Eating more plants and better meat is beneficial for people, nature, and climate. But what can campaigners do to get local authorities on board and effect real change? We reflect on the findings from our recent Campaigns Breakfast.
There is plenty of evidence that eating less meat and dairy, and prioritising farming methods that ensure high standards of welfare, a low impact on biodiversity, and low usage of antibiotics, can have hugely beneficial effects for climate, nature and people.
Gram for gram of protein, beef produces nearly 200 times as much carbon dioxide as nuts, over 100 times more than peas, and 25 times as much as tofu. Almost all of the UK’s ammonia emissions (88%) are from agriculture – with a considerable proportion contributed by livestock farming. These emissions damage habitats and contribute to urban air pollution.
We can have a positive impact on the climate and nature emergency by eating meat that has been produced to higher standards, and by eating less of it. Local authorities are in a prime position to help make this change, through, for example:
- Serving more climate-friendly meals in nurseries, primary schools and council-run care settings
- Delivering public campaigns to encourage people to adopt a more climate-friendly diet
- Adopting a sustainable food policy for festivals and events held on council land
The role of food partnerships
The question is then: what can food partnerships do to campaign for action on less and better meat? Through our work with food partnerships, we have identified key approaches currently being used at the local level.
1. Changing menus
This involves engaging individual schools, universities, and other institutions, to make amendments to their menus, for example by introducing meat-free days. There are numerous examples of this approach being taken: Public Sector Catering ran a campaign in 2021 asking public sector caterers to reduce meat by 20%.
Every public and private restaurant and caterer can change their menus relatively quickly, so there’s no need to change policy – a potentially easy win. There is also lots of existing support from the likes of ProVeg and Kale Yeah! However, as the change isn’t rooted in policy, it can be very easily reversed. This approach relies heavily on having an interested party working in the organisation and/or catering team who is willing to carry the work forward, from working with suppliers, to building new skills in the kitchen.
Engagement is key for the success of this approach. If stakeholders and customers haven’t been involved in the process, like careers of children at a school where the menu is changed, there can be a backlash.
2. Good food policies
The second approach is actually getting a policy in place, like in Brighton and Hove, Bristol, and Lambeth. Policy changes create lasting change and are difficult to overturn. This approach can be applied by every local area: places that don’t control school meals can still influence events happening on council land. Because the process takes time and requires bringing lots of stakeholders on board, there’s usually minimal backlash to the change.
However, policy change does require commitment and leadership from the Council. And there’s no guarantee that the policy put in place will go far enough. For example, in Brighton and Hove and Bristol, the Food for Life Silver Award sets a great standard in terms of championing freshly prepared and sustainable food but has limitations in terms of meat reduction.
3. Emission reduction target
The third example is setting emission reduction target for council-controlled food, as has been done in Leeds. On the face of it, this isn’t about meat at all – but in practice it does have an impact on the amount of meat being served and how it is sourced.
This is an innovative solution that avoids backlash if it's well communicated and taken in combination with other commitments to source locally and sustainably, in order to bring social, economic and environmental benefits to the wider community. However, it does require robust measuring tools alongside, otherwise it can be open to criticism.
4. Mandate plant-based meals
Finally, the council can mandate vegetarian or plant-based meals, as has been done in Oxfordshire. This can be done in a matter of months, however, it can fairly easily be reversed in the event of council leadership changes and if the new leadership is not on board. There is also a risk of backlash if the change has not been discussed and tested with stakeholders, for example the local farming community in areas with big farming economies.
Case study: Procurement and production in Leicestershire
Leicestershire is a rural county, with a big farming economy. The catering wing of the Leicestershire County Council (LCC) serve Gold Standard Food For Life to 35,000 school children, yet they are tied into procurement contracts which mean they can’t support the local food economy or support more climate- and nature-friendly farming methods.
LCC have signed up to be net-zero by 2030, but also have to face the limitations of the cost of living crisis – so how are Good Food Leicestershire planning to help them meet their goal?
Catherine Turnell explains that Good Food Leicestershire follow the mantra “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” They plan to build an evidence base of the potential carbon and biodiversity impacts of switching LCC’s procurement from large-scale UK produce to small-scale, local, regenerative produce. They will then recommend or develop an accreditation framework for food production, and create a set of standards for managing the council's farming estate, which covers 3,000 hectares across 200 farms.
They have several proposals for taking this work forward, including:
- Developing a 1,000-acre ‘Wildfarmed’ farm cluster for grain production in Leicestershire and Rutland;
- Identifying the potential for local legume production;
- Establishing a strong Leicestershire Alliance for Regenerative Farming using local experts;
- Making the case for higher local standards and locally-grown food, driven by co-operation with producers;
- Setting targets for the council’s spend on local produce and on regeneratively farmed produce.
What techniques can be learnt from parallel campaigns?
Food Active is a healthy weight programme which aims to address the social, environmental, economic and legislative factors which influence people’s lifestyle choices and behaviours. As well as lobbying for national policy change, they have a huge range of experience of campaigning at the local council level, including the following campaigns and innitiatives:
- Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight
- Give Up Loving Pop campaign
- Kind to Teeth campaign
- Healthier Place, Healthier Future
- Childhood Obesity Trailblazer Programme
Beth Bradshaw from Food Active highlighted a number of approaches that can help get buy-in from Local Authorities:
- Make things as simple as possible. Food Active make campaign toolkits with information and resources, such as social media assets, template tweets, and press releases, so that Public Health and Comms Teams can engage quickly and have everything ready to get a campaign up and running. This has also been helpful for engaging other council departments.
- Write briefings for elected members and other departments. Council commitments require buy-in from all departments – so it’s important to develop briefings for lots of different departments. Set the scene, provide local statistics, and make it relevant to that department’s agenda. Remember to make these as snappy as possible – a one pager is ideal.
- Form alliances and steering groups. These are a really useful tool to help progress work and engage with partners and stakeholders.
- Harness system leaders. Gain support from and utilise the voice of elected members to promote your agenda.
- Utilise cross-cutting agendas. Make the issue important for everyone, not only different council departments, but different people from the local area.
- Learn from others. Network with other local authorities across regions, to learn from their experiences and share ideas, for example through the Sustainable Food Places network.
- Consultation takes time but is absolutely critical! This could make the difference with key stakeholders, for example, farmers or parents.
Published Tuesday 12 July 2022
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Bella joined Sustain as Local Action Officer, working on Good to Grow, Veg Cities, Sugar Smart, and Food for the Planet. She has a background in organic market gardening and research.
Local Policy Coordinator
Good Food Local
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