Using procurement to grow our food economy for good

Dr Rachel Marshall, a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at Lancaster University, explores the role of procurement in growing sustainable local food economies.

Dr Rachel Marshall,
N8 Knowledge Exchange Fellow at Lancaster Uni and FoodFutures partner.

Where local businesses and institutions (such as the council, hospitals and universities) choose to spend their money can have a big impact on the ability of local food producers to thrive.

Procurement is the process of buying goods and services. It sounds quite dry but it can be an extremely powerful tool for increasing the environmental and social sustainability of food supply, and for supporting a local food economy.

There is growing appetite from local institutions and businesses to use their buying power for good. In response to this our local food partnership FoodFutures, in collaboration with researchers in Lancaster and Leeds Universities, designed a project to identify barriers and opportunities to improve the sustainability and resilience of food procurement in our local areas. This project has involved interviews with procurement staff from hospitals, school catering, the councils and the universities as well as an analysis of their procurement policies. Through this work we have captured experiences of food procurement; we have found work worth celebrating and have summarised key learnings that we plan to share widely. We have also identified where support and guidance is needed.

The project team ran a workshop in Leeds in November 2019 that brought people together that work with sustainable food city groups across the North of England. We wanted to hear experiences from across the food system, from those who grow food locally to those who work in procurement. They were asked to consider a number of questions around their vision for sustainable and resilient food procurement, the barriers/opportunities and the transformations needed in order to realise a shared vision of more locally and sustainably procured food.

People highlighted the need for a values based food chain in which environmental, social and economic values are all considered. This would require knowledge, skills, time and funding to allow procurement teams to be creative and to invest fully. There was also discussion around challenges with the supply side. This was in terms of the fragmented nature of small-scale growers and food producers. It was felt that there were complications and risks for large public procurers when dealing with multiple small businesses and solutions for this are needed.

In order to help build a business case for good procurement and to inform government policy to support this, evidence and evaluation of the multiple benefits (economic, environmental, social) is needed.

Throughout the workshop one common theme emerged: the need to change the value placed on food in institutions. This requires space for conversation, inspiration and collaboration between food producers, procurers and catering staff. It is this culture of conversation and collaboration that FoodFutures aims to support and promote here in North Lancashire.

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