Feeding the public sector

In the wake of an Australian trade deal, cheaper food imports could find their way into the public sector – but one sustainable sourcing model is pioneering a better way. Hugh Thomas reports.

Britain has some of the highest food standards in the world. But new agreements such as the freshly signed trade deal with Australia, coupled with a loophole in UK food procurement, could put that reputation at risk.

The loophole, which some public services such as schools, hospitals, and prisons may choose to exploit, allows for food of lower standards to enter the supply chain. “If a [public] body says sustainable food costs too much, they’re allowed to buy anything they want,” says Rich Osborn. “There’s a large swathe of the public sector that is not meeting the standards.”

Osborn is the founder of Bristol-based Equilibrium Markets (formerly online retailer Fresh-Range), a tech platform facilitating the flow of produce into public catering. Not the only setup of its kind, Equilibrium’s USP is that it favours small to medium-sized suppliers.

Typically, public services rely on producers big enough to deliver anywhere, at any time, and all in one go. Which leaves smaller farmers and producers – often performing better on quality, variety, and environmental stewardship – out of the loop. But a new system being trialled by Equilibrium, known as Dynamic Purchasing Systems (DPS), could help counter larger producers’ logistical advantages, while highlighting the benefits of smaller suppliers.

Osborn says Equilibrium will offer its customers in the public sector full visibility on any given farm, including “what they grow and how they grow it, what they’re doing in terms of biodiversity, climate change mitigation, animal welfare, and any social work they’ve done.”

School food
School food could support sustainable farmers.

With most buyers opting for convenience, DPS hasn’t really caught on within food. A pilot run over the past two years by Bath & North East Somerset Council (BANES), however, has shown how it could be managed. With Equilibrium consolidating orders and managing deliveries, 7,000 meals a day made from food from small suppliers in the region were served at schools, hospitals, and prisons. Reducing food miles by 59 per cent and creating a more efficient and high value supply chain in the process, the pilot challenges the theory that more sustainable food is more costly. 

Andy Jeffery, owner of Farrington’s, an organic farm that took part in the trial as a supplier, said the only disadvantages from his perspective were the formalities involved. “Our customers [usually] just ring us up or text us with their order each week and we deliver it, whereas the pre-supply requirements for Bath and North East Somerset were quite stringent,” he told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee in the wake of the pilot. 

Like the vast majority of other small suppliers, Farrington’s hadn’t supplied schools before. “There were lots of advantages because we were supplying the public sector. We knew we were going to get paid […]. We just had about 60 schools to supply and the volumes were not that big […]. The other advantage was that the agents, Fresh-Range, collected the produce from us. We had no problem in getting it to the market.”

Public sector
Sink hole or sustainability: the future of public sector food. 

The success of the BANES trial will lead to another pilot next spring, expedited by South West Food Hub, which is currently ‘warming up’ local suppliers to serve the entire region. Though a select committee, among others, has already called for the model to be rolled out nationwide, a bigger test will evaluate how its capabilities stack up on a larger scale.

“Dynamic procurement is a fantastic opportunity to keep public spend in regional economies, support smaller and more local suppliers, and benefit our food security and sustainability,” says Ruth Westcott, climate and nature emergency coordinator at sustainable food and farming alliance Sustain. “The work in Bath and North East Somerset has been truly inspiring, and we’d now like to see Defra confirm plans for rolling this out across the UK – with the funding it needs.”

Not everything suggests it’ll be the perfect fix to a broken system, however. Standards used in the BANES pilot include Red Tractor and Red Lion – labels that do not assure a welfare for livestock higher than the UK legal requirement. Also, a heavier reliance on seasonality will mean those creating menus for the public sector will need to get used to the fact they can’t access every food no matter the time of year.

“I would be loathe to knock a project that is trying to improve market access for smaller, often family-run farms by consolidating their supply,” says Clare Horrell, executive director at Real Farming Trust. 

“Having said that, we’d like to see policies put in place that push for higher agroecological standards within public procurement. A good start would be to fix a percentage of organic requirement and/or extension of the Food for Life scheme into areas of public procurement beyond nurseries and primary schools.”

Trade deals bring fears of lower food standards. 

The government’s new trade deal with Australia is at odds with the shorter, more resilient supply chains the South West pilot is aiming for. A situation that will only be made worse should an amendment on the laws around what food schools, hospitals, and prisons can and cannot procure fails to materialise. 

“We’re especially concerned that low-standard produce, that will be allowed into the UK thanks to new trade deals, will end up on school and hospital menus,” says Westcott, who says Sustain has campaigned to improve food served in hospitals since 2008.

While he shares the sentiment that the Australian deal could set a precedent, Osborn is encouraged that there are government ministers, such as Defra’s Victoria Prentis, treating the improvement of public procurement as a priority. “I will,” he says, “do my utmost to make sure they follow through.”  

This article was originally published in the Wicked Leeks summer 2021 issue. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu here.


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