Over the past three months, public discourse has focussed on the idea of a green recovery, and #BuildBackBetter has been trending on social media. As we head out of the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we must make sure that this enthusiasm translates to real action – particularly in relation to our food system. The Scottish public sector has an opportunity to lead the way with an approach to food and supply chains in a post-Covid-19 world that sets the direction of travel for wider society, ensuring we don’t miss out on this once in a generation opportunity for change.
The crisis has highlighted the many problems that exist in our current food system. Food in the UK is some of the cheapest in the developed world, and yet the bare shelves in March demonstrated the fragility of cheap food and the supply chains that support it. Media stories about food rotting in fields due to a lack of workers, and increasing coverage of the links between intensive agriculture and zoonotic diseases, have further compounded the public disquiet in our “business as usual” approach to food.
Public interest has translated into changing shopping habits. While the long and complex supply chains that underpin our just-in-time supermarket model struggled to adapt, consumers began to recognise that shorter, more localised supply chains could serve them when supermarkets could not. Since the start of lockdown, farms have seen surging demand for local delivery vegetable boxes, with farmers reporting demand outstripping supply.
Consumer interest in shortening and localising supply chains points to a wider societal shift in values that should embolden public sector leaders to take decisive action. All too often the primary determinant of procurement spend in Scotland is price, and the structures of procurement policy can favour larger companies. The pressures on local authorities created by year-on-year budget cuts can see community benefit or sustainability considerations overruled by the belief that larger companies can provide better efficiency than the local butcher or baker.
But the food on plates in Scotland’s schools, hospitals, and care homes should not be seen merely as a cost to be minimised. It is an opportunity to deliver on a range of priority policy areas: from health and local economic development to the environment. In an average year, the public sector in Scotland spends almost £150 million on food and drink. Now more than ever, that public money must be spent in a way that supports Scotland’s local businesses and builds lasting resilience into our food supply chains.
As a food and farming charity, the Soil Association has long recognised the importance of the public sector in setting the tone for Scotland’s relationship with food. Through our Food for Life Scotland programme we have worked with local authorities across Scotland to help put more fresh, local and sustainable food on the table. Our Food for Life Served Here (FFLSH) local authority award holders have led the way in examples of best practice.
Gold FFLSH award holders North Ayrshire Council source eggs and seasonal vegetables for the schools on the island of Arran from a small community supported agriculture project on the island – Woodside Farm. In doing so, the Council is supporting the local community and providing sustainably produced good food grown within miles of the schools in which it is served. When West Lothian Council achieved the Bronze FFLSH award for their school meals they increased the volume of fresh butcher meat that was Scottish to 95%, providing a market for higher quality meat produced by Scottish farmers and processed in Scotland. The Soil Association’s recent report Shortening Supply Chains: Roads to Regional Resilience outlines some of the approaches taken by public sector bodies and businesses that are actively innovating in order to increase local supply.
It is good to see some local authorities are making great strides in supporting local business, however we know that there is the opportunity to do more. The public sector generally could go much further in varying its supply chains, including by supporting hyper-local projects like the one with Woodside Arran. Mixed, resilient supply chains that support our local economies will help make us less vulnerable to shocks in the future.
Despite its absence from the news in recent weeks, climate change poses an even greater threat to our food supply than coronavirus. As the temperature continues to rise, we will see more floods, droughts and other climatic events which will endanger our food security. In the UK in 2018 just under half of all the vegetables we consumed came from abroad, making us particularly vulnerable to disruption in supply. Although there is much we cannot grow in Scotland and there will always be a place for international trade, we could eat more of what we do grow. By serving seasonal menus which make the most of local produce we can invest and grow our domestic farms and suppliers. The public sector market can help make this happen.
As we head out of this crisis, strategic staff in the public sector have a chance to show leadership and support their colleagues to put more local food on public plates at what will no doubt be a challenging time for the sector. Unbudgeted expenditure combined with reduced income has meant that the cost of coronavirus to the public purse has been exorbitant. Further cuts to already stressed catering budgets may well be requested – however, public sector leaders should think twice before asking for cuts that in the long run will prove a false economy.
We know that investing in local supply chains can not only be greener (reducing food miles), and more reliable (shorter supply chains are less likely to be disrupted) but it is also good economic sense. By providing a big and stable market to small growers and suppliers, the public sector can help grow local business, provide skilled opportunities for local workers and keep public spend within the communities in which it was raised. Research has shown that for every £1 spent through the Food for Life approach there is a £4.41 social return on investment.
One of Scotland’s leading economic think tanks has already advocated for an overhaul of public spend through procurement to be at the heart of Scotland’s economic recovery. What better place to start than with food? Catering is viewed too often as only delivering calories on the plate. However, sourced and served correctly the public plate can be a vehicle for real social change – and there has never been greater public appetite for that change.
If you would like to find out more about how Food for Life Scotland can support local authorities in Scotland to shorten supply chains, get in touch with the team at email@example.com