England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society

The power of public food

Public sector food is more than calories on a plate. It’s a powerful tool for social, economic, and environmental change. This was the message of a recent webinar hosted by Food for Life Scotland. The event was aimed at local authority decision makers and influencers and brought together insightful local and international voices on the power of public food.

With more and more local authorities across Scotland declaring climate emergencies, and COP26 on the horizon, the need for concerted action on environmental sustainability has never been clearer. The launch of the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration late last year showed the role that integrated food policies can play in tackling climate change. As Scotland plans for a green recovery from the impact of the pandemic, public procurement of sustainable and local food is one of the most effective mechanisms at our disposal to help us build back better.

“It’s a win-win-win situation”, says Toronto-based chef and activist Joshna Maharaj, author of Take Back The Tray. “When you focus on food, and you think about building systems that really value all of the hands involved in moving food from field to kitchen to table, you can build systems that work for everybody.”

The public sector can be a beacon of good food

Why is hospital food universally ridiculed, and why do we accept student hunger as a rite of passage? For Joshna, it’s all about the values and attitudes embodied in institutional food. “Our public institutions are a reflection of who we are as a society”, says Joshna. They have the power to model and support and nurture communities in a way that we’re missing right now.”

Copenhagen’s journey towards good food was politically led. Back in 2001, local politicians set a goal of serving 90% organic meals in municipality institutions. “At the time we didn’t have any organic”, says Betina Bergmann Madsen, public procurement specialist and Chief Procurement Officer for the City of Copenhagen. Today, they’ve not only met that goal, but are working on a raft of other measures including adding more planet friendly food, greener packaging and transportation, and incorporating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals into the tenders for their contracts.

As Food for Life Served Here Gold award holders since 2013, North Ayrshire Council already had a longstanding commitment to sourcing and serving sustainable school meals. Now the Council are going even further, with their pioneering Community Wealth Building Strategy, launched in May 2020.

As Dr Audrey Sutton, Executive Director of Communities and Education at North Ayrshire Council explains, adopting the Community Wealth Building approach was a way of progressing the values they hold dear. “Our mission is about local wealth, creation of fair jobs, and valuing people and places to the greatest extent possible”.

Partnerships are the key to success 

Working together with suppliers and frontline catering staff is crucial to success. “It can be hard to go through the changes of doing something differently, so we have to make sure we do this together”, says Betina. “Without the kitchen staff, I can make a contract that incorporates all the goals I want, but if it doesn’t work for them, it won’t be implemented.”

It’s an approach that chimes with North Ayrshire Council’s unofficial motto: ‘nothing about me, without me’. Although the Community Wealth Building strategy started within the local authority, public sector partners have bought in, each playing to their strengths. Audrey explains, “We’ve supported community food partners in North Ayrshire via the things we as a Council can do well. We can build the backbone of the support for our local suppliers with a step-by-step guide for business planning, environmental standards, operating plans, evaluation and monitoring, and promoting this approach to the wider community.”

Joshna’s experiences underline the importance of direct relationships with suppliers. “We worked with farmers to get the right sizes on whole fruit – I wanted real apples instead of slices in plastic bags.” The smaller apples that were an appropriate size for the hospital portions were usually unmarketable for the farmers, but with the hospitals interested, they could sell them at a price the institution could afford. “The farmers sold their stock, the dieticians were happy, the patients were happy – I just wanted to put an apple on the tray.”

The public sector has the power to deliver change

The purchasing power of the public sector gives it the power to drive a transformation in food production and supply. As Audrey says, “at our fingertips in North Ayrshire we have about a billion pounds a year in terms of public sector procurement, which could be the levers and drivers for changing how we do things.”

Joshna agrees. “One of the most important things that can be done right now is to re-evaluate where you’re getting your food from. Voting with our purchasing choices is one of the most legitimate levers we can pull to change this operation.

“The important note is that institutions, through their purchasing and the influence they have on their community, can use local food in a way that supports local agriculture, that nourish bodies, and that takes care of our planet. Everybody wins – people get really good food, farmers get a living wage, the planet gets a chance to breathe.”

Food for Life Scotland are encouraging local government stakeholders to consider whether the food that their institutions are serving is unlocking the full potential outlined by Joshna, Betina and Audrey. Watch the event replay here and for more information on how your local authority can utilise the power of public food through the Food for Life programme contact sduley@soilassociation.org

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