This Government has to back up with action its warm words on protecting our food standards, and public procurement offers an opportunity in which to set the legislative standards that we value across farming and food production.
There is no doubt that food security, whether on a national scale or that of a family dinner table, is multi-faceted. Poverty and associated hunger are real and increasing, and access to food is one part of social barriers around education, opportunities, social mobility, health and social care, and many more. Yet in this one area of public spending we have the chance to say not only that hungry children will be fed but they will have continued access to healthy, nutritious food that in turn supports British producers, who are then more able to grow economically and offer jobs and opportunities – a circular food economy.
While feeding children in school holidays has been the touchpoint, the same argument can be made around broader national policy on access to food, and nowhere can Government have more influence than in public procurement, although it is wrong to see public procurement as a homogenous whole. Like any system it is a patchwork of regions, authorities, and varying levels of need and resources. Central control is impossible and undesirable but what national Government can do is set a strategic vision and provide the funding to deliver it.
The strategic vision for food must be based on what responsibility we have to our most vulnerable citizens (something that hopefully the National Food Strategy is taking into account), and that in turn drives our standards today and our aspirational standards of tomorrow. Those standards should encompass everything from health and nutrition to animal welfare. If we have a system that provides high quality food to those whom we have a responsibility to feed then it is also a system of standards that will work for everyone else.
We need a dramatic reversal in our attitude to funding food in public settings. We currently assign some funding and ask what can we buy with it; instead we must set our standards and fund it accordingly. We have seen with Covid the importance of food to society, and how crucial it is to not let people fall through the gaps. We have the opportunity to set the bedrock of how we feed the nation, and the cost of doing so would be an investment in our future.
This is not a call for unlimited funding, and we have to be pragmatic in balancing standards and cost. We have good science-based standards already enshrined in law, and our first commitment must be to not take a backward step, either in our own production or in food imported. Public procurement must have a bottom-up approach with small incremental steps whereby everyone can benefit from improving standards.
The commercial world is based upon up-selling by creating aspiration and we have seen many very worthy values, such as around animal welfare, turn into exclusive status symbols rather than achieve a broader acceptance. We have a plethora of assurance schemes all vying to be better than the rest and always trying to add value. This is fine in the marketplace but we have to recognise that public food systems do not and should not work in the same way.
Social eating is where our opportunity truly lies. We need a set of foundation standards, under regular review and improvement, that everyone can agree are good today. Standards that take into account sustainability as well as affordability so that anyone eating that food knows (with having to know the detail) it is of good quality and has been produced well. The commercial arena could still have other standards in the marketplace for consumers who want them, but there would be considerable strength in having the same foundation for social eating and personal consumption.
This needs close working between Government, industry, and society, and ultimately it will be a reflection of what we collectively stand for and how we behave towards each other. That everyone has access to affordable, sustainable and quality food should be a given, and the only question now is how we extend that dignity to all.