Tamara Bruning y Betina Bergman: innovations and challenges of public procurement from Ghent and Copenhagen
Schools, hospitals, prisons, retiring homes… there is a large amount of food that is purchased by administrations. And we ask ourselves: Which criteria are applied? Is price the only priority? Are the Sustainable Development Goals being taken into account when choosing suppliers? We talk about public food procurement, its challenges and personal experiences with two undisputed specialists. These are Tamara Bruning, Head of Cleaning and Catering Services for the City of Ghent and member of the Eating City public services food discussion group; and Betina Bergman, Senior Consultant specialised within procurement of food in the City of Copenhagen and a Member of the Stakeholder Expert Group on Public Procurement for the European Commission.
— COVID-19 is revealing major weaknesses in our food systems and their transformation is urgent. What role does public food procurement play in this challenge?
Tamara Bruning: “COVID especially revealed how connected the world is and how production and trade are scattered around our globe. For Belgium a lot of our daily used vegetables and fruits are grown in France and Spain. And then the lockdown happend. You saw the logistic trails, all our modern silk routes getting in trouble.
The interesting thing to see was that the supply in classic supermarkets got in trouble, if you looked at local indoormarkets provided by products from a short supply chain they suffered less. Belgium didn’t really get in trouble with its foodsupplies, despite the run for flour, sugar, canned foods and toiletpaper. We did ok. But things like this make it clear to me that a diversified food system is very important, because a diversified system is better in handling disruptions in the market. We should be more aware of that.
In our food procurement we work together with big foodsuppliers but also with the small and medium-sized enterprices (SME). This way we can diversify in suppliers, in food products, etc. The challenge is towards those SME’s, because a lot of them prefer a B2C instead of a B2B model. Other challenges are the amount of food we need, the red tape in our contracts, challenging fine-meshed distribution, etc. This makes a city not always the preferable businesspartner. But here we see change. Farmers are connecting with buyerplatforms.
This way, professional customers have a webshop they can go to, serveral farmers have their products on offer, let say a restaurant chooses dairy, eggs, cheese, mushrooms. They order what they need, pay, and the logistic partner of the webshop delivers. We already have two of these Vanier (Ghent-based) and Westreex (West-Flanders based). Initiatives like this make it possible for farmers to do a direct sale to the professional customer, they don’t have to worry about payment nor logistics. Everyone needs to play a role in the diversification of the foodsystem and public procurement is one of them.”
Betina Bergman: “I fully agree. In Denmark we have not experienced any lack of food during the COVID-19, and we experienced great collaboration across the food chain/system from the producer site, through the wholesaler to the consumer. The producers would cut back on the diversity of products they offer, but before they did it, they informed the rest of the food chain. An example is not producing milk in 1/2 litre, 1litre, 55 and 10 litres, but only in 1 litre, and the consumer accepted this and if they needed 10 litres milk they would just buy 10 of the 1 litre milk cartons. This is not regulated within our contract, but everybody showed flexibility.
In all situations, it is important that the food procurement supports a strong food system and think about what the demands in the contract means to the food system all the way to the production site, not just to the nearest contract owner.”
In this picture: Betina Bergman
— Recently, a London woman published on Twitter photos of a free school meal, growing discontent among the people (see here). However, for many countries of the world, that same lunch could be considered “a luxury”. Are sustainable and healthy meals only for those countries that can afford them?
Tamara: “Yes, I have seen some of those pics. I haven’t verified the source or what the UK-policy is on these ‘food-packages’. So I can’t say anything about the how and why.
If you want a sustainable and healthy diet then there are some boxes you have to tick. A firm food production, logistics, warehousing, the access to food, foodsafety, cooking skills, the access to energy, the access to safe drinking water, and many more.
Countries but also communities can organise this… you see that grasroot movements and communities that step in and organise community kitchen gardens, food aid, etc. But it’s something we have te be aware of and pay attention to. The City of Ghent has ordered a research on the effects of free schoolmeals for toddlers, we have the Foodsavers, that redistributes food surplusses from the food auction and supermarkets towards food aid. In schools you have ‘social rates’ for the schoolmeals. There’s an NGO ‘Sociale Kruidenier’, who organises local grocery shops for people in financial need, and there are many more initiatives to make that sustainable and healthy diet possible and accesible. If we want to make the UN SDG’s come true all these and many more initiatives are needed.
In the Ghent food procurement fairly traded goods are important and we have goods like coffee, tea, bananas with a fairly traded label. This way we want to make sure that farmers are paid well so they can make a good living, support themselves and their families which includes housing, schooling, medical care, etc. To this we added through our Ghent Food Strategy ‘Gent en Garde’ that we also want this for producers and suppliers closer to home.
In our foodprocurement we aim for certain small product segments like dairy for our two staff restaurants to purchase from a short food supply chain. For this particular example we use the buyers platform ‘Vanier’.”
Betina: “As a Procurement officer you have to procure according to the policies that are given by your employer, and the national decision-makers, and the conditions that are in the area that you procure for. If you only have a limited amount of money, and no cooking facilities, you will have to make the best of it, but to do so, the procurement officer will need knowledge about what to consider as a nutritious, sustainable, and nice tasting meal that is also affordable, and that calls for collaboration with experts in food. Unfortunately, that is often not the case, where food is not prioritised. If you have cooking facilities it is easier to procure for good food with little money, but here the focus has to be on the cooking skills.”
— Could you describe in general terms the weaknesses of public food procurement? How should it be like in terms of nutrition and sustainability?
Tamara: “Nutrition in Belgium shouldn’t be a problem. Unless procurers don’t pay attention to it because they maybe don’t know how. Sustainability is a challenge because there’s not one manual to do it. You need knowledge and a network in which you have experts in different fields, researchers, other procurers, cities to benchmark with, people from different government levels, etc.
For example, you need to know what food is grown and produced in your country but also your neighbouring countries, what is the percentage organic in this, which fish is on the red list and which isn’t, what about palm oil, soy, sugar… food is such an allround subject that you can’t do it on your own, you need others.
Procurement law is there to offer a fair chance to all suppliers to bid for a tender. It’s there to prevent that contracts are arranged in dark backrooms. It’s also a challenge. A popular term nowadays is ‘local’. You can’t write ‘local’ into your tenders just like that because you need to let the market work. So you have to be more creative and for instance go for a supply chain as short as possible, fairly traded product from north and south so farmers get fair prices…. Another challenge is how to reach out to SME’s. Lessons learned here is we have to be carefull on the red tape, so it’s important to choose the right procurement procedure. Be aware that the assignment remains manageable.”
Betina: “The lack of knowledge is enormous, and the fear of making mistakes, that will make the procurement fail and in worst case can take the procurement officer to court, is of cause a risk that not many is willing to take, if they can avoid it.
Another problem is also that often procurement is used and expected to generate lower prices that former contracts, and that is not encouraging for doing something different that might add to the prices of the goods that are procured for.”
— Could urban agriculture, such as school or home gardens, be an alternative to improve the quality of food offered in public institutions?
Tamara: “I believe that community gardens or home gardens can play an important role in improving the home diet. More vegetables and fruits on the menu. If you want to supply schools, elderly homes, kindergartens, etc. from their own kitchen-garden you will need enough square meters, good planning, good farming and skilled kitchen staff (hygiene, storing, preserving skills, cooking skills). And some nice procurement to fill in the gaps for what can’t be delivered from the kitchen garden or if harvest fails. Again a diversified foodsystem is the answer here. In Belgium we have a hospital (AZ Zeno) who works together with a CSA farmer (Het Polderveld). This organic farm grows some of the vegetables for the hospitals’ menu. It makes it possible that vegetables and fruits are harvested when they are really ready to eat. Fruits and vegetables that are harvested and consumed directly do have a lovely quality. Again I would say that a diversified system could be the answer, so I would rather say it can be part of the food system.
Schoolgardens are also a very nice instrument in a whole food approach in schools, they can use it to teach with. More and more schools have those schoolgardens and kids love it. They can learn how to plant vegetables and fruits and watch them grow, and cook with it.”
Betina: “I agree.”
— Apart from the importance of nutritional values and the impact of food on health, what does it mean for citizens that a public institution provides healthy and local food? And, what is the underlying message when it prioritizes low costs instead?
Tamara: “The City of Ghent has a food strategy, a health strategy and a procurement strategy. These we translate into sustainable food procurement in which we are seeking for best value for our money. This is the choice the city has made. And that’s not the same as low costs. We have been able to lower our prices for our meals for some age-groups, not by putting cheap food on the table but by managing our waste and choosing for products with a lower carbon footprint. This means you have to do a good follow-up of your contracts, measure as much as possible and adapt where necessary.”
Betina: “It depends on the setting, and the other means of the country, but it all depends on the procurement work.”
— There must be worth considering iniciatives in the area of public procurement. In what direction we should be looking at? Could you mention some success stories?
Betina: “I think the food procurement network is one of the most important tools to create better food procurement. A place to inspire each other, and to show great examples that is easy to copy.
In Copenhagen we worked the SDG into our procurement as a contract tool to follow up on SDGs that were within the contract, and together with the university we used a climate weight to give more points to the food that is most nutritious and sustainable and there by better for the future. We also worked with diversity of fruit and vegetables and the kitchen staff use the diversity as a tool to teach the children about different seasons, and why it is important that we not only buy one kind of apples but many different kinds when they are in season.
We also have a focus of lowering food waste at the supplier sight and minimizing transportation during the contract period. Both focus points that will be handled structural through the SDG contract tool.”
In this picture: Tamara Bruning by Bart Cloet, Stad Ghent.
Tamara: “In Ghent we have started our new school catering contract on the 1st of January. Through this procurement we lowered the consumption of meat in our schoolmeals by offering flexi-meals. This means that the protein in the meal consist 50 % out of animal protein and 50 % plant-based. Our caterer redesigned all the recipes and came up with wonderful dishes like a very tasty bolognaise sauce with minced beef, nice vegetables en soft red-lentils or this blended burger with beef and oyster mushroom (grown on coffee grounds) that bursts with taste and which the kids love.
More and more Belgian cities have a food strategy. This is important if you want to do sustainable food procurement.”
— Better food for our health and for the planet, there is no other way than that of a sustainable future. Now, what are the main barriers to public food procurement when it comes to achieving this goal?
Tamara: “Maybe the lack of bravery? Not being open to change? Not in my backyard?”
Betina: “Lack of knowledge and priorities.”
— Some specialists argue that food is often seen as a business. Do you think that sustainable and healthy food should be a human right?
Tamara: “Yes! This is a basic right we should all defend! It would save the world from a lot of trouble.”
Betina: “I fully agree.”
— How can citizens support public procurement of healthy and sustainable food?
Betina: “The population can be politically engaged, and ensure that their voices are heard, and in that way, they can create a positive focus on food into the political level which will help the decision-makers prioritize food.
In Copenhagen the citizens are always welcome to contact us if they have questions or comments, and if possible, we will incorporate good ideas from the public.”
Tamara: “The city of Ghent is always looking for ways to get citizens involved in the city’s policy. When it comes to food procurement for schools and kindergartens we have a multistakeholder approach. In different stages of the process we involve certain stakeholders. When we do market research we reach out to experts on health, packaging, etc. NGO’s for example on organic or fair trade, suppliers, other cities like Copenhagen and so on.
Our colleagues from the schools and kindergartens get involved by presenting them concrete ideas and issues which arise from our contracts and our market research. These discussions provide us with multidisciplinary insights. When it comes to school food then children and parents get involved during the term of the contract. We reach out to the children by conducting surveys, in-depth interviews, by having a chat with them during lunch.
For the parents we give during parents evening in school a presentation ‘from policy to your kids’ lunch’. And we offer them to taste the menu we served that day. This way we explain why we do what we do and we make it real by offering a sample of the school lunch. This way we envolve them, get direct feedback and they don’t depend solely on the opinion of their children or others to express their opinion.
We also have several advisory boards for example on sustainable food and on north-south. Interest groups, committed citizens, etc. can apply to join these boards.
Citizens can reach the city via social media, mail or just give a call. Every question asked, will be answered. This way we also get information, ideas, criticism, requests for information and so on. There are also a lot of small groups of committed citizens that make sure their voice is heard by organising actions, lobbying etc.
These are several ways to influence policy, and it depends on the community, city, country you live in what works and what doesn’t work.”