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Good Food on the Public Plate evaluation

Our Good Food on the Public Plate project has come to the end of its second phase, funded by Defra and the City Bridge House Trust. The second phase concluded with an external evaluation, conducted by F3: The local food consultans. Their report can be downloaded at the end of this page.


Sustain's response to the 2008 evaluation

This evaluation report marks the end of a second phase of work with London's public sector to improve the healthiness and sustainability of the food they serve. This independent evaluation of the Good Food on the Public Plate project has been undertaken by F3: The local food consultants. It documents examples of inspirational work being undertaken by catering managers across London and the South East, to improve the quality and sustainability of the food they serve to patients, children clients and staff.

Thanks and credit go to these shining examples of catering managers and catering operations who proactively make the effort to provide food that is good for people, but also better for farmers, local economies, animal welfare and the environment. Sustainable food has risen rapidly up the public and political agenda since the launch of the
Good Food on the Public Plate project in 2006. Food price rises and new food shortages in many countries are showing how vulnerable our food system is to global economic disruption and the changing climate. Our understanding is also growing of the very considerable burden of greenhouse gases associated with what we eat – around one fifth of all the UK's greenhouse gas emissions are from the food system. It remains the case that public procurement of food is a critical way to bring about the changes we need, to achieve a healthy, equitable and sustainable future. Wherever money is spent on food in the public sector, it should be supporting sustainability, not contributing to further damage.

Sustain believes that arguments that the amount of spend it represents is small, compared to the private sector and therefore shouldn't be a priority, are weak to start with – weaker still given that the public sector should have a moral responsibility to set a standard for society.

In the light of such sobering thoughts, many of the caterers Sustain has worked with appear as champions of a better way of working, and should be celebrated as such. However, it is also important to remember that these people are isolated cases. In the words of one of the leading academics analysing public procurement, Professor Kevin Morgan, they remain “islands of good practice in a sea of mediocrity”.

The evaluation process has been a valuable opportunity for Sustain (along with its partner organisations) – to reflect on what we have learned by our extensive experience of acting as facilitators and brokers of more sustainable food choices in public procurement. We are very keen to reflect on what really works – and what doesn't – so the report documents successes and promising approaches as well as the challenges we faced.

Reflecting on this project, it is clear that such work is still desperately needed. Progress towards a sustainable food system needs targeted and well-funded 'hand-holding' support, promotional events, information, networking, supply chain brokerage and training to enable procurement staff, catering managers, catering staff and suppliers to provide opportunities for sustainable food in the public sector.

However, we are also keenly aware that within the vast majority of public sector care facilities, the sole factor governing food procurement remains cost – especially in light of the Government's 2004 – 2008 Gershon Review period whose 'best value' message is routinely misinterpreted as 'lowest cost'. Key sustainability issues such as environmental impact, nutritional value, provenance, quality, preparation, presentation, taste, carbon footprint or animal welfare are still widely viewed with scepticism, or at best as low priority.

The contribution of food procurement to economic and social development in the local community is also low on the list of priorities - if it makes it on to the list at all. Institutional inertia remains one of the most significant barriers to change and this is not going to change on its own.

Important though the project work was and is, Sustain is forced to conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, that it is very difficult to see how significant improvements in the sustainability of food in public sector institutions can be achieved by the painstaking progress represented in this project, which relies on time-limited funding, limited staff time, well-informed and engaged staff, and the rare enthusiasm of a few individual 'champions' often working without institutional support, in a sector that has many other concerns than sustainable food. A different approach is now needed to achieve the scale and pace of change that is imperative in the face of issues such as peak oil and climate change.

We believe that a mandatory commitment on public sector organisations now needs to be instigated, to require management and catering staff to implement the necessary changes to ensure sustainable food procurement. This needs to be put in place and kept in focus by enforceable measures, with clear targets and monitoring of progress over time. This should also be embedded into the performance indicators of public sector institutions and backed up with training, and additional funding where necessary.

An important way to embed changes towards more sustainable supplies is to ensure sustainability becomes integrated into the culture of public sector institutions. In particular, this is likely to require an obligation on public sector institutions to specify health and sustainability in their food contracts, to provide the necessary impetus for significant change. It will also require tailored training that engrains attitudes and skills across the whole operation, including catering, procurement and management staff, as well as among health and care professionals, and time built into the daily routine that allows the staff to implement their training. We firmly believe this also needs to be embedded into the performance indicators of public sector institutions.

Furthermore, based on our experience of this project, and its predecessor the Hospital Food project, we encourage institutions to go further and play an educational role in promoting healthy eating and sustainable food to staff and patients, to improve food consumed at home.

This report contains recommendations from the consultants who undertook the evaluation of the project. It outlines many detailed ways in which greater uptake of healthy and sustainable food can be encouraged in the public sector. Sustain considers the recommendations to be appropriate and workable, and looks forward to supporting future work on these important issues. However, Sustain is also painfully aware that such an
approach is painstaking, funded only patchily, and very, very slow. Some key participants of the Good Food on the Public Plate project said during the evaluation that the project had achieved close to the limit of the progress possible under the current framework of policies, personnel and budgets. For them, the next step needed to be the type of legislative change in the framework seen in the education sector where healthy food is now becoming routine due to legislation, targets, incentives, training and mandatory nutritional standards.

Moves are now afoot at a European level (instigated by the European Commission) to give action on sustainable production and consumption greater momentum – possibly with new legislation. We have also recently heard the good news that the Netherlands has introduced a target of 100% sustainable procurement (including food) for central government, with a target of 50% for regional and local government by the same date.

Such news gave us pause for thought. We ask, if the Netherlands can do this, why can't the UK?

Sustain's key recommendation arising from the Good Food on the Public Plate project is, therefore, that the UK should introduce a mandatory requirement on public sector institutions to buy and serve healthy and sustainable food, to meet national priority policy objectives relating to health, obesity, environment, sustainable agriculture and climate change. This needs to be instigated and kept in focus by mandatory and enforceable measures, with clear targets and monitoring of progress over time.

 Download evaluation as 347kb PDF
 
If you have any queries about the report or the future of the project please contact rosie@sustainweb.org

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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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