Ending the Debt Trap: Strategies to Stop the Abuse of Court-Imposed Fines and Fees

Overview

A new brief from PolicyLink, looks at ways in which the use of fines and fees has expanded over time, the impact of these practices, and the inefficiency of these policies as a budget tool for local governments. The brief lifts up promising strategies that are currently being implemented across the country to ensure that judicial fines and fees do not contribute to burdensome debt for low-income communities and people of color — including a set of recommendations to help institutionalize reforms within local and state governments.

Can Other U.S. Cities Follow in NYC’s Footsteps to Help Renters?

After the announcement by Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that New York City would be extending a universal right to legal services for low-income tenants facing eviction, many of the city’s housing advocates rejoiced. “It feels good to me because I know that if any of my sons or grandkids are below the poverty line and have a problem with a landlord, they are going to be represented by an attorney,” said Randy Dillard, council leader for Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and former client of one of the city’s public interest lawyers. 

“We believe that this law is going to lead the way for other cities,” he continued. Other cities, including Philadelphia, are taking cues from New York’s playbook.

In 2012, only 1 percent of New York City tenants facing eviction were represented by lawyers. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of landlords are typically represented by counsel in eviction proceedings. Advocates made the case that the policy change could not only dramatically improve outcomes for low-income residents, but save the city millions of dollars each year.

Read the full story in Next City.

"Decolonizing the University”: Race, Research, and Resisting Displacement

The inaugural event of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA last year was not your standard ivory-tower affair. “I could have simply invited an economist to come give a lecture, and we’d be done,” said Ananya Roy, the Institute’s founding director. Instead, she invited anti-displacement activists from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Cape Town, South Africa, to talk about race, inequality, and the urban future. “The intellectuals we wanted to learn from were precisely these activists at the front lines of these struggles in cities,’’ she said.

Roy — author, scholar, activist, and a leading voice on urban transformation in the global South — hopes to build the Institute into a platform for an emerging global movement for more equitable cities. She believes displacement is a central issue for that movement because it goes to the heart of so many equity issues, including race, inequality, economic development, and financial security. Roy’s most recent essay is “Divesting from Whiteness: The University in the Age of Trumpism.” She spoke with America’s Tomorrow.

You recently wrote that the widespread use of the term “inequality” bothers you. That’s surprising coming from someone leading a new institute on inequality. What’s your critique?

I’m somewhat cynical about the extent to which inequality is in the headlines. In academic and policy debates there’s a way in which inequality has come to focus on income inequality. That’s partly because economists have led the debates. This has led to a revolution in economic thought, but what remains out of view — and what Black Lives Matter and other movements have brought into view — is that persistent racial inequality cannot be resolved simply as a result of economic restructuring. It cannot be reduced to economic disadvantage. The Institute is explicitly focused on racial inequality as a way of thinking about enduring structures of discrimination and social inequality.

Why is the issue of displacement central to your thinking about inequality?

The question of displacement has become an entry point to think about broader issues. At the Institute, our research has coalesced around three key areas. One is eviction. Second is financialization — financial insecurity and what we call financial disobedience, and the incredible organizing work happening around debt. Third is mass incarceration and decarceration — for example, what housing rights, employment rights, and other rights might look like for returning citizens. A racialized logic runs through all three of these issues.

How does your expertise as a scholar of global poverty globally influence your work on displacement?

My current research has been with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. They occupy foreclosed homes and block evictions, but also they’re in the process of creating a community land trust. The campaign was influenced in many ways by the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, one of South Africa’s most important urban social movements. So when we launched the Institute, we focused on activists not only from the United States but also from South Africa. The South African movement really placed us in a global context of displacement and dispossession; it created a different narrative around land but more importantly, I think it made available to activists here a new set of tactics. To see all of this as globally interconnected is very powerful.

How is the Institute addressing displacement challenges in its hometown, Los Angeles?

Eviction is not just a story of landlords evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent. There is a systematic process by which evictions are unfolding and there’s a systematic vulnerability of certain tenants. We don’t have robust databases that tell us the extent of the situation. My colleagues and I are hoping to start with Southern California and build up such a database. We take our cues here from colleagues in Brazil. The top public universities in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have incredible databases that map and record every eviction, every demolition. The availability of this data has been an extraordinary asset for social movements. It has also made possible a set of important policy shifts and debates around evictions and displacement in those cities. I don’t know if we can pull off anything at that scale but it is quite important for us to consider how the lack of data means that we are not having the sort of policy conversations we need to have about evictions.

How did your experiences as a child in India inform your thinking about inequality in cities?

I grew up in Calcutta, India, and moved to Oakland, California, at the age of 18 to go to school. It took me several years to realize, wow, I’m actually an immigrant. In many ways, that move sparked my interest in cities. The inequality that was so evident in Oakland prompted me to make sense of the city I'd grown up in. And to think about the spatial manifestations of inequality. And to think about the sort of change that can be made.

You’ve engaged Los Angeles activists in shaping the scope and priorities of the Institute. Describe that effort.

I wanted to learn from what they were doing, but most importantly, the question I repeatedly posed to them was, in what ways could this Institute be an ally and be of use to them? They had a very specific response: “Do the research; do the theory.” Now, the relationship between powerful universities and social movements can be fraught. We’ve set out an intention to journey with social movements and to journey with particular forms of activism and organizing. This is part of a broader framework for us. The term we’ve been using is decolonizing the university. It’s sort of turning the university inside out — taking ourselves outside of the bubble and thinking about how those whose voices have often been marginalized in the canons of academic knowledge might have a place.

The Institute on Inequality and Democracy has joined with several other departments, centers, and collectives at UCLA to issue a call for educators, students, and researchers across the country to make January 18 (#J18) a day of action against policies of violence, disenfranchisement, segregation, and isolationism. To learn more or commit to organizing an event, visit teachorganizeresist.net.

UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars: Building a Prison-to-School Pipeline

When Steven Czifra became a student at UC Berkeley in 2012, he struggled with feeling like an imposter. As a kid he started skipping school in fourth grade; at 12 he was incarcerated for the first time, and was serving a 10-year sentence by the age of 14. He remained behind bars for the next 15 years, eight of them spent in solitary confinement, and emerged at 29 with no high school diploma and very few skills for living. Although he went on to excel at community college and was admitted to all four University of California (UC) schools he applied to, he said "as soon as I stepped foot on the Berkeley campus, I was persona non grata in my own mind."

Czifra felt alone as he struggled with the culture shock, stigma, and logistical hurdles he faced as a formerly incarcerated student — until he stumbled upon a reading group examining the prison industrial complex, which, for him, changed everything.

"I met another student who had also been incarcerated in the same prison I had — Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit. Unlike me, he was open about his incarceration history, and was [comfortable] with the school environment [and] in his own skin. It gave me permission to be myself, and not allow my background to make me feel ‘less than,’" Czifra said. He graduated with a degree in English in 2015 and is now applying to doctoral programs. 

This reading group, started by ethnic studies professors Patricia Hilden and Victoria Robinson, would become the launching pad for the Underground Scholars Initiative (USI), an on-campus organization created to support current and prospective Berkeley students affected by mass incarceration.

Though Czifra said he was lucky to find his way to Berkeley (the right counselors at the right time encouraged him to apply to UC schools), USI is helping to take luck out of the equation, providing deliberate and strategic support for formerly incarcerated students to prepare for, apply to, and thrive at UC Berkeley. Recently established as an official center within Berkeley’s Centers for Equity and Inclusion, USI has the potential to become both a test case and a catalyst for building pathways from prison to college within the broader University of California educational system.

Overcoming discriminatory policies in education and the economy

Quality jobs in the U.S. economy require ever-higher levels of skill and education, but many Americans are being systematically left behind by an education system that too often reinforces and reproduces racial and economic inequities. According to the National Equity Atlas, 43 percent of jobs in 2020 will require at least an associate’s degree, but only 27 percent of Blacks and 20 percent of Latinos are projected to attain this level of education, compared with 43 percent of Whites.

These gaps are only further exacerbated for the millions of people in the United States with criminal records, who are disproportionately from low-income communities and communities of color. Many reenter society with little-to-no work experience, only to encounter a host of other roadblocks — such as legal restrictions on student financial aid, discriminatory hiring policies, and widespread social stigma — that cut them off from opportunity and make it nearly impossible for them to reach their full potential.

It is illegal for schools to apply blanket bans on admitting formerly incarcerated students, though in practice many colleges treat a criminal record like a scarlet letter. Depending on the school, formerly incarcerated students may be subject to special screening processes, excluded from campus housing, have restricted access to campus, or be under special surveillance and tracking during their attendance.

These discriminatory practices — combined with the fact that many individuals returning from prison lack the resources, experience, and social capital necessary to navigate life at a university — can effectively make higher education unattainable.

"Many of us come from communities where people aren’t geared up for college," Czifra said, "problems with housing, transportation, finances, mental health — we have to do everything everyone else does just to get our foot in the door, and then deal with the legal consequences of being formerly incarcerated, and the social stigma (from others and within ourselves) that make us feel that we’re not good enough to be at these institutions."

With all of these pressures, it’s no wonder that many formerly incarcerated students struggle to succeed in college, even after they’ve overcome the barriers to admission.

Considering 70 million U.S. adults have criminal records, the experiences of students like those in the USI are not a fringe issue. These challenges confront millions of Americans seeking to reach their full potential, whether in the classroom or the workplace.  Without access to education, many formerly incarcerated individuals are relegated to the outskirts of the job market, struggling to gain an economic foothold for the rest of their lives.

Bringing lived experience to criminal justice advocacy

What started in 2012 as a small reading group exploring the effects of mass incarceration soon blossomed into a student-led movement to increase the visibility of formerly incarcerated students on campus and to advocate for the rights of formerly incarcerated individuals in the community. By 2013, the Underground Scholars Initiative had received university funding to become an on-campus student group, and began developing outreach, advocacy, and retention services.

"When we set out our mission, it wasn’t only to reduce recidivism through education, it was to provide a supportive and politicized community that would be instrumental in helping formerly incarcerated students reach their potential," said David Maldonado, who, along with Czifra, is one of the founding members of USI, as well as its first member to pursue a PhD.

USI’s outreach program leverages ambassadors throughout California who help formerly incarcerated students apply to UC schools. Members of USI also write to people currently in prison, advising them on how to get on the UC track while still incarcerated. As transfer coordinator for USI, Maldonado arranges for community college students to take some courses at Berkeley and "demystifies" the process of applying or transferring into UC schools.

The group also advocates to remove systemic barriers facing formerly incarcerated individuals. For example, the group was instrumental in getting UC Berkeley to "ban the box" on campus job applications that forced applicants to disclose a criminal history before even being interviewed. As of this spring, job applicants will not have to discuss criminal background until they’ve interviewed in person or are a finalist for a position.  Now, the group is working to ban the box for job applications across the UC system.

Support for and retention of formerly incarcerated students has been the bedrock of USI since its founding, connecting students to research and scholarship opportunities, to the broader project of building community, as well as raising consciousness on campus.

"I can’t underscore enough how crucial it is to have a supportive community of formerly incarcerated students, who know where you’re coming from," Maldonado said. "And then for us to be visible on campus, to share our lived experience, and add our voices to conversations that are happening on campus around the criminal justice system — it’s a huge difference from the way it used to be, when students felt like they had to hide their past for fear of being judged, excluded, or discriminated against."

To date, the retention model has been a unanimous success: every USI member has gone on to graduate (some 20 this May alone); two, including Czifra and another founding member, Danny Murillo, are Soros Justice Fellows; and several others have gone on to graduate from programs in law, education, and public policy.

Underground Scholars recently hired its first full-time director, Violeta Alvarez, a 2016 UC Berkeley graduate and USI member, who will help establish USI within the school’s Centers for Equity and Excellence. The USI student group will remain a separate entity in order to preserve its ability to conduct activism and policy advocacy.

"Some people say our group is an anomaly, and in certain respects we are unique," said Alvarez. "But it’s not because we’re all so special, or that we’ve pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. It’s because we had teachers, family, friends, counselors, strangers, all along the way who helped us get where we are. It’s because of all the people who gave us the opportunity to thrive, the opportunity to imagine that we could be more, that we have been able to be such a success."

Check out the rest of the September 27, 2016 America's Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.

Equitable Development: The Path to an All-In Pittsburgh

Overview

Pittsburgh is on the rise. After decades of decline following the collapse of the steel industry, the region has successfully transformed its manufacturing economy into one driven by knowledge and technology. This resurgence brings great potential to deliver long-awaited jobs, economic opportunities, and neighborhood improvements to the region’s low-income communities and communities of color. However, the benefits of new growth and development will not automatically trickle down without a focus on equitable development. Produced by PolicyLink, along with Neighborhood Allies, and Urban Innovation21, this report presents a five-point agenda for realizing the vision of a new, “all-in” Pittsburgh, in which everyone can thrive, and highlights 16 specific recommendations for action. Download summary here.

Find other equity profiles here.

Investing in Second Chances for Formerly Incarcerated People: An Interview with Department of Justice Fellow Daryl Atkinson

Sixteen years ago, Daryl Atkinson was like many of the 600,000 Americans leaving prison each year — excited to return home, but worried about the welcome he might receive as a formerly incarcerated person. Though his family refused to define him solely by his past mistakes and supported him as he pursued college and law school, society was another story. Not only did he face social stigma because of his past, he lost his driver’s license, making it difficult to find work; was barred from receiving federal financial aid for college; and, perhaps most importantly, is still denied the right to vote in his home state of Alabama.

It is this type of structural and cultural discrimination — the many ways that society forces those with a criminal record to continue to “serve time” even after they are released — that Atkinson now fights as the inaugural Second Chance Fellow at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Prior to this appointment, Atkinson was recognized as a White House “Reentry and Employment Champion of Change” for his work as a senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where he advocated for the rights and needs of people with criminal records. America’s Tomorrow spoke with Atkinson about his many years working to shift the narrative about those who have been incarcerated, connecting them with the support, respect, and opportunity necessary for them to thrive.

You are the first Second Chance fellow at the DOJ, and you are a founding member of the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance. Can you explain what a “second chance culture” entails?

I often relate it to my personal experience after prison. I served 40 months in prison, much of it in a maximum security institution when I was in my twenties, and when my mom and my stepdad came to pick me up, they rented a Lincoln Town Car. I didn’t pay any particular attention at that time because I was so excited to get away from that place, but a couple of years later I asked my stepdad why. He said they wanted to make a grand gesture to send the message that my experience in prison didn’t completely define who I was and what I could be. They continued to support me — offering food and shelter and financial support — throughout college, and the combination of support and physical investment is a large part of what I view as a “second chance” approach. We need to invest in people’s success, so that they can be contributors to their community and society.

The Obama Administration has been instituting a number of policy solutions to cultivate this concept. The Second Chance Act, signed into law at the end of the Bush Administration, has resulted in more than 700 grants totaling over $400 million to reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for people returning from state and federal prisons, local jails, and juvenile facilities. These investments help people with criminal records by providing basic needs like housing assistance, job training, and substance abuse treatment. More recently, the Department of Education started the Second Chance Pell Program, which will allow over 12,000 eligible incarcerated students to pursue postsecondary education while in prison. These kinds of programs aren’t enough to meet the needs of the entire formerly incarcerated population, but they are helping the Administration build the evidence base for how powerful these programs are, which will aid in advocating for more funding for this work.

When you were at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, you helped to pass a “ban the box” policy in Durham, North Carolina, that had incredible results. Can you describe how that campaign developed?

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) is a civil rights advocacy organization that follows a community-lawyering model, meaning that we provide general counsel for the most vulnerable communities across the southeast, and we let them set the agenda of what issues are most important. Engaging the community around these issues is something that has guided my work at SCSJ and informs my work at DOJ. For instance, a few years back we were working on voting rights for those with criminal records in North Carolina, but when we engaged the community we realized that barriers to employment were the most pressing need. We were aware of the “ban the box” movement that had started in Oakland, California, and started a similar campaign in Durham, North Carolina, to remove criminal history questions from job applications and prohibit the use of a criminal record as an automatic bar to employment.

We knew that to successfully shift the narrative around employing formerly incarcerated people, we needed to ensure that people with criminal records were integrated into the policy-making process throughout. When there were city council meetings, we engaged with community partners to train local spokespeople who could speak in their own voice about the impact of not being able to work and how that affected their families. We reached out to faith-based organizations to put a moral force behind our campaign. We got some notable endorsements from the sheriff about how ban the box was consistent with public safety, because keeping people with criminal records from employment opportunities can force them back into an underground economy.

We also made the economic argument, pointing out that there are 1.6 million adults with criminal records who shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines of the economy. By sharing these messages and engaging community members to tell their stories, we were able to convince the city and the county governments to pass ban the box policies that have had a huge effect. In the city of Durham, for example, the total percentage of city hires of people with criminal records was 2 percent in 2011, the year the policy passed; by 2014 it was over 15 percent — a greater than seven-fold increase.

How does the work you’re undertaking at the DOJ continue this work and connect to your larger goals of building a second chance culture?

In my fellowship at the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), I advocate for the rights and needs of those with criminal history, and I also work to ensure that DOJ is hearing from the stakeholders most directly affected by the justice system. This part of my work draws heavily on the lessons I’ve learned at the local level. Having this bridge between the policymakers and those most affected by the policy is a game-changer. Not only does it provide important feedback on the effects of policy, it also helps change the temperature of the exchanges between communities and the federal government. When policymakers have real exchanges with folks from the community, and hear about their family obligations and experiences — like dropping their kids off at daycare — it diminishes the “us versus them” dynamic that can make it easier to enact negative public policies. In general, I think we need more open dialogue about how common interactions with the justice system are, and how it is not just some fringe part of society that deals with these issues.

Ten to 12 million people in the U.S. cycle in and out of city and county jails, and one in three Americans have an arrest or conviction history. This is a huge segment of our adult population, and to continue to marginalize them through stigma and discriminatory policies has significant consequences for our society as a whole. That is why part of my fellowship includes qualitative interviews with formerly incarcerated people who have gone on to become highly successful. I want to identify which interventions changed the trajectory of their lives, and lift up these successes to the federal government for future policymaking. I am also going to create a digital story bank of their stories, so that the public can access these stories and see that people who have been in prison can go on to be active, positive, influential members of their community. Both the public and policymakers need to hear these stories and realize not only the hunger for opportunity that people who are leaving prison have, but the potential they have to go on to great things. 

Just and Fair Employment for All: Good for Families, Communities, and the Economy

Overview

This issue brief describes how connecting people to just and fair work benefits families, communities, and the economy.

Find other equity briefs here.

High-Quality Education for All: Good for Families, Communities, and the Economy

Overview

This issue brief describes how creating an equitable pre-K through 12 educational system can benefit families, communities, and the economy.

Find other equity briefs here.

“This Is a Nationwide Epidemic”: A Frank but Hopeful Conversation with Evicted Author Matthew Desmond

In Milwaukee, one in eight renters — disproportionately people of color — are evicted every two years, and this alarming trend is playing out across the country. In his eye-opening new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond documents the devastating consequences for families, communities, and the nation. He argues that housing security must be part of a policy agenda to eliminate poverty and build an economy that works for all.

Desmond, a sociologist and urban ethnographer, spoke with Kalima Rose, senior director of the PolicyLink Center for Infrastructure Equity and co-author of Healthy Communities of Opportunity: An Equity Blueprint to Address America’s Housing Challenges. This report, released today by PolicyLink and The Kresge Foundation, explains how health, housing, and economic security policies must be aligned to achieve equitable housing outcomes.

Q: How widespread is eviction and who is most affected?

A: In Milwaukee, if you look at only formal court-ordered evictions, you learn that about 16,000 people are evicted every year in that city. That’s about 40 people every day. We’ve crunched court-ordered eviction numbers in other cities, and Milwaukee is no outlier. New York processes about 60 marshal evictions every single day.

These numbers are startling and very troubling, but these are just court-ordered evictions. If you add landlord foreclosures and building condemnations, then you learn that every two years about one in eight renters in the city of Milwaukee is evicted. Mothers in low-income African American communities, in particular, are evicted at incredibly high rates. Among Milwaukee renters, about one in five Black women report being evicted versus one in 15 White women. This is a nationwide epidemic.

Q: Why do evictions hit families with children especially hard?

A: Children often are the reason families get evicted. When I started this work, I thought that having kids would shield you from eviction. But families living with kids have three times the odds of receiving an eviction judgment in eviction court, even controlling for arrears. What you’re seeing in that discrepancy is the landlord’s discretion. Some landlords are choosing not to work with families with children — because children can be hard on the landlord’s bottom line. Then kids often prolong the time you're homeless after your eviction because family discrimination is still real. I saw families get turned away quite a bit for having kids.

If we want to give children a fighting chance to realize their full potential, we have to provide them stable, affordable housing. You don’t just lose your home when you're evicted. You often lose your school and your community and your possessions. This massive instability has broad-reaching consequences.

Q:  You write that eviction impacts African American women in the same way that criminal conviction impacts African American men. Explain the parallels.

A: We know that when you get out of prison and you have a criminal record, it can really affect your life. It can affect your success in the job market and your access to certain forms of public aid. An eviction record works the same way. It can bar you from receiving public housing, which means we’re still systematically denying housing help to people that most need it. It can bar you from accessing a decent place to live in a safe neighborhood, because many landlords turn away families with a recent eviction. There’s a kind of gender discrepancy that mirrors incarceration.

There’s also a policy story where they move in lock step. We have had massive investment in public housing over the last three decades, but it’s been in the form of prisons. Some governors reallocated money for public housing to build more prisons. So there are more connections than one would think that link mass incarceration and the lack of affordable housing. 

Q: Your book draws distinct pictures of neighborhoods — from trailer parks to White, Black, or Latino enclaves in Milwaukee. What are the forces driving segregation in the city?

A:  The White folks I spent time with that were evicted from a trailer park didn’t even consider moving to the North Side of the city, the predominantly African American inner city. But even though they amputated a large section of the city from their possibilities, they still had an easier time finding housing than the African American folks that I spent time with. It’s a story about the salience of discrimination. It’s a story about how race still matters, even at the very bottom of the market.

Q. What does this mean for building strong communities of opportunity?

A: Unless we provide families a shot at investing in a community, it’s going to be really hard for them to make a difference on their own streets and their own blocks. There are some neighborhoods in Milwaukee that have a 10 percent or 15 percent eviction rate. Those conditions turn neighbors into strangers. They disrupt the social fabric of neighborhoods. We know from previous research that if neighbors get together and work hard on local issues they can make a huge difference. Programs to stabilize housing would stabilize communities, too.

Q: What policy action would you like to see at the federal level?

A: There needs to be more attention paid to the role that housing is playing in poverty. When most politicians on either side of the aisle are asked about what to do about inequality or poverty in the United States, they usually start with a focus on jobs. That’s only part of the solution though. I don’t think we can fix poverty if we don’t fix housing.

Eviction is not just a condition of poverty, it’s a cause of it. It’s linked to job loss, mental health issues, school instability, loss of possessions, homelessness, and moving into worse neighborhoods. It’s fundamentally recasting people’s lives in a more difficult way. But we also have to ask ourselves a question about who are we as a nation that allows this level of inequality, this level of blunting of human capacity, and this degree of social suffering. I don’t think there’s any American value that justifies this situation.

Visit Just Shelter, an organization started by Desmond, to learn about the work of community organizations fighting to prevent eviction, preserve affordable housing, and prevent family homelessness.

Tracking the Ripple Effects of LA’s Good Food Purchasing Program

In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — the largest school district in the nation — shifted its food purchasing processes to promote equitable food systems, healthy eating, and the local economy. This shift was made possible by The Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP), an effort developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council to provide city institutions with purchasing guidelines and strategic support centered on the procurement of local, sustainably, and humanely produced foods.  The program has improved the labor and environmental practices of LA’s local food producers, while gaining the attention of school districts and government agencies in LA and beyond.

With LAUSD’s expenditures of nearly $125 million, the Good Food Purchasing Program ensures that 650,000 K-12 students have access to healthy food on a consistent basis. It has also had a domino effect on regional producers, processors, and distributors. In the first two years, the percentage of locally purchased fruit and vegetables shot up from 9 percent to 75 percent. When the district instituted a “Meatless Mondays” policy to comply with the new nutritional and environmental standards, they decreased their annual meat spending by 15 percent, saving more than 19 million gallons of water.

Similar to LEED certification, institutions that participate in the GFPP are scored according to values-driven standards in five impact areas: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition. As detailed in a new PolicyLink case study, the program incentivizes vendors to change the way they do business in order to earn or retain contracts with the city.

Since the adoption of the policy, LAUSD’s bread and produce distributor, Gold Star Foods, has risen to the occasion, strengthening its values-based practices to meet the GFPP’s goals and purchasing guidelines. So far, Gold Star Foods has added 65 full-time, living-wage jobs as a result of their new way of sourcing products. Additionally, after searching for local mid-sized wheat farms willing or able to meet GFPP standards, it reached out to Shepherd’s Grain in Portland, Oregon, resulting in the expansion of the Shepherd’s Grain network of over 40 independent local wheat farms from the Northwest into California. Gold Star now purchases 160,000 annual bushels of wheat from the sustainable agriculture company.

To achieve widespread change throughout the food system beyond Los Angeles, the Good Food Purchasing Program gave rise to a stand-alone organization: the Center for Good Food Purchasing. Alexa Delwiche, the Center’s executive director, said that over the past couple of years a lot of effort has been put into building communications systems between institutions and vendors and facilitating tracking and data collection, so that the full force of the program is measured and sustained. “When you develop a policy that’s multifaceted and includes additional values like labor practices and environmental sustainability, you have to get a certain level of detail, so that you are able to actually build transparency into the system,” she said. “That transparency doesn’t really exist in the food supply chain for a number of reasons, so it has been a huge learning [process] for us.”

The program — and its core premise that public institutions can impact the local economy and healthy food systems through their purchasing power — is gaining the attention of other schools and universities in the state. This year, the Oakland Unified School District is considering adoption of a Good Food Purchasing Program informed by LA’s. The California State University System, comprising 23 campuses, has pledged to shift at least 20 percent of their food budgets toward local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources.

The principles of good food purchasing are spreading. The Equitable Food Initiative, launched in 2013, is a cohort of food retailers, growers, and farm worker organizations that has developed a compliance standard for farms based on working conditions, pesticide management, and safety. The New York Times has reported that 12 growers are a part of the group, with six of those certified so far, covering 2,000 workers. The Initiative’s expansion would help to protect some of California’s most vulnerable workers: one-third of America’s farm workers are in California and 67 percent of those (over 500,000 people) are unauthorized immigrants.

Doug Bloch, political director with Teamsters Joint Council 7, represents workers in Northern California, the Central Valley, and Nevada who pick, process, package, and distribute food and beverages in California. The Teamsters represent 25,000, mostly immigrant workers in the state who process food, including the workers of Taylor Farms in Salinas, a vegetable supplier to Oakland Unified School District. “The workers make a living wage and get benefits, and they get treated with respect,” said Bloch. Taylor Farms is the largest supplier of fresh-cut vegetables in North America, though not all of its farms are unionized.

Commenting on the good food purchasing model and its impact on labor, Bloch said that one of the regional challenges for both workers and purchasing institutions is the constant consolidation along the food chain, such as a proposed acquisition of U.S. Foods by Sysco that was defeated by the Federal Trade Commission this past summer. “Where I think it helps is that the Good Food Purchasing Program can really encourage the district to buy local, healthy, and organic,” says Bloch. “Depending on how the district applies the GFPP, it could encourage purchasing from a small, Oakland-based company that’s producing some sort of specialty item, as opposed to frozen or canned food that comes from 500 miles away.”

With any of these models and initiatives, it is important to appreciate the level of community organizing that goes along with developing and getting policies adopted, Delwiche said. Partners participate in monitoring and evaluation of the program in order to ensure successful implementation. Over 100 stakeholders and procurement experts were involved in the planning and execution of the GFPP. “I think the really powerful piece to this is that once a public institution has adopted a policy, that policy really becomes one [that belongs to] both the institution and the community,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the community to continue engaging public officials and the public institution and hold them accountable to the values they’ve adopted.”

Now that Los Angeles has additional systems in place to track the progress of vendors and to set actionable goals and benchmarks, she added, the LA Food Policy Council and its partners are beginning to influence more cities like Oakland, so that, “as the cities adopt their own policies, the learning curve will be more diminished, and we can support institutions in a more streamlined way.”

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