Fa-Tai Shieh is the Director of Food Procurement for the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). His team of procurement analysts develops bids resulting in annual food contracts for city agencies. He worked for DCAS previously as the Acting Executive Director of Performance Analysis and Assessment and as the Director of Strategic Sourcing and Spend Analysis.
He is also a part-time assistant professor teaching food studies courses at The New School.
Shieh earned his Bachelor’s degree in biology and ecology from Oberlin College and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Columbia University.
Food Policy Center: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us! Could you start by telling us about your background and what brought you to your current position in food procurement?
Fa-Tai Shieh: My interest in food and social justice started in college, eating in food co-ops where students planned, cooked, and procured foods for the community. At the time, I was tasked with picking up fresh produce from Amish farmers in rural Ohio, and that experience got me interested in growing food as well as the politics of our food system. I spent subsequent years learning how to farm during summers between semesters. After college, I was hired by the Cornell Cooperative Extension here in NYC to run a small farm in Dutchess County on a summer camp for kids from Harlem and then sell the produce at a farmer’s market in Harlem. It was an incredibly impactful experience. From there, my interest in food, culture, race, politics, and urban farming grew; and throughout my adult life, I have worked in various capacities promoting and enhancing urban food systems in NYC.
My career in city government did not start in food procurement but rather doing strategic sourcing analyses in my office. At the time, it was the job that paid the bills while I worked on food issues outside of my job. This included teaching, writing, serving as a board member of Red Hook Farms in Brooklyn (formerly Added-Value), and being a member of the advisory board of the Street Vendor Project. When the position of food procurement director became available in my office, I naturally expressed interest in changing roles and was promoted to my current position. Working in procurement has been incredibly interesting and challenging because it works at the intersection between policy and practice.
FPC: What do you think are the most pressing issues regarding food procurement at the government level? What about in NYC as a whole?
FTS: A big challenge in the effort to enhance food choices for our institutions is figuring out how to connect supply with demand. Vendors contact us all the time with new and interesting products, but getting them to the people who are creating menus is difficult. And, on the other side, institutions may be interested in procuring products such as plant-based proteins, but how to let the vendor community know about this interest is a challenge. We have made efforts to alleviate this bottleneck by attending local food shows as well as hosting an annual food show at our agency, but this is just the first step in the procurement process.
And in terms of NYC as a whole, I always think about the diverse communities our institutions serve. Food served at institutions must meet the nutritional standards of the city and contribute to food-purchasing values (the Good Food Purchasing Program) that promote a more sustainable food system. Some of the food items we procure must be custom-made to meet these requirements. The challenge I’m always thinking about is how to make food policy and procurement adaptable to all sorts of cuisines and the abundance of delicious foods found in this wonderful city.
FPC: In your current role, you work with other organizations to ensure that city agencies are supporting local farmers and procuring organic foods. Ideally, the food used by all our city agencies would come primarily from New York State or nearby, using farm-sourced products. The 30% New York State Initiative, for example, is encouraging schools to use more healthy, New York-sourced foods in school meals. Realistically, what do you think needs to happen in order to include more farm-sourced food throughout all of our institutional kitchens and facilities — from schools to older-adult centers to correctional facilities? What are the biggest barriers to achieving this goal, and how can they be overcome?
FTS: I think what is perhaps the most effective way to increase the consumption of NYS-sourced food is – obviously – to eat more NYS-sourced foods. This would require menu planning that is seasonal and compatible with the NYS food industry. Right now, we are in the height of the growing season, with many different fruits and vegetables available for consumption. How can the abundance of what we see at farmer’s markets make its way into our institutions? Those of us working in procurement know that we can’t just show up at the farmer’s market and buy what we want. Secondly, how should we eat in the winter to make use of NYS foods? I think it is just as much an operational shift as a cultural shift. We need to plan menus according to the abundance of the season.
Another elephant in the room that needs to be addressed is the cost of food. We all know that the best food is not the cheapest food. Food procurement is currently driven by price, but food is very qualitative in nature. And if institutions want foods that are produced sustainably and equitably, we need to invest more resources into these types of food. For example, factory-farmed eggs will always be cheaper than local eggs. There is no easy way to procure local eggs simply because they are priced much higher than factory-farmed eggs. Efforts to procure better food need to be supported by greater financial resources.
FPC: You have also been trained in food studies and now teach courses on the subject. What is one key piece of information about food, nutrition, and/or food services that you wish more people knew, and why?
FTS: This is a huge question, but one thing I would say is that the science of nutrition is relatively new in human history. It is only in the last century that we have started to think about food on a molecular level (e.g., nutrients, vitamins, calories, etc.). While this body of knowledge has helped us understand and address diet-related illnesses, it has also distorted the way people eat. It is important not to think about a specific nutrient out of the context of a food, a dish, a meal, a cuisine, and a culture. And, more broadly, healthy eating should be a liberating experience, not a confining one.
FPC: In 2015, you published a reflective article in Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies about why people choose to eat what they do and how our beliefs about food are influenced. What has influenced your personal eating habits and food preferences? Have your preferences and beliefs about food changed since studying and working with food?
FTS: I am an immigrant to this country and come from the Taiwanese food culture that is rich and deep in cuisine and gastronomy. Growing up in the U.S. has exposed me to many reasons to eat or not eat certain foods, whether for environmental, ethical, or health reasons, just to name a few. I have found a general fear, apprehension, and confusion about how to eat in America. Many types of foods or ways of eating are often classified as good or bad, right or wrong depending on the ideology of the day. For me, there has been an evolution of thinking that I have to eat a certain way according to the latest trend or belief, questioning these ideologies, which are often articulated by experts who are predominately white, and deconstructing these ideas so that it’s not all black or white, right or wrong. I would say that today my food preferences are generally guided by my culture with a dash of ethics, a pinch of climate activism, a splash of nutrition science, and a dollop of love.
Grew up in: Taiwan
City or town you call home: New York City
Job title: Director of Citywide Procurement
Background and education: Bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, MPA from Columbia University
One word you would use to describe our food system: In need of a detox
Food policy hero: My grandmother
Your breakfast this morning: Eggs, toast, pan-fried farm tomatoes, an Impossible patty, and coffee
Favorite food: Foraged mushrooms
Favorite last meal on Earth: Burger, fries, fountain soda
Favorite food hangout: NYC Urban Farms