Reasons to rethink the public purchase of food
Millions of girls and boys around the world eat at public schools. But who decides what is served in the school canteens? How are the menus chosen? Where are those foods bought? And should we continue to ask ourselves the following questions: could school meals stop the silent epidemic of obesity? Or, going even further: could we support ourselves in the purchase of all these foods to improve the social reality that surrounds us?
We are talking about schools, but we could also analyse the meals that are served in public hospitals, prisons, daycare centres… how are suppliers chosen? Are only those selected who offer the best price? If so, what effects – social, environmental or cultural – do these procurements have?
The decisions made in the public procurement of food have enormous implications that go far beyond the immediate economic consequences. Because these food items can affect the health of a good part of society, but also because the enormous amount of money spent in these purchases can make many differences. It can shape the lives of many people who live in and outside cities by helping to worsen or fix problems such as unemployment, rural depopulation, and climate change. What is the state of play?
Public procurement: a transformative impact
After decades of buying food only from the highest bidder, many public institutions have begun to look beyond. They are taking an interest in fresh food, the abundance of fruit and vegetables, seasonal products and proximity and ecological agriculture. And the results are surprising. Let’s see why:
- Because food is valued. An administration’s commitment to public food speaks volumes about the value it attributes to food. By prioritising its quality, we guarantee that children, adolescents and people that are hospitalised eat in a healthy way. This way, we take advantage of the preventive power of a healthy and adequate diet, while taking care of all the resources involved in food production, from labour to seeds.
- Because it teaches by example. A thoughtful and responsible public procurement of food shows citizens what decisions they should make regarding food. A campaign on the consumption of local fruits, vegetables and pulses is not enough, you also have to teach by example! If public administrations provide poorly nutritious food to a developing child or a person recovering in hospital, many might think that this is the most appropriate way to eat.
- Because it helps to make sustainable food systems a reality. Individual responsibility and organisations promoting healthy and sustainable habits are not enough: a change involving everyone is necessary.
- Because it prevents public health issues. Overweight, obesity and diseases related to a poor diet represent a high cost for all citizens. Why not invest resources directly in prevention through meals that are served in public spaces? This way, instead of talking about “public spending” we would talk about “public investment”.
- Because it protects our environment. The commitment to fresh, seasonal and local food, eliminating ultra-processed foods with ingredients that come from distant countries, means reducing our carbon footprint. And, of course, it means valuing the labour of people who work in rural areas and their cultivation techniques.
- Because it generates employment and improves life in rural areas. The purchase of fresh local food values the work of rural families who dedicate their lives to growing and harvesting, those people who seemed invisible before the pandemic, but who make it possible for short, strong and resilient supply chains to exist.
- Because they make it easier to face possible incidents. According to FAO Secretary-General Qu Dongyu, COVID-19 exposed the failures of our food systems. A green public procurement, based on short supply chains, provides resilience and flexibility in the face of possible future crises.
- Because it accelerates the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The 2030 Agenda is a network of goals and targets in which the relationships between them are as important as the formulation of each individual goal. Click here to see how a healthier and more sustainable food system positively impacts all goals.
Green public procurement in the world
Fortunately, there are more and more initiatives that try to redirect the public procurement of food towards criteria of healthy and sustainable food. One of the civil society entities that works to accomplish this is CERAI. They have written a Manifesto for a Healthy and Sustainable Public Food Purchase in Madrid (you can see it here).
Other valuable proposals are the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, the Green Cities Initiative and the recently approved Voluntary Guidelines of the Committee on World Food Security. Broadly speaking, these three initiatives seek solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change, promote policies for healthy eating and create an urban food system based on sustainability, capable of offering everyone a variety of adequate, safe, local foods, fair, healthy and nutritious.
At the local level, there are also interesting success stories. In Ghent, Belgium, fair trade products occupy an important place in the public procurement of food, including products such as coffee, tea or bananas with the corresponding label. In addition, they have managed to lower the prices of meals without lowering their quality, thanks to efficient waste management and choosing products with a lower carbon footprint. In Copenhagen, on the other hand, the SDGs have been incorporated as a contractual tool for public procurement.