Sustainable Food Purchasing

Food is a high-impact product with high-power levers to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of consumption.

Communities across North America are building momentum in the movement for fresh, healthy food, which makes food policies—especially sustainable food procurement policies—a sensible entry point for a city’s sustainable consumption activities. Sustainable food procurement policies must be specific to your community’s values, stakeholders and opportunities; another organization’s policies may serve as an initial template but local policies should be crafted to address local conditions. Internal procurement policies can help demonstrate that a municipal government is in tune with its constituents’ values.

The Center for Good Food Purchasing provides “tools, technical support, and verification system to assist institutions in meeting their program goals and commitments” for sustainable food purchasing. The Good Food Purchasing Program focuses on five core values including local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability.

Another important consideration is the carbon footprint of food purchasing. The West Coast Climate & Materials Management Forum provides guidance and tools for reducing food related greenhouse gas emissions through its Climate Friendly Purchasing Toolkit. The Toolkit includes a module on food and food services with strategies for 1) training and measurement, 2) menu planning and low-carbon purchasing, 3) reducing the wasting of food at the storage and preparation steps, 4) energy efficient storage and cooking, 5) reducing food waste at the delivery stage, 6) food recovery and 7) other strategies.

Value Proposition for Sustainable Consumption

With food as one of the most impactful products we purchase, it is one of the high-powered levers we have for reducing negative environmental and social impacts of consumption. Sustainable food purchasing policies may consider:

  • The amount of fossil fuels needed to grow products (either as inputs to soil or because of the intensity of farming equipment used).
  • The quantities and types of greenhouse gases emitted[1] in the production of food (e.g., red meat creates much higher levels of carbon and methane than vegetables in the growing process); and
  • The types and amount of packaging associated with food products.

Potential City Roles

  • Promote—showcase resources available to institutions to help guide their sustainable food procurement policies.
  • Develop policies—create policies for internal institutional adoption.
  • Educate/outreach—communicate about internal policies to the general public and to other local institutions.
  • Partner—develop partnerships with other local institutions that may also become early adopters of sustainable food procurement policies. Hospitals are ubiquitous institutions that consume large amounts of food and present potential high leverage partners.
  • Demonstrate—adopt and implement a sustainable food procurement policy as an example for your community.
  • Measure—begin estimating pre-implementation food-related GHG emissions so you are able to choose the most salient policies for your organization and then measure.
  • Provide technical assistance—help other local institutions to measure their food-related GHGs and to develop their sustainable food procurement policies.

Implementation Challenges

Implementing new sustainable food purchasing policies can be complicated because of the need to involve multiple partners, build support and infrastructure for the project, and cover costs:

  • Partner constraints: The capacity and willingness of current food service providers, wholesale vendors and/or grocery providers to help the institution meet objectives may vary. Will the institution need new partners to achieve its goals?
  • Contract and policy barriers: There may be food service contracts, prime vendor contracts, vendor‐approval requirements such as product liability insurance, or related barriers to sustainable purchasing. What changes can be made when the time comes to renegotiate?
  • Physical limitations: Storage and cooking facilities may need upgrades.
  • The learning curve: Staff may require additional skills or training to perform successfully.
  • Budgetary constraints: There may be investment costs associated with implementing new requirements, even if there are long‐term cost savings.
  • Data limitations: Many communities and institutions do not have baseline measurements about the GHG emissions related to food consumption.


A comprehensive sustainable food purchasing policy must include metrics for success, and program evaluation must be tailored to these metrics. Some initial metrics can include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions and other toxic substances resulting from food procurement choices;
  • Percentage of employees receiving education or training relevant to the new policy;
  • Percentages of purchases of specified products or categories that meet defined sustainability criteria;
  • Improvements in the nutritional value of meal and snack offerings; and  
  • Dollars directed to the local economy

Further Resources

  1. Eat Low Carbon, Bon Appetit Management Company