Neil Boyle reflects on the National Food Strategy’s procurement recommendations in this week’s column.

The National Food Strategy (NFS) has released another set of recommendations, following the first independent review of the UK food system in 75 years.

The NFS’s report highlights the potential for public procurement practices to shape the UK food system. In specific, recommendation 13 of the NFS urges the Government to: ‘strengthen government procurement rules to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on healthy and sustainable food’.

In 2020 FoodFutures co-authored an N8 Agrifood research report that explored opportunities for ‘procuring food for the future’. It similarly highlighted the significant influence that the procurement practices of large ‘anchor institutions’ (such as prisons, hospitals and schools) could have on the local food systems in which they are embedded.

The NFS certainly agrees; the report estimates that operations of the public sector account for 1.9 billion meals served per year in public institutions – at a cost of £2.4 billion – equating to more than 5% of total UK food service turnover. Regulation of public procurement is therefore considered “the Government’s most direct tool to shape the food system”.

Public procurement in the UK is regulated by the Government Buying Standards for Food (GBSF) which outlines a set of minimum mandatory standards – and non-mandatory best practice standards – for inclusion in central government catering tender specifications and contract performance conditions. The NFS considers the GBSF unfit for purpose in its current form due to a lack of adherence, monitoring or enforcement of standards; an absence of sufficient regulatory steer on the quality of food procured; a loophole in the standards that permits the prioritising of cost over quality; and limited coverage – the standards are only applied to central government bodies (hospitals, prisons, the armed forces). These shortcomings in procurement regulation result in public institutions serving food that is often of poor quality, unappealing, unhealthy, with insufficient consideration given to environmental impact or sustainability.

To harness the full potential of public procurement as a force for change, the NFS recommends redesigning the GBSF and developing a healthy and sustainable Reference Diet to which public procurement practices should adhere and uphold. This includes extending the reach of standards to cover all public procurement.

Standards should be protected and uplifted by regular monitoring, enforcement, and introduction of mandatory accreditation schemes. New standards should emphasise quality over cost and impose targeted tender weightings for public priorities such as health, sustainability and ‘social value’ – the additional value to the wider community created by local procurement activity.
As highlighted in ‘procuring food for the future’, practice in Leeds and Lancaster increased sustainability and benefited the local economy by supporting local small suppliers to enter the tender process. The importance of mandating inclusion and facilitating access to the public procurement tendering process for SMEs and local suppliers is also emphasised in the NFS. Innovative approaches such as Dynamic Procurement Systems should be utilised to overcome the challenges of cost and capacity that often result in smaller producers struggling to compete with the economies of scale for large tenders.

Public procurement has an important role to play in supporting a more local, sustainable and resilient UK food system. Our interviews with public procurement staff highlighted that sustainability is often, by necessity, a secondary consideration as competing pressures of cost and administrative burden impede attempts to embed sustainability into practice.
Clear and mandatory regulation is needed to better support procurement staff to use public money for public good. The food procured and served in public institutions can operate as an example of how a food system can be harnessed to promote health and support local economies, whilst minimising the impact on the agricultural systems and landscapes on which we depend. The Government could make great strides towards this by harnessing the potential of public procurement as a tool for change.

This blog is informed by previous N8 Agrifood collaborative research by Neil Boyle, Diane Ryland and Sonja Woodcock (The University of Leeds), Rachel Marshall and Rebecca Whittle (Lancaster University), Lucy Antal (FeedBack) and Anna Clayton (FoodFutures: North Lancashire’s Sustainable Food Partnership).

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