What your community eats is based on what feeds into your social system. In Los Angeles, on one end of the food chain, in goes massive regional agricultural production, the labor of more than a million workers, and a transnational culinary palate, fueled by immigration. On other end, out comes roiling urban food markets, billions of dollars in worldwide produce exports, mom’s tamale cart and countless hungry school kids. But distilling this into an actual citywide food policy can be a messy business in a place where the Korean taco truck parks beween the artisanal wine bar and corner bodega. The city’s food policy initiatives are working toward that complex blend of good politics, good taste and marketing savvy.
The LA Food Policy Council’s Good Food Purchasing Program has for the past two years (with many years of planning) sought to link principles of economic justice with public and ecological health, in a way that, unlike other more elitist food trends, focuses on the nourishment of working-class families.
As an initial step, the council’s Good Food Purchasing Pledge system encourages large institutions, like city agencies, to systematically make their food procurement practices more sustainable in five key issue areas: “local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition.” Participating institutions are rated on their performance in each objective and can receive technical assistance to properly source products and track progress.
The “valued workforce” component is perhaps one of the most complex; traditionally, the consumer interest in eating well at cheap prices has been at odds with the labor interest of earning good wages under fair conditions. The program tries to boost quality on both the demand and supply sides of the market, in line with a socially integrative movement for food justice taking root in cities across the country.
The aim is to set a price point for turning a regional food system into a source of not just good jobs, but also quality produce and environmentally friendly farming. Another objective is to strengthen low-income communities’ access to affordable, healthy food, as well as to reduce pollution and other infrastructure strains that come with the distribution industry. By promoting regional market networks, the program aims to shrink the city’s carbon footprint and cultivate community self-sufficiency.
The food workforce, however, has a long road ahead to sustainability. According to a 2013 assessment of LA’s food system, about 1.3 million people work on the food chain, or more than one in seven jobs in the region, including “farm work, food processing, distribution, food service and retail.” But they’re poor: “the median hourly wage of non-supervisory food system workers in the LA foodshed was just $10.20 per hour,” while a “living wage” for typical three-person household is nearly twice that level. A whopping 18 percent of California food system workers are food insecure—meaning, they have difficulty securing a stable, healthy food supply.