Independent governmental review supports stricter public sector food procurement standards

We welcome the recommendations in former MP Will Quince's review for a single set of buying standards to be mandated and properly enforced across the public sector and support mechanisms to enable smaller producers to access tender processes.

An independent review of public food procurement has called for mandatory environmental and nutritional standards to extend across the whole of the public sector, including schools, and be properly monitored for compliance. It also calls for an increase in school food funding, and more inclusion of farmers and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in being able to access opportunities for supplying food and drink to the public sector.

In March, Will Quince MP was appointed to conduct an independent review into public sector food procurement, by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), with the support of a small DEFRA team. The review looked into:

  • How the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF) – which set mandatory and good practice standards for public sector food procurement – apply in the public sector, the barriers to use and how to overcome them.
  • Opportunities to extend Government Buying Standards, especially to education settings. Education settings spend around 60% of the total £5 billion annual spend on public sector food procurement, so have great potential to help achieve GBSF aims.
  • Other schemes and practices that support Government Buying Standards aims and increase accessibility of public sector procurement to SMEs and farmers.

Due to the general election being called it was not possible for the final report and recommendations to be published officially by the Government. However, Will Quince has published the final report on his Linkedin page, hoping the report can inform policy developments following the General Election.

Public sector food procurement is worth around £5 billion every year, and has tremendous power to drive sustainable farming, fairer supply chains and deliver healthier, more planet-friendly food in public settings such as schools, hospitals, prisons, care homes and the armed forces.

The final report recognises that at present the Government Buying Standards set out mandatory and 'best practice' standards on production, processing and nutrition for central Government departments, the NHS, prison and probation services, but are not mandatory in other public settings such as education settings or care homes. There are also other standards - such as the School Food Standards - that apply to nutritional aspects, but do not extend to fair trading, environment, animal welfare, or sustainable fish. The report calls for standards to be unified and mandatory across the whole of the public sector.

The report highlights the absence of official compliance or monitoring of standards, resulting in limited evidence of their reach and effectiveness. It recognises barriers to compliance, from lack of awareness to lack of incentives to comply.

The report contains a powerful endorsement of the useful role being played by the Soil Association's Food For Life programme, currently operating in around 25% of English primary schools, 50 NHS hospitals and over 50 universities, serving around 2 million accredited meals every day.

The role of SMEs and the power of procurement from local and sustainable sources is a further theme reflected in the report and it urges Government to support and champion mechanisms to enable smaller producers to access tender processes, such as dynamic procurement platforms.

Recommendations in the report include:

  • Unify and mandate standards across the whole of the public sector
  • Publish the response to the 2022 consultation on the Government Buying Standards, and an updated set of standards
  • Encourage innovation and uptake of best practice in procurement - including assurance schemes tailored to each sector, and providing funding to support schools with Food For Life accreditation, as is already the case in Scotland
  • Establish clear metrics for assessing compliance with standards, build baseline data and create strong reporting mechanisms
  • Improve accessibility to public procurement for SMEs, farmers; create a government support service to suppor them as well as public sector caterers and procurers and set targets for spend on SMEs and farmers.
  • Review the procurement approach for the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme to maximise access for SMEs and farmers.
  • Provide grant funding for local collaborations between farmers and local procurers
  • Ensure school food quality by increasing the school meal allowance to reflect inflation, and ensuring ringfencing of school food budgets.

Sustainable Food Places is pleased to see several case studies from our network included in the report:

  • OxFarmtoFork, the initiative from Good Food Oxfordshire developing a local food procurement program initially with Oxford University colleges buying direct from local producers, and looking to expand to schools and hospitals if they can expand supply.
  • Welsh Veg in Schools, led by Food Sense Wales, has started with a pilot supplying courgettes to primary schools and have expanded to six growers and two farmers supplying five local authorities with a range of vegetables agreed between the schools and growers as practical, acceptable to school children’s tastes and economical to supply.

Read procurement case studies from the Sustainable Food Places network submitted to Defra.

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