Sustainable Food Procurement policies to improve the production and adoption of healthy diets.

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Published: May 8, 2023
“Public Food Procurement” is the process of food provision that determines what thousands of people eat every day at public catering facilities. For this reason, management of it has enormous transformative potential, and huge responsibilities for the whole food system, both as regards producers and as regards consumers.

The term “Public Procurement” (PP) is used to indicate the collection of processes whereby public authorities (governments, local administrations etc) provide jobs, goods and services via the involvement of third companies. Applied to food, the concept of Public Procurement involves purchasing processes for all foods, and all associated services that are necessary for cooking and serving meals in the canteens of public offices, hospitals, prisons and universities.

In Europe, the total cost of food-related public services has been put at 82 billion euros. Public administrations, at all levels of government, have to decide what food to buy, and from whom, and also how to serve it in public canteens. Public decision-makers thus have a great responsibility, and a very important power to influence the daily diets of many people, and generally over the modulation of the food value chain.

For these reasons, a Food Procurement strategy that improves access to healthy food in schools and health facilities, and at other public institutions, is crucial for developing better food environments that can have a positive influence, to a greater or lesser degree, on our dietary habits. As well as the impact on the consumer, a sustainable Food Procurement strategy can also improve the local food production system, ensuring economic investments on behalf of local farmers, or urban or family farming practices.

As recognised in the recent report “Public food procurement for sustainable food systems and healthy diets” (2021), produced jointly by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, the University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and FAO, in this process, food supply policies, both public and private, can play a significant role, providing several different reference strategies for the transformation of food systems. After decades of scant interaction between the state and the market, the idea that governments can and must use the public administration to pursue social, environmental and economic objectives is beginning to gain ground. This renaissance has been shaped by new political and economic ideologies, as well as by the growing importance that sustainable development has acquired in regional and international debates over policies on food provision.

Indeed, today Food Procurement practices are increasingly linked to the concept of sustainability, envisaging a process of integration between the economic, environmental and social aspects of development, regarded by definition in a holistic way. Indeed, in the global effort for the adoption of sustainable models of consumption and production, so-called Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP) is recognised as a key strategic component also by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specifically, one of the SDGs, Goal 12 (“Responsible consumption and production”), under target 7 (12.7), promotes "public procurement practices that are sustainable, in accordance with national policies and priorities".

Moreover, Sustainable Public Procurement is one of the six programmes of One Planet Network, the global voluntary multi-stakeholder partnership that works to speed up the implementation of Sustainable Public Procurement policies throughout the world, as a way to promote sustainable models of consumption and production, and thereby fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 12. The importance of food procurement within SPP is also recognised in several regional frameworks, such as the recent European Green Deal (2019), and the European Union's Farm to Fork Strategy (2020). 

Thus, despite being a subject of general interest largely due to its effective transformative power, the only resource currently available to the EU is Green Public Procurement”(GPP), a tool to promote the procurement of food products and services that are sensitive to the environment, and thus more strategic and sustainable. These guidelines are voluntary and offer recommendations to European public authorities, mostly aimed at the procurement of ecological products.

Food procurement, local agricultural production and urban farming

Public and private-sector forms of food procurement are a crucial tool with regard to both food production and the consumer, since they can enable access to healthier and more sustainable diets in public canteens. More fundamentally, they can also stimulate the development of small-scale farming markets that can ease the problems of rural poverty.

Indeed, Food Procurement policies can prove especially effective also in promoting local agricultural production, working for the procurement of km0 products, in other words products grown near the place where they are consumed, and the procurement of regional and traditional food varieties. Moreover, these policies can encourage the cultivation and self-production of local vegetables, as well as of highly nutritious crops that are resistant to the climate.

Food Procurement can also act for the promotion of alternative food production systems such as urban farming, which includes all types of cultivation in and around towns and cities, including growing plants and raising animals. From growing leaf salads in abandoned areas or vegetables in supermarkets, to people growing tomatoes on their balconies or keeping chickens in their backyard, urban farming can take on many different forms, but as far back as 2007 a report by FAO stated that, overall, urban farming is a completion of rural farming, and helps to increase the efficiency of national food systems.

In addition, via Public and Private Food Procurement actions, food distribution channels can be created that are more accessible to urban and peri-urban small farmers, thereby strengthening the links between the city and the countryside by means of short supply chains, or alternative food networks.

All these practices can have a direct impact on the quality of the food served at public and private canteens, at the same time fostering the adoption of healthy and sustainable diets on the part of adult consumers and children.

Flagship research project: “Public and private food procurement and short food value chains in urban areas”

The OnFoods research focuses on these issues, especially by means of the work of the research groups, under Work Package 1.2, "Promoting sustainability in Food Distribution", and, in particular, with the flagship research project conducted by the Polytechnic University of Milan: "Public and private food procurement and short food value chains in urban areas".

Over the next 36 months the project will first produce a map of best Food Procurement practices, both public and private-sector, on behalf of “short supply chains” (SFSCS) and “alternative food networks” (AFNs), and thereafter will devote itself to experiments with new kinds of networks. The vision of the project is that these strategies may improve the efficiency of national food systems, and contribute to a more sustainable future for food.

Furthermore, there will be an analysis of the main obstacles to the development of innovative and inclusive accords relating to the public procurement of food, focusing on the role of local small farmers, and on the role played by consumers. Subsequently, Food Procurement models will be designed that are able to maximise the benefits to farmers, and to improve the participation of ordinary people.

Another important issue will be understanding consumer behaviours and choices regarding the products in the short food supply chain. To this end, marketing strategies will be drawn up that are capable of encouraging match-ups between short value chain suppliers and consumers, so as to foster the adoption of sustainable, locally sourced food choices.

The project also includes activities involving the selection of national regional varieties that help to increase and protect agro-biodiversity in Puglia, and that are suited to developing a km0 market, and to forms of collective catering. There will also be an assessment of the beneficial effects on health of self-grown vegetables, so as to improve the health status of local communities.

Finally, new functions will be looked into for urban farming, such as socialising, active citizenship and therapy, examining the mechanisms whereby collective meaning is given to urban spaces. 

On this point, too, the overall vision of the project is that public policies can play a crucial role in reducing socio-economic marginalisation, improving the provision of social services.

"Food procurement is one of the main levers available to public authorities to enable the growth of sustainable food chains, and help to improve the diets of many members of the public, especially in weaker sectors of society. ONFOODS will contribute to this goal by looking into innovative solutions that allow this lever to be used to its full potential." Prof. Federico Caniato

This blog post is related to

Spoke 01

Global Sustainability

Fair food market for healthy citizens

Lead organisationUniPr

Spoke leaderFilippo Arfini
Research projectPPP_URB

Public and private food procurement and short food values chains in urban areas

Managed by

Principal investigators

Davide Fassi

Referred to

Spoke 01

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