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Leveraging public procurement to localise the food system

fresh plums in cardboard boxes

By Dr Ulrike Ehgartner, Research Associate

Every year, the UK spends 2.4 billion pounds on public food procurement, which equates to 5.5% of total food sales. Public food procurement refers to the foods bought by the government with the use of public funds. It provides the meals served at public institutions such as schools, hospitals, care homes, prisons, military bases, local authorities and government offices. Up until now, regulation did not encourage UK public service to access products from local, small and medium-sized enterprises, which represents barriers not only to the UK economy, but also to healthier and more sustainable diets.

Responsible for managing the procurement of goods and services in the UK is Crown Commercial Service (CCS), the buying agency of the UK Government. It operates on the basis of the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF), a range of standards mandatory for Central Government Departments, NHS England Hospitals, The Armed Forces and HM Prison and Probation Service. Currently, both the BBSF and the operations of CCS are under review. DEFRA is driving a consultation to change public sector and catering policy towards sourcing standards and guidance, in support of more sustainable and healthier food and catering. Policy change is accompanied by efforts to make the procurement process more transparent and accessible, to open up public sector supply chains to a wider range of companies, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Policy change holds great potential for regional capacity building. It has the potential to shorten supply chains and introduce more sustainable forms of food production and consumption. In particular, it could encourage different, and better types of food, with more diverse and dynamic forms of sourcing – produced with less damaging impact on the environment. Whilst these current changes on public procurement open up great opportunities to localise supply chains and to build a community of food practice around public food procurement in Yorkshire, any efforts for change also needs to take into consideration the needs and constraints of buying institutions and small size suppliers.

To watch and unpack these exciting but challenging new developments, Grow Yorkshire are organising a series of free webinars to introduce the new Crown Commercial Service Food and Drink Agreement and discuss the opportunities it can bring to Yorkshire food SMEs, specifically to join the supply chain. For this purpose, Grow Yorkshire has partnered with FixOurFood, which, as a programme, puts a strong emphasis on food system transformation through a focus on changing regulation and norms regarding the production and distribution of food. Positive changes of the organisation and structure of the supply chain creates fairer conditions, both for local and sustainable food businesses, to access the market, and for citizens to access healthier and more ethical ingredients and meals. The government can play a key role in leading this change.

In the first webinar, which took place on 30th March, FixOurFood Consortium Director Prof Bob Doherty was as a panellist alongside representatives from Crown Commercial Service, DEFRA and the Cabinet Office, as well as the government’s Small Business Crown Representative. He explained the market opportunities inherent in public procurement and drew upon examples from abroad to point out the benefits it can offer to the local economy and to the reduction of negative environmental impacts. Government speakers shared an overview of steps that have already been made towards this new model of procurement and outlined timelines for the coming months.

The webinar closed with a lively audience-led discussion, initially around the genuineness of change through this new agreement. It then led on to concerns regarding the practicalities of making this switch, logistically, but also on how it can be assured that the process to become a provider becomes accessible and feasible for smaller businesses – a challenge that Grow Yorkshire is willing to tackle.

A recording of the Grow Yorkshire webinar is available further down the page at this link here.

To aid this process in the region and beyond, FixOurFood has established a Yorkshire Anchor Institutions Platform, which is a group of key local organisations from across public, private and third sectors, who together aim to harness their collective efforts to procure more food from SMEs in the Yorkshire region.