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Put your money where your mouth is: Investing in sustainable regional food systems and communities through public procurement

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Ahead of the upcoming local government elections in May, Food for Life Scotland (FFLS) and Sustainable Food Places (SFP) co-hosted an online event focussed on the topic of public food procurement.  The event brought together a broad range of organisations working on public food in Scotland, all of whom believe that food procurement is of vital importance in building a better food system in Scotland. The event highlighted best practice and innovation in a number of areas relating to food procurement.

At the event’s heart was the idea that public procurement of food has enormous potential to deliver on a range of societal issues from public health; to biodiversity; to climate change and economic development. This idea was introduced in the opening talk by Nourish Scotland’s Simon Kenton Lake who co-ordinates the SFP network in Scotland. Simon argued that rather than being “merely shopping”, public food procurement is a hugely powerful tool that can impact our whole society and one that needs to be utilised more in the context of the Good Food Nation bill, the Scottish Government’s local food strategy and coming legislation on community wealth building.

 

Supporting small businesses and local economic growth

Public procurement as an important route to market for small and local businesses was a theme touched on throughout the event. FFLS’s Supply Chain Manager, Lucie Wardle spoke about their work supporting local authorities to serve more locally produced food and why this is vital. “There are so many reasons to focus on local suppliers in public procurement – it supports local businesses, creates jobs, encourages shorter supply chains and provides a valuable route to market for producers.” Subsequent speakers expanded on Lucie’s remarks by talking about the work they are doing to enable more local sourcing. During the session entitled Progressive Purchasing Systems three featured speakers talked about innovations in local sourcing: Laura Muir of Scotland Excel, Scottish local government’s procurement body, described how they were working to make large scale public contracts more accessible by breaking up contracts into geographic lots and providing supply only options for producers who can’t guarantee transport. Chrissie Storry from Dynamic Food Procurement Advisory Board highlighted the opportunity that dynamic purchasing systems offer through utilising a logistical and technical partner. This innovative new approach enables more local and seasonal sourcing through small scale businesses. Alan Mawson from Dumfries and Galloway Council described how they were working to tackle supply related issues in a large rural authority through ‘Naturally D&G, a central distribution hub. This has also enabled the council to utilise more local suppliers.

 

Health and Wellbeing

The benefits of well sourced public food are much broader than just supporting local businesses and this is a theme touched on by Eat Well Age Well’s Tilly Robinson-Miles. Tilly described cuts to services for older adults such as meals on wheels and local authority lunch clubs. She argued that these services need to be seen as an investment in health and wellbeing rather than just a cost to be borne. “We need food to survive, but also to thrive; it animates us, gives us pride and pleasure, joy and friendship. There are wider social and health benefits.” Tilly called for more consistent high-quality provision of food services for older people across the country.

In a  session looking at  school food, Chris Ross, Vice Chair of ASSIST FM, drew on the Case for Good Food in School Meals stakeholder working group’s 2021 report and reflected on the power of universal free school meal provision. Chris described the need for proper investment in services in order to ensure that universal provision of free school meals is well sourced, inclusive and part of a whole school approach to food.

 

Environmental impact

 The environmental impact of public food was another recurring theme of the conference with speakers throughout the morning commenting on the importance of sustainability in public sourcing. However, it was during the final session, Its Not Just About the Food Miles that this topic came to the fore. The session was designed to highlight that sustainability in food means more than just sourcing locally. Andrew Stark from RSPB Scotland spoke about the impact of food production on biodiversity, pointing to the stark decline in UK bird numbers since 1970 as just one example. However, he also argued that sustainable farming should be part of the solution and that public procurement can influence this through its buying power, pointing to a couple of examples of local authorities supporting organic businesses. Ylva Haglund of Zero Waste Scotland added another dimension to the environmental discussion by highlighting the huge impact of food waste – 25% of Scotland’s carbon footprint and equivalent to taking two million cars off the road. Ylva spoke about the potential of public procurement to reduce this throughout the supply chain from farm to fork and advocated for embedding circular economy principles into public procurement policies.

Maximising the potential of public procurement is an issue which sees growing cross party support, but there is still a lot further to go. We hope that in the next local government term we will see local authorities across Scotland prioritise food and learn from the great examples and expertise we have showcased through this event. If you’d like to watch the full event you can view a recording here.

For more information on the Food for Life Scotland programme please contact cpendreigh@soilassociation.org. For further information on the SFP network in Scotland please contact simon@nourishscotland.org.uk

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