How Schools And Cities Can Transform Our Food System

 Paula Daniels, a food system entrepreneur, helps public institutions source healthy, sustainable food. She was named a 2018 Ashoka Fellow for her innovative work. (ASHOKA)

Paula Daniels, a food system entrepreneur, helps public institutions source healthy, sustainable food. She was named a 2018 Ashoka Fellow for her innovative work. (ASHOKA)

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Entrepreneur Paula Daniels wants to create a better food system that prioritizes the health and well-being of people and planet. That’s why in 2015 she and her co-founder set up the Center for Good Food Purchasing that partners with cities and public institutions like schools to source food in new ways. 

The Center spun off their program for national expansion after its successful adoption in Los Angeles in 2012, an effort Daniels spearheaded, and now works with 14 cities -- including the top three of Chicago and New York City as well as Los Angeles -- that collectively spend around $880 million on food purchases each year. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras caught up with Daniels to learn more.

Michael Zakaras: How do you see the problem you’re taking on?

Paula Daniels: Our current food system is based on a 20th century economic model that was developed at a time when expansive industrialization was the norm. As applied to the very natural system of food production, there are some unfortunate consequences. The highly efficient model of creating food and commoditizing it has caused depletion of environmental resources, draining the soil of its natural fertility and polluting the air, rivers, and oceans. There's a huge dead zone off the Gulf of Mexico, for example, because of corn production in the Midwest.

There are also negative impacts on small businesses and labor due to corporate ownership and increasing consolidation, as well as consequences to public health, including the very costly obesity crisis. In the first part of the century, the poorest people had the healthiest diets because they grew and ate their own food. But that's completely switched now because what's cheap and available is highly processed.

Zakaras: Before we get into what you are doing about it, can I get your take on why change in the food system is so hard?

Daniels: As it’s set up now, the food system is very dependent on market economics. Other systems that we consider in the public interest are regulated. For example, electricity was once an innovation and a disruption and a private business offering. But when we began to see disparities in how it was distributed, we regulated it. Water is regulated, air is regulated. I'm not suggesting that food be regulated, but it's completely dependent on market economics and this may explain the difficulty in championing a system-wide approach.

Zakaras: So tell us what you’re proposing.

Daniels: We want to create the mid-scale food economy and we’re doing it by focusing on food procurement of large public institutions like schools that are already aligned with the public's wellbeing. If you look at our current predominant food system, it’s very global -- like a massive super highway. And then if you look at what people are most familiar with on a personal level like farmers' markets and white tablecloth restaurants that serve artisanal, locally grown identified food -- this is like the bike lane in terms of impact. We’re working on creating a kind of mid-sized boulevard with more traffic in several lanes.

Zakaras: What’s the first step?

Daniels: Shifting demand by engaging large institutions like public school districts to direct changes in their purchasing power. Once you have an institution like, say, Los Angeles Unified School District that has an annual $150 million food budget, and they start to signal to the local economy that they want, for example, chicken that’s raised without antibiotics, that matters. Then you add Oakland and San Francisco and others and you’re making a dent in a major supply chain.

Zakaras: Big companies like Aramark and Sodexo have sustainability programs. How is what you offer different?

Daniels: A few things. First, what we offer is by far the most comprehensive, ambitious set of standards and it covers a focus often left out: people. We lead with five values and we have a metric based system and a way of verifying and rating that the purchasing is actually directed in the way that we’re saying.

We also help institutions sync with growers. Let’s say a school system wants to buy grapes or broccoli or whatever from California growers. Well, they’ll need to work with the growing season and they’ll want to develop menus many months in advance and communicate those menus to their distributors or food service providers, so farmers can grow to that menu and with enough lead time.

Zakaras: When you think 10, even 20 years out, do you really expect to be able to make a dent in this problem?

Daniels: I think we can, and I think we can take as an example the way renewable energy has grown in our country. In the '70s it seemed almost impossible to think that we would have anything other than a fossil fuel energy system. But now most regions have an array of renewable energy that's really important for a number of reasons: economically, job creation, environmentally. That was accomplished through regional targets, arrived at through concerted public and political will. If we think the same way about our food system, if we think about our own region and what it can produce and how we can support that, then align our institutions and the policy incentives that the businesses along the line might need, I think we can get there.

Zakaras: This is long-term work for sure, what energizes you most right now?

Daniels: There's so much interest, desire, will to make the food system more equitable and environmentally sound, and the fact that people are responding to our idea as a way forward for them is incredibly gratifying. I’m also gratified that we can contribute to better relationships between urban institutions and their rural agrarian community. The disconnect between urban and rural is part of a bigger divide that we're experiencing in this country. Not that what we’re doing will solve it all but practicing an economic responsibility within our regional neighborhoods is important not only for the food system but for our democracy.

Paula Daniels is a 2018 Ashoka Fellow. Read more about Ashoka innovators in the United States here.