I get that public procurement of food is complex area that is often bureaucratically fragmented, and I see how hard the experts in the field – both authorities and industry – work to provide a service on shoe-string budgets. What I don’t get is why public procurement is short-changed politically when getting it right would be a win for everyone.
Let’s look at the environment in which public procurement of food operates. At its core are the areas where those people involved have little choice in how they access the food: schools, hospitals, armed forces, prisons, etc. These services, by their very nature, encompass some of society’s most vulnerable people and those who struggle (or might soon struggle) to access food. With the cost of living crisis we are going to see more people come into contact with, and rely on, services where public procurement of food is a crucial part simply because hunger does not exist in isolation from other social problems. We know that access to food and good nutrition will mitigate health, educational, and social issues that will otherwise cost us a lot more in the long-term. So why is public procurement of food left under-funded and ignored?
Some of the answer to that is because it is seen as a service when it should be viewed as an investment. Ensuring that everyone eats well across the whole of society is far too big a problem, but Government has total control of public procurement and could make this one bit of the food marketplace a shining example of policy that underpins many other parts of our lives. For a Government with a supposed levelling-up agenda, facing a cost of living crisis, and scrabbling to find a Brexit dividend then being able to take a British food first approach to public procurement should be very appealing.
For this to work there has to be a fair price paid but instead of looking at it as just a line in this year’s budget you work out the social return on investment over the next few decades, and it becomes a price worth paying. Social benefits of increasing access to nutritious food would include:
- reduction in hunger (and associated reduction in poverty)
- increased educational engagement/attainment (more opportunities and mobility)
- improvement in long-term health (reducing cost of health and social care)
- UK food security and self-sufficiency supported through the marketplace (reduction of subsidies)
From a food sector point of view two of the long-term problems we need to solve are how we recruit and develop people and skills (particularly UK workers), and ensuring the marketplace respects the cost of production. While relatively small in value compared to retail and food service, a British food first approach to public procurement represents a number of opportunities for food producers:
- Recognition of a fair price in relation to cost of production (supporting business viability)
- Sets a practical baseline for food standards and safety, and helps drive improvements (Government puts its money where its mouth is)
- Reliable section of the marketplace (there regardless of what other issues abound)
- Links UK food production with good social standards (skills and employment opportunities)
- Healthy, educated, and mobile people can afford to spend money in retail and food service (circular food economy)
Alleviating hunger is simply the right thing to do (stage 1: everyone is fed); utilising food to mitigate other social challenges is the logical progression (stage 2: everyone is fed well); using public procurement to shape standards and drive productivity helps sustain UK food (stage 3: everyone is fed efficiently); and ensuring food is available, accessible, and affordable creates a thriving marketplace (stage 4: everyone has choice).
At a time when the cost of food production is rising quickly and food inflation is going up accordingly we are likely to see a contraction in UK food production. Imported food is not the answer as undercutting our own producers will only result in further, and unsustainable, shrinkage in production with no guarantees that food will be more available or affordable. National security rests on food security and there is no better way to guarantee that than having a reasonable level (above 60%) of self-sufficiency.
We should be using public procurement of food as the pump-primer for national food security. The benefits of getting it right amount to so much more – and are more long-term – than its commercial value in a food marketplace. The Government’s response to the National Food Strategy is expected around June and I would be very surprised to see much reference, and certainly no commitments, to the role of public procurement. We need a vision for a more holistic food system – not just how the food supply chain works but end to end supply chain policy all focused on delivering a clear objective.
In my view that objective is Everyone Eats Well, and if we can get it right in public procurement then it will work everywhere.