Procuring Greater Equity and Sustainability in the Food System



By Scott Lewis
Weslynne Ashton

A research project led by Illinois Institute of Technology Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability Weslynne Ashton has received a $1 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) in collaboration with the National Science Foundation to investigate how to harness the power of food procurement by large, public institutions in order to shift food production and distribution systems toward greater racial equity, sustainability, and resilience.

The year-long pilot project, called Community Food Mobilization in Chicago (CF-MOB), “is focused on how institutional supply chains can integrate locally produced food,” says Ashton. “We’ll examine critical policy, economic, and practical barriers, and creatively reimagine the pathways for improving food access.”

The award is part of the NSF’s Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC) program, which supports pilot projects that apply emerging technologies and concepts to address community-identified challenges.

Ashton, who holds dual appointments at Stuart School of Business and the Institute of Design, is joined in the project by co-principal investigators M. Zia Hassan Endowed Professor Elizabeth J. Durango-Cohen at Stuart and Associate Professor of Civic and Community Design Maura Shea at ID, as well as several Illinois Tech students who will serve as research assistants. Ashton and Shea co-direct ID’s Food Systems Action Lab.

Other lead project partners working with the Illinois Tech team include civic partner, the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, and researchers from Chicago State University, DePaul University, and Roosevelt University.

Across the country, most of the food served in schools, hospitals, and other public institutions is procured through large food service management companies, who in turn source from very large suppliers of staple food products, Ashton says. However, this supply chain does not adequately account for the human and planetary health impacts that it creates and often excludes small growers and food producers, particularly those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).

The CF-MOB research will center on an approach that incorporates ethnography and co-design with rigorous technical and economic analyses to model budgetary scenarios and procurement process reforms that could integrate local food suppliers, especially those that are BIPOC, into institutional procurement processes, Ashton says. Embedded in the decision-making process for procurement will be the values of the Good Food Purchasing Initiative of Metro Chicago (GFPI)—nutrition, valued workforce, local economies, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare.

According to Ashton, the project encompasses four main research steps:

  • Gather and incorporate the perspectives and values of diverse stakeholders—producers, distributors, buyers, and eaters—to envision pathways for food procurement and community food access, with a focus on empowering and creating space for BIPOC stakeholders to self-determine their participation.

  • Select a short list of food products for analysis from the products used by the three public institutions that are participating in the pilot project—Chicago Public Schools, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, and Rush University Medical Center.

  • Identify procurement policies and practices that are inhibiting shifts to values-based purchasing in the food supply chains, as well as mechanisms for overcoming those policy and supply chain barriers.

  • Develop a prototype of the Metro Chicago Good Food Dashboard, a digital platform for sharing findings and models from the project.

“Many people, including farmers, chefs, nutritionists, food distributors, and local government officials, are working to change the current system to bring fresher, healthier choices to eaters,” Ashton says. “By the end of the pilot we will increase transparency in this food system and provide concrete steps for our partner institutions to activate purchasing from local food businesses aligned with GFPI.”

This research is supported by the intramural research program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA-NIFA Award #2024-67022-41533.