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Unpacking school food supply chains in the public sector

By Rebecca Lait, University of York

Utilising public procurement as a way to transform the sustainability of the food system holds great potential, especially when focussing on school meals supplied by local authority catering services. This transformative change can impact young people far into their futures, sparking their interest in this topic and teaching them fundamental and valuable lessons about food, sustainability and health from a young age. To fully harness this opportunity, unpacking and mapping out public food procurement supply chains that lead to school meals was crucial. During this process, I learnt about the factors that shape and influence this part of the food system, as well as how each of the members of the supply chains influence and interact with each other.  I also learnt a lot about the barriers, enablers and contracts that dictate how the system works and how they lead to a deeper understanding that allows for relevant and important solutions to be formed.

When undertaking research in this area, one of my key aims was to not only gain knowledge from existing research and literature, but also to learn first-hand from members of the supply chain and beyond what it is like to procure from and supply to the public sector. This allowed for insight to be gained into not just how the current system works but how well it works, from a range of perspectives. Therefore, I conducted interviews with a range of stakeholders to start understanding the interconnections between each of the members of these supply chains and learn about their current practices and future targets. These stakeholders included:

  • The Department for Education
  • Local Authority Procurement Managers
  • Local Authority Catering Managers
  • School Catering Managers and Chefs
  • Members of the National Farmers Unions
  • Headteachers
  • School Business Managers
  • Members of some Yorkshire Networks such as GROW Yorkshire, Deliciously Yorkshire and ACRE.
  • Regenerative Farmers.

Understanding some of the main barriers and enablers for SMEs supplying to the public sector and for local authorities procuring from SMEs was key. This helped me not only identify and recognise the current difficulties that prevent transformative change, but be able to formulate effective and considered solutions. An example of an enabler for local authorities in procuring from more SMEs is the positive influence and encouragement that organisations like the soil association provide. In contrast to this, one barrier that SMEs can have in supplying to the public sector is the limited time or staff they often have, making it more difficult to complete tender applications at the same level that large-scale organisations with dedicated tendering teams might do. Moreover, with local authorities such as North Yorkshire County Council procuring food for school meals in a way that deals with one supplier per category of food, these contracts can prove to be too demanding for SMEs to fulfil. This can be in terms of both the quantity of food required as well as the range. To address this, a recommendation that emerged from my research was for local authorities to split their tender contracts into smaller lots and to provide support to SMEs when completing tendering applications. However, this itself can prove difficult for some larger local authorities to implement, such as North Yorkshire County Council who are responsible for schools in the whole district of North Yorkshire that are signed up to school catering services. Therefore, identifying additional ways to overcome these barriers was needed. One solution to overcome this barrier that doesn’t seem to significantly increase the workload of local authorities is the introduction and development of dynamic procurement platforms. These platforms provide a place for SMEs and local businesses to supply to, and for local authorities to procure from. Having one platform for multiple suppliers allows their supplies to be aggregated whilst still allowing local authorities to source school meal ingredients from just one place. Dynamic procurement pilots have been carried out in Bath and North East Somerset and produced promising results.

My research identified that fundamentally, local authorities lie at the heart of many public sector food supply chains that lead to schools meals. With local authorities being able to write their own tendering bids and specify terms, whilst also often being responsible for designing school food menus, their decisions impact the sustainability of the whole supply chain. Implementing updated procurement practices and systems not only promotes and supports suppliers that are implementing sustainable practices but this positive impact directly increases school children’s accessibility to healthy, sustainable food.

The timing of my research meant we were ideally placed to contribute to the Government’s Buying Standards consultation. Moreover, other outcomes from this research include the writing of a report as well as the development of a procurement lab event that aims to connect individuals, organisations, schools and local authorities involved in public sector food procurement supply chains that are carrying out innovative, sustainable and successful practices.

Gaining a deeper understanding of public procurement supply chains to increase the sustainability of the food system not only requires learning about what needs to be improved but how that can realistically happen. I think it is promising that a range of solutions to overcome current barriers in the food system have been identified in this work. This does not mean that implementing these transformative changes will be easy, but it does mean that it will be worth it.