Assessing Sustainable Practices in Public Procurement of Food 

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Every year, UK public sector organisations spend some £1.8 billion on food procurement.i Given their significant spending power, the purchasing decisions taken by these institutions not only determine the quality of food consumed within schools, universities, hospitals, care homes and prisons, but they influence every facet of the UK food system.  

As the UK government’s A Plan for Public Procurement notes, effective public procurement can deliver a range of benefits including: supporting a thriving local economy; rewarding food producers for operating to high animal welfare standards; building training opportunities into contracts to ensure a well-skilled food and farming sector; tackling health issues by enabling people to eat well across the public sector; helping school children value their food by knowing where their food comes from, and how to cook healthy meals. By choosing to purchase food that is locally and sustainably produced as well as highly nutritious, the public sector is uniquely placed to drive transformational change that will put healthy people, a healthy natural environment and healthy local economies at the heart of the UK food system.   

Yet, in practice, the enormous potential for public sector procurement to drive change has barely been tapped. Instead, cost-reduction remains an overriding objective for purchasing managers, with often little more than lip service paid to sustainability or nutritional quality. Yet, across the UK, thousands of small, regional suppliers of nutritious, sustainably produced food find themselves excluded from procurement chains in favour of larger national or multinational operators. We view this disconnect as a profound market failure, because smaller-scale and regional suppliers are perfectly positioned to support public sector organisations in driving positive health, environmental and economic outcomes. 

  

The solution: Regional food procurement systems

Renewed effort must be made in regionalising food procurement systems in the UK public sector. We contend that linking public sector buyers with a network of small-scale producers will deliver multiple human, environmental and economic health benefits . Our perspective is both informed and supported by non-academic partners with direct experience of the challenge of sustainable food procurement and its potential for transformative multiple health benefits. A co-designed research approach forms the central ethos of our proposal, which we see as essential for bringing about transformational change. 

With just 28% of UK adults adhering to the five-a-day guidance of fruit and vegetables intakeiii, shorter supply chains and co-designed interventions would lend themselves to the provision and consumption of fresh, seasonal produce. They would also reduce the need for excessive sugar, salt and unhealthy food additives, typically included as preservatives in the globalised food system and implicated in England’s 28% obesity rate3 and a range of other diet-related, chronic health conditions. This has most recently been demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic where evidence suggests that excess weight can increase the risk of serious illness and death.

A recent report highlights that this regional approach ‘does not have to be more expensive – and at the same time we can support local, seasonally produced food, which is often healthier for the consumer, has lower food miles, and chimes with the Government’s own ‘net zero’ and future farming ambitions too.’v This confirms that regional public procurement ‘has the potential to produce major reductions in food carbon footprints.’vi Giving small-scale, local producers access to public sector procurement would create local jobs and increase economic resilience of rural communities. Those employed in the food system often experience poor working conditions, with jobs tending to be low-paid and precarious.vii Cutting out intermediaries and forging direct and equitable business relationships with major procurers would improve livelihoods for local producers.