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Public procurement in the fight against climate change

Connecting climate change and school meals beyond COP 26

We were delighted to host an afternoon of activities and a panel discussion at Nourish Scotland’s Recipes for Resilience Food and Climate Zone at COP26. With more than one third of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change coming from the food system, and recent research finding that global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and food have in fact risen by 17 per cent over the past 30 years, many noticed that the food system was conspicuously missing from the agenda at COP26.

At Soil Association, we view food at the centre of the solution to the interconnected climate, nature and health crises. The Food for Life Served Here award provides local authorities with a framework to respond to these via their school meals service. Public procurement of sustainable, local, climate-friendly food provides a clear path to drive a transformation in food production and supply.

Collaboration from farm to school fork

During our Recipes for Resilience panel discussion, we focused on the connection between climate change and school meals. Our panel brought together a wide range of stakeholders from across the food supply chain - a young food campaigner, the head of catering from a local authority, a supplier and an agroecological farmer - to discuss how we must all play a role in transforming our food system.

It is especially important to have these conversations here and now if we are to achieve a ‘Good Food Nation’ in Scotland with access to healthy and sustainable diets for all.

What did our panellists have to say?

Stephen Sawers, Head of Catering and Facilities Management, Glasgow City Council:

‘To achieve a Good Food Nation, I think we have to be really aggressive over the next few years. This is not a subject where we can just nudge it along. It’s up to the leaders of local authorities to take action. Look at Glasgow, for example, the opportunity we’ve got in terms of size and scale is huge. Nearly 70,000 children come to school every day and we have a responsibility to them. A Good Food Nation is about being creative, and maybe stepping into some uncomfortable territory over the next few years.'

Steph Marsden, Trading Coordinator, Locavore Trading, on how we can encourage local producers to work with local authorities:

‘There’s important issues around transparency in public procurement. A lot of producers probably aren’t used to trying to do a tender for this type of contract. Maybe they need additional support - or maybe they can team up with another producer to tender. The needs of schools might also be very different to what they’re used to dealing with, with a focus on allergens, distribution and logistics. It’s important to raise awareness of these unique needs, as well as the support available, so that businesses know this is something they can get into.’

Denise Walton, Peelham Farm, Soil Association Farmer Ambassador:

‘Free food shouldn’t mean cheap, least of all in schools and hospitals. Farming ecologically isn’t the cheapest way of farming. There needs to be some support that makes nutritionally dense food accessible via school procurement programmes.

‘Set the target, set the ambition. Then, with the policy support that is coming from government, incentivize producers like us and other farmers to grow agroecologically. Suddenly we will have meaningful change on a landscape scale that will make a difference to climate biodiversity and nutritional density.’

Ryan McShane, Food Foundation Young Ambassador:

‘A lot of young folk will tell you that they’re living through food poverty and insecurity. Sometimes there’s no food in front of them, and when there is, they don’t know what’s on the plate. And because there’s no one to guide them through that, they throw it away. So, it becomes a vicious cycle. It all comes down to awareness.’

‘Some of the best conversations I had at primary school and secondary school were with the catering staff…we really need to value them more. There’s probably not enough infrastructure there. If you value your public sector workers, they’re going to feel more empowered to help the young folk.’

Moving forward

To address climate change, we all need to work together to harness the power of public procurement to maximise the potential of public food - the food we encounter in the places we live our lives - nursery, school, university, work, hospitals, care homes and everywhere in between. Discussions such as this need to continue well beyond COP26 so that the challenges we face can be overcome collaboratively.

All panellists highlighted the value of public food and the need for it to be viewed as an investment not a cost. Public procurement should be considered a valuable tool to tackle climate change as well as other local, national and global priorities, and public sector caterers must be supported and valued accordingly.

For more information watch the recording of the discussion, 'Connecting climate change and school meals' or contact a member for the Food for Life Scotland team.