in plant-based cooking this fall.

In Copenhagen, comprehensive training programs are available for all public kitchen workers, equipping kitchen workers with the culinary skills required to create climate-friendly, tasty, and nutritionally balanced meals, using predominantly plant-based, organic ingredients. Additionally, ongoing culinary courses are developed to cover key themes aligned with the city’s food strategy with more than 500 training programs and over 600 courses completed since 2020. The city emphasizes the significance of enhancing our appreciation and understanding of food to foster a resilient, sustainable, and healthy food system. Therefore, Copenhagen focusses on food literacy among its citizens, prioritizing initiatives such as Food Schools. These have on site working kitchens where students assist in preparing and serving lunch meals for their peers and teachers, providing them with hands-on learning experiences and understanding of the food on their plates.

Both cities have also found that changes in public procurement drives change across sectors. As food service companies transform their business to supply food to public kitchens and agencies, they bring these new values and supply chains to other sectors. New York City’s Plant-Powered Carbon Challenge has resulted in 10 private, institutional, and nonprofit sector leaders committing to decarbonizing food purchases by 25% by the year 2030.

Copenhagen has seen total sales in private food service grow to match and now exceed sales in public kitchens. Moreover, in 2018, Copenhagen and the Danish Environmental Protection Agency established a National Public Food Procurement Network. Serving as a collaborative platform between Danish municipalities and Regions, the Network facilitates the structured exchange of knowledge, experience, and best practice in public food procurement, ensuring a more sustainable and healthy food system. Building on this initiative, in January 2023 – as part of the EU project Joint Action Best ReMaP – the Municipality of Copenhagen partnered with the EU Commission department on Health and Food Safety to launch a European Food Procurement Network, aiming to spread innovative and sustainable procurement practices across Europe. Now, through our ongoing collaboration and joint efforts, New York and Copenhagen are sharing best practices to sustainable public procurement across continents.

We’re excited to continue our work together. Copenhagen and New York City have shown that what happens in our cities can change the world, so this Earth Week and beyond, let’s harness municipalities’ purchasing power to invest in our planet.