Matthew Gorton explains how a new project could improve public procurement and reduce childhood obesity

In the UK, there has been decline over the past few years in the quality of institutional food (schools, hospitals, prisons etc). Authorities have banded together to get a better deal to reap economies of scale with contracts typically won by large-scale caterers that operate central production hubs where meals are prepared and then reheated on site.

While there are nutritional standards (minimum and maximum fat, salt carb levels and so on) there is too little fresh produce, whilst cheap ingredients are given preference over local, organic and seasonable ones.

A €6.9m EU funded project called Strength2Food, led by Newcastle University Business School, is looking to address some of these problems by examining the procurement process undertaken by schools. The project is aiming to achieve a “gold standard” of procurement for Europe, combining organic and free-range ingredients with local sourcing and healthy eating. This form of procurement is reliant on the consumer – in this case schools and caterers – being able to trust food labels stating the product is locally sourced.

In order to achieve this gold standard, the laws on public procurement must be changed. At a European level, Directive 2014/24/EU is being implemented which means that cost cannot be the only factor when awarding public contracts. The Directive is aimed at removing reliance on the lowest cost approach in the award of public contracts including for school meals, and expanding the scope of what is known as the “most economically advantageous tender” (MEAT).

The contracting authority has the ability to expand the assessment of MEAT to include the inclusion of social and environmental elements. So for example award criteria on public contracts could include Fairtrade and/or organic food. But like any EU law, there is a lot of discretion at Member State level in terms of how the rules are implemented.

The five-year Strength2Food project is piloting a scheme with schools in Serbia encompassing both the procurement and education aspects of food provision for school meals. We are working with the country’s Ministry of Education to look at the way in which schools provide their meals and improve outcomes.

As such, we will also be working with suppliers to look at ways in which they can cooperate to provide healthy, fresh and reasonably priced meals to schools. We will work with farmers’ co-operatives too. But we are also exploring how to involve children in the food procurement process right from the beginning – by encouraging them to grow some of their own food, for instance – and how this impacts on their food habits in later life.

In a nutshell, the project hopes to bring about a new attitude towards food procurement.

Matthew Gorton is joint head of the marketing, operations and systems group at Newcastle University Business School.

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