EUKN – Interview with Mark Stein on local food procurement in the UK

The setting of the Eating City Summer Camp, La Bergerie de Villarceux

Interview with Mark Stein at the Eating City Summer Camp about his M Phil dissertation on the state of sustainable food procurement in the UK, which he is writing having retired after a working life in local government.

In September 2013, EUKN issued a new dossier on Food and Cities, addressing the recent but ever growing  concern of cities with improving their food systems, for the benefit of their citizens, environment and economy.  One of the ways in which cities can take action to improve their  food system is by prioritizing local and organic food in their food procurement. Copenhagen was very successful in doing this, without increasing their budget, as mentioned in the Food and Cities Analysis. The city set itself the goal of buying 75% of their food organic by 2012, in all its canteens, covering kindergartens, schools, hospitals, care homes, etc. Several UK cities are pursuing similar goals.

UK cities active in local food procurement

“Some cities in the UK are seeking to buy local origin food for their school catering services, but certainly not all cities. If you look at the website for Sustainable Food Cities you will see a group of cities pursuing this. Two of the most active are Plymouth and Bristol, in Southwest England. One of the reasons is that this region has the greatest variety of agricultural production in the UK and also the highest percentage of organic food. If you compare that with the region in which I live,  Northwest England,  around Manchester and Liverpool, the amount of agriculture is quite limited. There is some agricultural land down one side of it, but around Manchester itself there is very little agriculture activity. You have mainly grazing for sheep and cattle, with very poor land. There is some urban agriculture around Manchester, but it is quite small-scale. “

Availability of local food makes it easier to start local food strategies

“If you have got little or no local food available apart from some sheep meat, it makes it a bit more difficult to have a local food strategy. There are certainly parts of the UK, and particularly in Greater Manchester, where the amount of horticulture is quite small. This is also  true of mountainous parts of  North Wales and the only local food production is sheep-raising. Or you may  have a bit of flat land where people might have grown vegetables 10, 20, 40 years ago, but that practice stopped, since people could get a better income doing something else.”

Difficulties of pursuing local food procurement

“EU Regulation makes it illegal to put contracts out to tender specifying local food, but local authorities have found ways around that. Not by specifying local food, but by engaging in informal discussion with possible suppliers before they put things out on paper. They try to see what local food production is there, and what local food suppliers need to change to make it possible for them to supply the needs of the schools. For example you might need to put in place distribution arrangements such as having a contractor who is responsible for distributing the food around the schools who arranges to take up the cheese, or the free-range eggs, or the milk produced by smaller suppliers, and take it to the schools. Having in place a distributor who can provide the distribution service for small suppliers is a widespread practice in Northwest and Northeast England.”

From an outcry about the poor quality of school canteen’s food to promoting a change of diet

“In England during 2003-2004 there was a national outcry about the poor quality of school food and demands that school food should be improved. New nutrition plans were put in place by the then Labour government, between 2005 and 2009. All sorts of unhealthy foods, fried food, high fat food, chocolate, chips were either eliminated from the school canteens or severely restricted. The school canteen meal would be much more nourishing than what had been the case before. This was linked to concerns about obesity. All schools offer a vegetarian alternative, but most of the time children can choose. There is a campaign called Meat Free Monday, encouraging schools catering services to introduce meat free days. That has had a bit of success. A couple of local authorities have been looking at reformulating dishes to reduce meat content –for example  taking a portion of the meat out  of something like a cottage pie and replacing it with a meat substitute like quorn. They found that they could make something that would taste exactly the same for the children. There is a big concern that children will not like the taste of the food and refuse to buy it. The new cottage pie recipe would not save the municipality any money but it would reduce the carbon footprint and it is probably healthier for the children.”

Promoting the school canteens

“There has been a big initiative by school catering services to promote their food to the children and parents  A major national event is the  “National School Meals Week”, organized by the Local  Authority Catering Association in the Autumn Term.“

Is organic food affordable for public procurement?

“I think it is possible to afford to replace conventional food by organic food in a school catering service but it means that the catering managers, the procurers and the chefs have to work very hard to do this without a major increase in the budget. They have to do what is done in Denmark: to identify ways in which you can cut out existing waste and thereby you can upgrade the quality of the food without having to increase the budget. In Liverpool, the school catering managers of a group of 17 schools realized they could save a lot of energy, because the ovens were being heated to excessive temperatures and for too long.  They have introduced new procedures for how long the ovens should be switched on for. They realized that excessive ingredients were being ordered, so a lot of food was being thrown away. They introduced tighter control over how much ingredients were ordered. They realized that a lot of food was being thrown way at the end of each day because children hadn’t eaten it and they could recycle food which hadn’t been served, and use it the next day as the basis for another meal. All of which is common sense chef practice  but wasn’t necessarily being followed by the people running these school kitchens previously. Another good way to cut costs was to introduce several meatless days a week. Costs could also be reduced by using cheaper cuts of meat – eg chicken thighs rather than breasts. So these catering managers  were able to cut their costs while introducing more local and organic food.”

Political will but also passionate individuals can bring forward local food procurement

“It is not everywhere the case that you have strong political support for this sort of initiatives. It might be the case that it is an individual catering manager who is passionate about local and regional food, or passionate about animal welfare. There is always a risk that when the catering manager moves on –  they may retire or be made redundant – , that everything will change. I certainly would not say that sustainable food is at the top of the priority list in all local authorities. “

Local food procurement needs political commitment

“If there is a municipal food strategy, then it is very likely that public procurement will be one of the key  points within it. I would say about 20% of local authorities in the UK have got a food strategy. But just because a Iocal authority has a food strategy, this does not mean that anybody is doing anything about it. In some local authorities the person who wrote the food strategy is no longer there and has not been replaced, so very little is happening. In others the food strategy is being pursued with great political commitment, backed by extensive support from civil society organizations.“

Interesting projects outside of the UK

“Two interesting European projects involving  academics and a number of local authorities working on the sustainable food agenda are URBACT and Foodlinks.”

masrks head  first crop (2)

For more information:

EUKN – Interview with Mark Stein on local food procurement in the UK.


Urban Agriculture in Portugal: ahead or behind?

Coming from Portugal, I see urban agriculture as a very interesting process.

Porto, where I come from, has a big metropolitan area, with about 1 million of inhabitants. With most of my friends having families from the countryside of Portugal, I was the “unfortunate” one, with my four grandparents living  in the same neighbourhood in Gaia (the city on the other side of the river from Porto, which hosts the cellars where the Porto wine rests). This meant that every summer and holiday season my friends would take off to meet their relatives in villages somewhere in the idyllic Portuguese countryside (idyllic to me, at least), and I had to stay in Gaia.

But living in the city does not mean that I did not have any contact with the rural world. I used to help my grandmother to feed the chickens in her backyard. I remember more often, when she took me to look at the chickens, as a distraction manoeuvre to manage to feed me. (I was not so much into food when I was a child). Even now, she still grows some vegetables: cabbages, tomatoes, beans.

The knowledge that was passed on to her by her mother, and probably by most parents of the early 20th century, has in many cases, not passed on to the newer generations. The great urbanization seen in the last century is definitely partly “to blame”, alongside the lower status that is associated with “working the land”.

However, in Porto and its surroundings  the “rural world” is still very mixed with the urban landscape. Although allotment gardens become more popular and even trendy, most of the agriculture in this region is carried out by people who have always done it like that: using “efficiently” the land they own, as their parents did.

As I wrote here for EUKN, you can still easily find espigueiros popping out of the urban-rural landscape. Espigueiros are an old type of granary built to keep rodents (mice, rats..) away from cereals.

This close contact between the rural and the urban domains is, in my opinion, a characteristic of Portugal, unusual in most of Western Europe.  It is, on one hand, a sign of our “lag” in economic development. On the other hand, it is an asset that could allow us to leapfrog into a future of lively and local-boosted food economies.

I leave you with some pictures of the rural in the city.

Espigueiros, by Paulo Gonçalves. Found in
Espigueiros, by Paulo Gonçalves.  Found here.

You can spot couves everywhere. Can you see the small ones?

small cabbages can be seen!
Garden by the street, small cabbages can be seen!

Fruit trees are also commonly found, peeking from the other side of the walls.

Orange tree waving hello!
Orange tree waving hello!

Another improvised vegetable garden, with a gardener in action, watering the field!

Can you spot the gardener?
Can you spot the gardener?

This last picture was taken 5 minutes walking from my home.  The buildings in the distance are part of Vila D’Este, one of the biggest residential developments in Portugal, accommodating 17,000 inhabitants.

Another vegetable garden, looking on Vila D'Este, a big residential development.
Another vegetable garden, looking on Vila D’Este, a big residential development.

Like Sustainability Stories on FB.

Stories in a daily meal

By the storyteller Ambra Tosto.

Ambra, the constant gardener
Ambra, the constant gardener

A student room in a Dutch town, not too big not too small.. Just a town, surrounded by a belt of   warehouses, little factories  and by a  highway ring…I look down at the table and I realize that I can tell  the story of every single ingredient of the meal in front of me.
A luxurious situation nowadays, if you live in a town, where most of what we eat passes through an endless chain of anonymous hands, boxes, trucks, shelves and shopping bags.
But my meal, today, is the condensed result of droplets of urban sustainability.

Here I tell you its stories:

The soup
The soup is a bright green cream, the kind of soup a kid would hate.
It is made of lovage and beet leaves that come from a fun and messy student vegetable garden, spinach freshly picked from one of the buckets in my terrace, a little experiment of urban gardening, and nettles that grow everywhere for free!

The baked eggs
The hens that laid the eggs live approximately 200m away from my house in a garden/small didactic farm around an old windmill.

The bread
I make it almost every week mixing flour, water and sour dough.I bought the flour in the weekly farmer market, organic Dutch wheat wind-mill-grounded in a close-by village.
The sour dough, however, that works as yeast, is the ingredient with the longest story, a story of many many careful hands that kept it alive, feeding it new flour every week, for 150 years!

the messy student garden :)
the messy student garden :)

Written by the storyteller Ambra Tosto.

EUKN – Eating City Summer Camp – enjoying and preparing food while discussing future urban food systems in Europe

Between July 28th and August 3rd, 25 participants discussed topics as food provision, urban agriculture, eatable landscapes, cooking education, gardening experiences and efficient waste management, at the Eating City Summer Camp in France. They were inspired by lively discussions around the meal tables, by the cooking skills of the French chef, the delicious homemade bread and the sweet cherries handpicked from the farm trees.

Eating City International Platform

The young people represented 25 European countries at the Bergerie de Villarceux, France. The event was organized by the Eating City international platform, a project of Risteco, (an organization which started as the environmental branch of a public catering company),and it gathers people from organizations as diverse as the Terre Citoyenne Alliance, the independent agricultural think tank Groupe de Bruges and the Slow Food Movement.

From food logistics and procurement to plankton and religion

The structure of the meeting had a mix of formal and informal styles, with lectures, working groups and participating in baking and cooking activities. Lectures were given by experts in the most diverse aspects of the food system: Logistics, Fishing certification, Public Food Procurement, Local Food Marketing, and Youth Food Movements in Europe.

There were also speakers introducing less obvious topics: the nutritious potential of plankton as a widespread food; and the connections between food, culture and religion.

The perfect setting: the Bergerie de Villarceux

It is not by chance that the meeting took place at the Bergerie. The Bergerie consists of 600 hectares that were part of an old property of the Marquis de Villarceux. Part of that property still hosts the castle and gardens of Villarceux and is administered by the regional authorities of Ile de France. The part of the Bergerie was turned into an Ecocenter and a biological farm, hosting hundreds of animals, and producing cereals and lentils, among other things. The Bergerie has been committed to a process of ecological and social transition for more than 20 years.

Hands-on approach

With participants that are fascinated and appreciators of good food it is no wonder that baking the daily bread together with the baker, and helping the chef preparing the meals, were some of the most popular parts of the program. The food was, needless to say, prepared using always biological local ingredients, including meat and lentils from the farm.

Declaration of Villarceux

The meeting resulted in the Declaration of Villarceux, elaborated and signed by all participants. In September the Declaration of Villarceux will be widespread through the Eating City platform and the participants’ networks throughout Europe.

A concerned visitor during the presentations of the working groups
A concerned visitor during the presentations of the working groups

via EUKN – Eating City Summer Camp – enjoying and preparing food while discussing future urban food systems in Europe.

The stupefying smart city | Articles | LSE Cities

The prospect of the orderly city has not be a lure for voluntary migration, neither in the past to European cities, nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way: that is how they can come to take ownership over their own lives.

via The stupefying smart city | Articles | LSE Cities.

The Hungry City – how food shapes our cities, our houses and our lives

One of the most interesting things about Foods and Cities is the great number of aspects it touches: fair trade, dietary habits, cooking skills, urban planning, regional development, community involvement, North-South relations, economy and agriculture, but also sustainability at a local and global scale.

As my thesis was dealing a lot with the topic of global impacts of local actions, I was very interested in how food can be used to address the (un)sustainability of people’s lifestyles in cities. When interviewing some experts, two of them suggested to me the book “The Hungry City”, by Carolyn Steel. I had never heard about it, so I was quite surprised when two of my three interviewees recommended it to me.

It was a great tip! After I finished the thesis, the first thing I did was to borrow the book from the library, and to spend some hours reading it in the park.

Post-thesis relaxation, last summer.
Post-thesis relaxation, last summer.

The author of the book is a British architect, who looks for the first time at cities from the perspective of Food. (Watch her Ted Talk.) She tells the story of how food shapes our lives. Not only in terms of health, but of the city itself.

Did you know that in London, the streets through which food entered the city centuries ago, are still nowadays some of the main traffic streets? Before industrialization, food was brought in from the surrounding region by foot, or from faraway places by boat. Can you imagine all the chicken, cattle, goats, crossing the streets every week, in direction to the markets where they were sold?

“If you look at the map of any city built before the industrial age, you can trace food coming in to it. You can actually see how it was physically shaped by food, both by reading the names of the streets, which give you a lot of clues. Friday Street, in a previous life, is where you went to buy your fish on a Friday. But also you have to imagine it full of food. Because the streets and the public spaces were the only places where food was bought and sold. “

Carolyn Steel, TedTalk

Steel gives glimpses of how food was prepared, sold, transported and enjoyed throughout the centuries – which is also the story of how our relation to food changed with times.