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OPINION

To tackle racial injustice in city contracting, start with food

Here’s how Boston can ensure universal access to nutritious food while supercharging its economic recovery and closing the racial wealth gap.

Roberto Dos Reis prepares a takeout order at Soleil in Roxbury, in January.
Roberto Dos Reis prepares a takeout order at Soleil in Roxbury, in January.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Black- and Latinx-owned firms took home an abysmally low 1.2 percent share of Boston’s public contracting dollars out of nearly $2.1 billion in city spending over five years. Facing public outcry and a civil rights lawsuit, the city recently rushed to publish a new executive order that set modest goals for increasing the share of public dollars awarded to women- and minority-owned firms.

But an executive order is not a strategy. We can’t simply announce racial equity into existence, and too many similar proclamations have withered on the vine. Boston needs an actionable plan to use the city’s massive purchasing power to invest in small businesses and build wealth in local communities long excluded from public contracting. Let’s take just one example to demonstrate potential impact: the $130 million spent on dining services, catering, and food over five years.

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Food businesses are a path to economic opportunity for so many Boston residents, including both of us. One of us opened a tea shop and brought that experience to City Hall, working to streamline the restaurant permitting process and helping to launch Boston’s food truck program before running for office. The other serves as chief executive of City Fresh Foods, a Black-owned business in Roxbury providing nutritious, culturally relevant meals to children and seniors across Boston, with an employee-ownership model that builds generational wealth to strengthen our communities.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city has stepped up efforts to deliver groceries and prepared meals to struggling families, but we’ve missed an opportunity to connect the dots between rising rates of hunger and high unemployment in the food sector. By leveraging public dollars in partnership with homegrown food businesses, Boston can ensure universal access to nutritious, culturally relevant food while supercharging our economic recovery and closing the racial wealth gap.

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First, the city should empower a one-stop shop for equitable access to city contracting. Currently, the process for awarding many multi-year city contracts is managed department by department, without a coordinated, transparent buying plan for local businesses to plan ahead for bidding windows. We propose a new chief procurement officer with the budget to streamline processes, focus outreach, and ensure accountability. This office should lead a comprehensive strategy to implement equitable representation of local and minority-owned businesses in city spending, including unbundling large contracts to open the door for neighborhood small businesses, whose dollars multiply in our communities.

Second, link accountability to buying local. Boston’s Good Food Purchasing ordinance already requires preference for local, sustainable, fair, and equitable meals contracts, building on earlier legislation to require reporting and preference for equity in city contracting. For all public contracting, the city needs to go beyond executive orders and require legislative accountability for leveraging city spending to slow the tide of commercial gentrification. Diversity of vendors can’t simply exist as a goal — follow-through and accountability must be prioritized.

Third, create preferences for companies that invest in workers. The national and international food systems are rife with exploitation and abuse of workers — but Boston can do business differently. Employee stock-ownership plans and worker-owned cooperatives bring workers to the decision-making table, building power, wealth, and a stake in the community. Public contracting should include a formal preference for companies empowering workers to build up generational wealth through ownership.

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Finally, there should be a coordinated vision for racial and economic justice across all sectors. Boston Public Schools spends $18 million annually on meals, but collaborating with Boston’s anchor health care institutions and universities serving meals to patients, visitors, students, and faculty would boost the potential food-purchasing power of the city’s institutions to nearly $100 million per year. Imagine the local impact of coordinated citywide purchasing to invest in racial equity and a valued workforce, and to build pipelines for entrepreneurship and food access.

Of course, achieving racial justice in city contracting is about more than food. It’s about revamping how Boston buys everything, from vehicle repairs to office supplies. As the disparity study confirms, Boston’s local businesses are ready to work. The city should take urgent action to ensure Boston’s prosperity extends to all.

Michelle Wu is a Boston city councilor and candidate for mayor. Sheldon Lloyd is chief executive officer of City Fresh Foods.