Procurement as a tool for urban food resilience and sustainability

Written by N8 AgriFood Sustainable Food Communities Cluster Lead Rachel Marshall following a joint N8 AgriFood and Sustainable Food Cities Workshop.

This workshop was part of an N8 AgriFood project examining the role of food procurement by anchor institutions as a tool for urban food resilience and sustainability. The session opened with an overview of initial findings from the project researcher Lucy Antal (The Food Domain and Feedback). She highlighted the role that procurement by anchor institutions can have in promoting healthy diets, supporting local and regional prosperity and well-being, and improving sustainability and decarbonisation of the food system.

Lucy proposed that institutions should be considering “public money for public good” when procuring; that is the inherent premise that the public sector should spend the money it receives from government (and us) wisely and in a way that drives public or citizen welfare. As part of the research Lucy interviewed procurement mangers from institutions in Lancashire and Leeds including schools, hospitals and councils. She asked a number of questions including: 

  • What do you mean by sustainable, local food?
  • What is your current approach and priorities to food procurement?
  • What are the barriers to procuring more local, sustainable food?
  • How resilient is your current model with respect to climate change/Brexit or other shocks?

The results from this project are being evaluated and a full report will be shared once finalised. 

The primary focus of the workshop was capture the expertise in the room and participants were asked to discuss questions including:

  • What is your vision for sustainable and resilient food procurement? 
  • What inspirational practice/policy is already occurring?
  • What are the barriers to/opportunities for your vision?
  • What transformations are required and what knowledge gaps are there to address? 

The breakout groups were lively and we could have spent a day discussing these questions rather than the short morning session. In general those in the room shared the vision for a sustainable procurement system set out by Lucy. In particular participants highlighted the need for a values based food chain in which environmental, social and economic values were all considered. It was suggested that procurers should act as long-term investors who were proactive in integrating their institution into sustainable supply chains. 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 suppliers and the complications and risks that dealing with multiple small businesses can hold for large public procurers. 

Unsurprisingly Brexit came up with groups highlighting it primarily as a risk to producers. There was concern around how tariffs could change the markets for different products and potentially increase competition from US producers. The opportunities presented by Brexit to reform agricultural policy, along with other government work on food (such as the National Food Strategy), could allow for greater support for small-scale growers, farmer co-operatives and fairness in public procurement contracts. The opportunities and threats around the regulatory system that will come into play post-Brexit is examined as part of this pump-priming project with Fiona Smith at the University of Leeds.   

In order to help build a business case for progressive procurement and to inform government policy to support this, evidence and evaluation of the multiple benefits (economic, environmental, social) is needed. Many participants highlighted the need to change the value placed on food in institutions which requires space for conversation, inspiration and collaboration between food producers, procurers and catering staff. From a practical perspective the need for keep up with technological progress was also discussed. How can small-scale producers share data more efficiently and use technology as platforms for knowledge exchange between themselves and those working in institutions? 

Findings from this workshop will be incorporated into the main report for the project and disseminated via the N8 AgriFood Sustainable Food Communities Cluster and N8 AgriFood website. If you’re not on the mailing list please contact