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.