Feeding Philadelphia – open contracting reform for better food options for residents


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 this choice was taken away? What if we had no control over what to have for dinner? 

For the tens of thousands of men, women, and children reliant on government services for meals, this lack of agency can be a sobering reality. A variety of people living in the City of Philadelphia may rely on the government for food, from those experiencing homelessness needing a hot meal to children having lunch at summer camp. Often times, those dependent on the City for food must contend with inconsistent food quality and availability because of challenges upstream City staff face in managing public contracts. Failure to renew a fresh produce contract in time may mean kids only given canned fruit and vegetables for long periods, for instance. 

The City of Philadelphia pays up to $3.7 billion annually to contractors hired to provide a variety of important services, including feeding some of the City’s most vulnerable residents. Members of the local government were eager to use open contracting to ensure funds dedicated to feeding Philadelphians were used effectively: balancing priorities of providing quality food and minding the budget. With this in mind, the City partnered with the Sunlight Foundation  and the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) to evaluate their current contracting processes and discover where there might be opportunities for more transparency or participation. 

The Open Cities team and OCP set out together to evaluate the City’s processes, quickly learning that City procurement staff wanted to bring to light some of the City’s high quality contracting data and find new opportunities to improve food quality. But before pursuing any potential solutions, Sunlight and OCP wanted to reach out to the community for input. Interviewing a number of City residents, local food vendors, and good food advocates allowed the team to develop a thorough perspective into how existing procurement and data practices impact the lives of Philadelphians. More importantly, knowledgeable residents could share key insights into how inconsistent  oversight in the food procurement process adversely affected their clients.  

“The residents can tell when we’re waiting for a food delivery because the quality of meals goes down.”

Many expressed frustration with the food procurement process, along with a distinct desire for a more transparent and resident-centered approach to buying food. One kitchen worker who was struggling with an inconsistent schedule on food deliveries commented, “The residents can tell when we’re waiting for a food delivery because the quality of meals goes down.” And because many frontline staff like cooks or warehouse workers aren’t actively included in the process of deciding when, whether, or how to renew food contracts, when delivery times lag or vendors under-perform, their mistakes can go unchecked.

After the City reviewed community’s feedback and compared the options to existing data sources or strategic opportunities, the team worked over months to explore potential areas for reform.. Recognizing the clear desire for better representation of community needs in the procurement process, the City took Sunlight and OCP’s joint recommendation to pursue two pilot projects to create a more inclusive environment for all:

  • Quality over cost. Traditionally, government agencies are mandated to award contracts to the bidder offering the lowest price. But the City recognized that cost shouldn’t be the sole determinant when choosing a food vendor. Existing conditions enabled larger, more established vendors to undercut their smaller, local competition on price and win the contracts again and again. 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. Following a change to the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter in 2017 to allow Best Value procurement driven by Philadelphia voters, the City is now drafting the first best value RFP for food. This is a key change that will help level the playing field for local food vendors who may provide healthier, more sustainable options, but have struggled to compete based on price alone. 
  • An inclusive food procurement process. 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, and take a great deal of pride in feeding their clients. But their voices have been missing  in decisions on food procurement. As a chef from the Office of Juvenile Services put it, “The City might want to listen to the people who are cooking the food more when it comes to what they are buying.” In response, 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. Beginning with a fresh produce contract up for bid in July, the kitchen staff will be able to inform the quality and value of the food the City will buy, and share their insights on vendor and food quality with decision makers.

Open data and open contracting are essential tools for inclusive procurement. Community members are eager to engage government in decision making, but are often boxed out of the conversation due to a lack of relevant, available information. Robust open data and open contracting practices enable residents to get involved in the process, ensuring the services provided by government best meet their needs. The City recognizes that to improve food quality, they must act act transparently, accountably, and with input from the community. Additionally, these reforms will produce new data that aligns with Open Contracting Data Standard best practices and provides ample opportunity for transparent, data-driven performance management on food quality in the future.

“Bringing our kitchen staff into the conversation and switching to Best Value for food contracts is just the beginning. We will continue to expand our use of Best Value and improve our RFP processes to better serve the City and our constituents.”

The City’s work to improve food for residents through better, more transparent procurement has just begun. But the landmark fresh produce RFP and push for inclusive procurement demonstrate that Philadelphia’s commitment to inclusive decision making and a better business environment for local food vendors go far beyond words. The public commitment to prioritize food purchases that contribute to health, sustainability, fair labor practices, and positive impact on the local economy begin a new chapter in Philadelphia, where local food vendors looking to bid on City contracts feel empowered to compete, and the residents they’re serving have access to fresh produce and more nutritious meals.  

Together, the procurement office and key staff from City-funded agencies and shelters will continue work to ensure their residents are well-fed, and that their voices are heard in the government’s decisions about food. As Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Philadelphia Trevor Day tells it, “Bringing our kitchen staff into the conversation and switching to Best Value for food contracts is just the beginning. We will continue to expand our use of Best Value and improve our RFP processes to better serve the City and our constituents.”

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