Procuring food for the future

By Dr Neil Boyle, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds

Public food procurement is increasingly promoted at a national and local level as an instrument through which a better UK food system can be advanced.

Due to their size and purchasing power, large public sector bodies or so called ‘anchor institutions’ – such as hospitals, schools and prisons – have the potential to wield significant influence on the local food systems in which they are embedded.

Public procurement practice that incorporates sustainability principles can make a strategic contribution to local food systems by prioritising food that is produced, processed, distributed and disposed of in ways that contribute to local economies and livelihoods, provide social benefits, are protective of flora and fauna, and maximise usage and minimises waste.

N8 AgriFood researchers at the University of Leeds (Diane Ryland and Sonja Woodcock) and Lancaster University (Dr Rachel Marshall and Dr Rebecca Whittle) have collaborated with practitioners from their local sustainable food partnerships (Lucy Antal from FeedBack and Anna Clayton from FoodFutures: North Lancashire’s Sustainable Food Partnership) to examine the procurement practices of anchor institutions in Leeds and Lancaster from a sustainability perspective.

We conducted interviews with food procurement managers for schools, hospitals and university catering to gain insight into how sustainability is being incorporated into practice. Alongside this, researchers from the School of Law at the University of Leeds conducted an analysis of current UK and EU food procurement law to map out the existing legislative landscape, and glimpse over the parapet at the post EU exit terrain.

We found examples of positive steps towards the use of public procurement to promote sustainable local food systems in both cities. The concept of social value – the additional value to the wider community created by procurement activity – is being incorporated into practice.

For example, working proactively with local suppliers to meet procurement contracts directly benefits the local economy in terms of investment and employment. Procuring local, seasonal food reduces environmental impact by cutting ‘food miles’. Food is distributed locally, to feed school children for example, ensuring the availability of food of high nutritional quality for the local population.

However, whilst there is a convergence of interest in using procurement as a force to drive positive change, significant barriers restrict the abilities of institutions to procure food with sustainability in mind. Firstly, there is very little regulatory steer on sustainability in procurement practice. Neither UK nor EU procurement law actively mandates sustainability.

In the absence of clear regulatory directives on sustainability, small-scale sustainable food suppliers find it difficult to engage with and compete for tenders. Cost and capacity remains a major issue for small-scale producers who struggle to compete with economies of scale. Dynamic procurement systems as being piloted by Crown Commercial Services show promise of an innovative route by which small suppliers can access procurement contracts.

Another challenge is matching the values and ambition of a sustainable procurement strategy to the values of the businesses procured from. For instance, greater transparency is needed around the sustainability criteria and food miles associated with large scale distributors.

It is clear that more action is needed if the sustainability promoting potential of anchor institutions is to be fully realised. Procurement has an important role to play in supporting a more local, sustainable and resilient UK food system. As the UK leaves the EU, there is an opportunity to better enshrine principles of sustainability into public procurement law to promote social and economic value, as well as prioritise the sustainability of agricultural systems and landscapes on which we depend.

A full list of actions we consider necessary to promote sustainable procurement practice in anchor institutions can be found in our full report, which will be published in October 2020. Find out more about the review of procurement regulation at both EU and national level.

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