A new report envisions federal food spending as a force for good

by Jodi Helmer , Hannah Walhout

Published: 1/03/24, Last updated: 3/29/24

Think about all the food the federal government purchases every year: for the National School Lunch Program‘s free meals for children, the produce distributed to low-income seniors through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, every dish served on-base to military personnel and every food basket distributed to emergency zones as foreign aid.

Without even accounting for reimbursement schemes and food assistance programs like SNAP, direct food purchases from U.S. producers accounted for roughly $9.1 billion of the federal budget in 2022. It’s a staggering volume — and one that is directly tied to the country’s industrial food system. But what exactly does its foodprint look like?

A new report uses the available data to fill in the full picture of federal food purchasing — greenhouse gas emissions and land use, but also pesticides, worker rights, animal welfare and public health. In trying to account for these various impacts, it becomes clear that making changes to federal food procurement could make a real and positive difference.

“By the start of the Biden administration, there had already been a decade’s worth of proof of concept for the idea that institutional food purchasing could really change the food system,” says Chloë Waterman, co-author of the report and senior program manager for Friends of the Earth. “[The goal of the report] was to start thinking about the mechanisms that the federal government has to implement these strategies.”

Digging into the data

The report, “Measuring and Modeling Climate, Environmental, and Social Impacts of Federal Food Procurement,” marks the first-ever attempt to calculate the carbon footprint of federal food spending.

The authors estimate that a single year of federal food purchasing represents greenhouse gas emissions totaling 14,683,200 metric tons of CO2, including 5,781,800 metric tons of methane. The Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition, made up of food justice, labor, environmental and other organizations, produced the report.

“When you drill down to measure where the greatest greenhouse gas emissions are coming from…it’s animal proteins,” says Alexa Delwiche, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Good Food Purchasing, which works to improve sourcing practices on the institutional level. “Most of those animal purchases are coming from [concentrated animal feeding operations] or conventional, large scale agriculture, which has a different climate impact than smaller scale farming.”

Reports show that CAFOs take a massive toll on the environment and beyond, increasing air pollution, contributing to antibiotic resistance, contaminating drinking water and killing aquatic life.

Industrial operations like these dominate the procurement supply chain: The report notes that the United States Department of Agriculture spends half of its contracted food budget with the top 25 vendors (which account for just 8 percent of the total number of approved federal food vendors). The USDA paid Cargill Inc. more than $269 million in fiscal year 2022, making it the largest contracted producer to the federal government. Tyson Foods was a close second, receiving more than $248 million for food purchases made during the same period.

Those same large agribusinesses that have an outsized impact on the environment are also problematic for other reasons. Both Cargill and Tyson, for example, have faced allegations of serious violations of federal labor and environmental laws. In 2023, Cargill agreed to pay a civic penalty of $1.6 million after a complaint alleged that the company underestimated emissions from its processing plants in 13 states. Cargill also cut ties with the contractor it hired to clean its meatpacking plants over accusations of child labor violations. Tyson Foods is the subject of a federal labor investigation that alleges children were hired to work cleaning its poultry slaughterhouses.

“The same companies that show up in this report are the same companies that we see in every institutional supply chain,” says Delwiche. “We should be investing taxpayer dollars into companies that are following the law.”

Embracing values-based food purchasing

Addressing the climate, environmental and social impacts of federal food procurement starts with committing to values-based food purchasing. It’s a framework first developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and now housed under the Good Food Purchasing Program, that promotes five core values — local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare and environmental sustainability — as the building blocks of a transparent and equitable food system.

There is plenty of evidence that a commitment to values-based food purchasing works. In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, the Center for Good Food Purchasing has worked with public institutions to shift their food procurement practices to align with community values — and the same approach will work within the federal government.

“The Biden administration has said [that] a lot of these things are priorities: climate mitigation, racial justice, worker wellbeing…but there’s a mismatch right now between their stated policy values and what their actual food purchasing dollars and spending reflects,” Waterman says. “Many institutions have formal policies on the books, but even those that don’t are making these changes that require them to [approach] their existing procurement processes in different ways. At the federal level, the USDA could begin to assess where their purchases are coming from and begin to make changes.”

The Federal Good Food Purchasing Coalition launched last summer, bringing together the Center for Good Food Purchasing and dozens of other stakeholders, including Friends of the Earth, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Health Care Without Harm. The coalition is building on existing efforts to make change on the federal level, including legislation introduced in response to the successes of values-based purchasing in larger cities.

In November, Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina announced the Enabling Farmer, Food worker, Environmental, and Climate Targets through Innovative, Values-aligned, and Equitable (EFFECTIVE) Food Procurement Act, which would require the USDA to set targets for purchasing sustainable, equitably procured products. The bill also includes a $25 million pilot program to create a values-aligned USDA purchasing process with an emphasis on supporting small-scale and underserved producers in federal food procurement contracts.

Turning the tide

A shift to values-based food purchasing that benefits the environment, public health, farmworkers and animals isn’t going to happen overnight. For decades, the federal commodity procurement system has focused on purchasing the lowest-price products, according to Waterman, and has awarded contracts to the largest agribusiness corporations without strings attached. But the report suggests several policy recommendations that would help the government transition toward a more values-aligned approach.

A baseline level of transparency and accountability is necessary, the report argues; as a first step, more work must be done internally to assess emissions and other impacts of federal food purchasing, including how procurement choices impact U.S. farmers and food chain workers. To combat the dominance of big agribusiness and its often-harmful practices, the authors recommend that more budget be allocated to organic foods and products that have been otherwise third-party certified. The massive amounts of money spent on food procurement could also make a real difference for small- and mid-size farms, especially those owned and operated by people of color and other socially disadvantaged groups — another reason to diversify contracts and move away from the few massive suppliers currently in play.

One specific, achievable and widely impactful change, the authors note, would be to focus on one of the main culprits both for emissions: meat.

“Shifting to more plant-based foods [can] help the government cover the increased costs that are associated with higher quality, values-aligned foods."

Chloe Waterman

senior program manager, Friends of the Earth

The report found that shifting purchasing toward plant-based foods would have “quantifiable benefits” in terms of greenhouse gas reductions, land and water use, animal welfare and cost. In fact, replacing 50 percent of beef purchases with plant-based protein sources would result in a 15 percent reduction in federal food purchasing-related greenhouse gas emissions and cut total food-related carbon costs by 20 percent, according to the report. There would also be a 16 percent reduction in land use and 5 percent reduction in water use.

“We propose that our government uses a ‘less and better’ approach to meat purchasing,” Delwiche explains. But while the goal is to transform food procurement practices throughout the federal government, Delwiche notes that individual institutions can still have a significant positive impact on the environment, even taking decentralized and immediate actions like replacing chicken with chickpeas in salads, swapping beef for black beans in burgers or cutting the portion sizes of meat and poultry in dishes. For an institution that spends $37 million annually on food procurement, Delwiche’s calculations showed that replacing just 20 percent of beef purchases with plant proteins would reduce carbon emissions by 8.7 million pounds — equivalent to taking 855 passenger vehicles off of the road every year.

“Shifting to more plant-based foods [can] help the government cover the increased costs that are associated with higher quality, values-aligned foods,” says Waterman, noting that a move toward more beans and tofu would free up money for the USDA to buy grassfed beef from local, independent farmers.

“We hope that the report will make the case to the Biden administration to prioritize this strategy of values-aligned food purchasing and climate-friendly food purchasing,” Waterman continues. “We’re not asking them to make new commitments; we’re asking them to follow up on the commitments they have made by leveraging their own food purchasing…and leveraging public food purchasing dollars to support the values that we want to see reflected throughout the food system.”

Top photo by Joshh/Adobe Stock.

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