ANN ARBOR, MI — The city of Ann Arbor made 1,188 food purchases totaling about $112,000 over the last three fiscal years, a new report shows.
That includes regular purchases from businesses such as Jimmy John’s, Panera Bread and Cottage Inn Pizza, including catering for city events. But it doesn’t include purchases through the city’s contract with Pepsi, which totaled $23,000 last fiscal year.
Recognizing the health and environmental benefits of consuming less meat and dairy products, Ann Arbor officials are now thinking about how the city’s food-purchasing policies and practices can be more sustainable and promote more plant-rich diets.
Missy Stults, the city’s sustainability office director, offered a six-page analysis of the issue in a recent memo to the city administrator, listing several recommendations, while floating the idea of nixing beef and dairy purchases entirely by 2030.
“Decreasing meat- and dairy-based consumption and increasing plant-based consumption is an important step in achieving sustainability within the food sector,” she wrote. “A recent study shows that the GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions associated with animal-based agriculture amount to two times the emissions associated with plant-based agriculture.”
Stults noted health benefits of plant-based diets can include reduced chronic disease risk and improved mental health.
City Council last September directed staff to examine the city’s food-purchasing policies in the context of the city’s A2Zero carbon-neutrality plan, which calls for spending over $200,000 promoting plant-rich diets over the next decade.
“Eating less meat and more fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds is known to reduce one’s environmental footprint and improve one’s overall health,” the plan states, outlining a strategy to educate the community about the benefits of more vegan and vegetarian meals.
In addition to looking outward at the community, city officials are taking a look inward.
The city has been spending over $37,000 per year on average on non-contract food purchases, Stults’ report shows. The average was about $45,000 in fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20, but dipped to about $22,000 last year amid the pandemic.
About 62% of the purchases were through Ann Arbor businesses. Nearly half were at grocery stores or retailers, while over half were at restaurants, catering businesses and other places.
The city’s sustainability office has developed a new food sustainability framework outlining criteria for the city to use in determining the sustainability of various food options going forward. By following the framework when making food purchases, the city can help move toward a more equitable, inclusive and stable local food system, Stults said.
Stults said the parks department, which has a food budget of about $19,000 per year, primarily purchases food for external events and for sale at snack bars, while the city’s water treatment, safety and fleet and facilities divisions are primarily purchasing food for internal events such as employee recognition. Other departments and offices purchase food for both internal and external events.
“Interviewed employees indicated that local food, food packaging, and plant-based options were the three most important factors to consider when buying sustainable food,” Stults wrote. “Most employees were in favor of educational events centered on sustainable food and were interested in using a list of preferred vendors, based on sustainability factors, to improve the sustainability of their food-related purchasing.”
In recognition of an ongoing cultural shift toward more sustainable and plant-based foods, and the need for consistent exposure to such foods as a means of facilitating the shift, Stults offered five near-term recommendations:
- Through the existing contract with Pepsi or establishment of new contracts, re-work drink options at city vending machines and other points of sale to include more nutritious and health-enhancing choices, ideally locally sourced.
- For food sold at city snack bars or distributed at city events, develop a list of preferred food items, with a focus on options that have low greenhouse gas emissions, provide plant-based alternatives, support the local food system and minimize wasteful packaging.
- For catering of city events, develop a directory of preferred restaurants, caterers and other eating places with a focus on options that have low greenhouse gas emissions, provide plant-based alternatives, support the local food system and minimize wasteful packaging.
- Engage with, educate, and train city employees on the value of sustainable food and ensure all employees who make food purchases are trained on the preferred food item and vendor lists.
- Join the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council, have city staff attend those meetings and work with the council to establish a sustainability working group.
“The intention of these recommendations is not to immediately remove certain food and eating place options, but rather to provide more sustainable alternatives to those options, focus on outreach and education regarding sustainable food choices, and shift away from less sustainable options as more sustainable alternatives become more widely accepted,” Stults wrote.
Stults also recommended the city explore other ideas she said require further investigation and refinement. That includes creating an “A2Zero Preferred” labeling system to indicate more sustainable choices at vending machines and snack bars, as well as a sustainability point system for city food purchases, and this goal: “Transition all city food purchases towards plant-based food products, providing plant-based alternatives to all animal-based options offered and eliminating all beef- and dairy-based food products from city food purchases by the year 2030.”
Interim City Administrator Milton Dohoney said the city is attempting to develop steps consistent with the overall goal to support a plant-rich diet.
“To do that, we’re beginning to review food and vendor options that are consistent with where we’re headed,” he said. “That foundation will influence us going forward in terms of what food we purchase. For example, snacks at parks, catering events, the stocking of vending machines need to be looked at in a new light. Our team is also trying to connect more with the Washtenaw Food Policy Council to align our efforts with theirs.”
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