This two-part series explores how we are living our value of racial equity and inclusion by interrogating and shifting the ways we approach food and catering as an organization. In this piece, read on for more about the relationship between our racial equity practice and our procurement policy, and questions we continue to grapple with.

What does racial equity and inclusion actually feel and look like? Some of these shifts in culture cannot be quantified. One way that we’ve embedded racial equity into the “look and feel” of our culture is through food. Within a white institutional cultural context where dominant culture is prioritized, the choices we make around food are a manifestation of our intentional racial equity practice. What is deemed acceptable for a corporate lunch, versus what is considered “exotic” or “ethnic,” and why? Why would a turkey sandwich be more acceptable than biryani for an organizational event? These are the types of questions that we have dug into to consider how we might shift from prioritizing dominant white culture.

In our role as an intermediary and convener, it’s no surprise that we host a lot of meetings! We also order lunch for staff bi-monthly to invest in our internal relationships. One small but tangible step we have committed to is attempting to order food from businesses owned by entrepreneurs of color as much as possible. As a result, not only are our lunches delicious, but we also have a more diverse selection of food, and throughout the process are learning more about how to best support small businesses of color.

To date, we have had a full-on BBQ spread, homemade tamales, Vietnamese Banh Mi, Dominican roasted chicken, Filipino-Indian fusion and healthy Vegan and pescatarian meals. We also learned how to prioritize our folks who have dietary restrictions, rather than expecting them to be happy with eating side dishes!

Along the way, we have changed our procurement policy and updated our payment processes to be more inclusive of small vendors. These experiences have even caused us to shift our event planning strategy. Because hotels and conference centers have strict food and beverage requirements, we have increasingly turned to alternative locations to host convenings and staff retreats. The beauty in this journey is that it has led us to some amazing spaces, like Philadelphia’s Community Education Center (CEC) for our 2018 Winter Staff retreat and most importantly, had exposed us all to rich cultures, cuisines and people.

As we continue to learn—both from cities working on equitable procurement and small business growth, and our own internal operations—a few questions have come up: How do we assess whether a small business is owned by an entrepreneur of color? What do we mean by POC-owned? What else do we need to take into consideration? While the field, particularly within government, typically uses the term “minority” in conversations around local business and procurement, how can we push partners to use more powerful, accurate and asset-based language? How do we shift language around the word "minority”, even though that is what is used in the field and especially with our government partners? How could we shift our own procurement policy to better harness all of our resources toward our mission and values? How can we use these opportunities to practice grace when the procurement process is not as convenient or efficient as a big corporate chain?

We don’t have all the answers to the questions, and we continue to explore different ways to deepen our racial equity practice as we work towards our results to close racial wealth gaps. Our procurement policy now clearly states that, “When seeking sources for goods and services at Living Cities, employees should preference businesses owned by people of color.” And as we put the policy in practice, we are also actively trying to dismantle the different ways white institutional culture might show up.

Members of our staff have applied our learnings around equitable procurement in their own roles, working to buy differently, diversify our office lunch experience, and expose staff to different cultures and foods.

In Part II, read how Lethy Liriano, Organizational Development Associate, is putting these lessons into action, and look out for the release of our entrepreneurs of color resource so that you can do the same.