How Can Sustainable Food Procurement Help Reshaping Food Systems?

18 Feb 2022

Public food procurement — the process of providing food to public canteens, determines what thousands of people eat every day across Europe. Yet, its great power for the transformation of our food systems remains mostly untapped. Last week, Slow Food and other member organizations of the EU Food Policy Coalition published their common policy recommendations for sustainable food public procurement, which, if implemented, would be a win-win strategy to achieve healthy and sustainable diets in Europe.



Last week, Slow Food Europe together with 13 civil society, farmers, animal welfare and environmental organizations, published a set of policy recommendations demanding clear and ambitious targets  for public food procurement, addressed to the European Commission. 

The document, presenting 7 policy recommendations, stresses the potential of public food procurement to foster a systemic transformation of our food systems and to immensely contribute to achieving the targets set by the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Public Procurement is a complicated word that simply refers to the process by which public authorities (governments, municipalities, etc.) purchase work, goods and services from companies. When related to food, it refers to the buying process of all foodstuffs and catering services to prepare, cook and serve meals in public canteens

In our recommendations, we defend that sustainable food procurement can be a win-win strategy to achieve healthy and sustainable diets in Europe while, at the same time, stimulating local food supply chains, by favoring small-scale and local food producers 

How Can Public Food Procurement Be so Impactful?

Because of its value and volume, since the total European public food service has been estimated at 82 billion euros. Public authorities, from local to European level, are responsible for deciding what food and from whom to buy it, as well as what to serve in their public canteens. This gives them the power to influence what many people eat everyday and to shape the whole food supply chain revolving around it.

Therefore, a strategic food procurement that increases the access to  healthy food  in schools, healthcare facilities, prisons, and other public institutions can be an important tool to enhance better food environments, which are the subtle influences on our daily food choices (advertisement, food labels, food offer at work etc). At the same time, if those healthy options are sourced from agroecological and local producers, public procurement can power up local food systems by investing in them.


But the benefits go beyond farm to fork. According to Sustainable Food Procurement: A Goal Within Reach, another policy brief published by several organisations from the EU Food Policy Coalition, sustainable food procurement offers a wide range of benefits spanning from climate protection and improved animal welfare to the promotion of fair working conditions and the stimulation of a circular economy.

One can already hear the concerned voices of those who think that sustainable equals expensive, but make no mistake: sustainable food procurement does not necessarily imply additional purchasing costs, and we can prove it. Take the example of the Municipality of Mouans-Sartoux where. all food served in public school canteens is organic and 70% of it has been locally procured. The cost per meal has been reduced from 1,92 EUR to 1,86 EUR from 2008 to 2012 while the amount of organic food rose to 100%. 

Adapting menus and recipes, reducing the amount of animal proteins, cooking from scratch, severely reducing food waste, smart-menu planning, and flexible portions are among the actions that can allow a reduction of costs. 

Public Procurement and Healthy Diets for All

According to the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), sustainable public procurement policies can also ensure more equal access to healthy diets for all. As the current trend is for healthier diets to be more expensive, guaranteeing nutritious food for all is a critical step in the right direction for ensuring the ‘Right to Food’ – at least in the public sphere, since many people benefit from the meals served in public canteens.


Public procurement can also lay the ground for more education about food. By stimulating healthy diets in public spheres, people are faced with alternative options that can lead to them eating more healthily in their private lives, thus promoting long-term benefits for the whole society. 

And the same goes for schools. At the EU Food Policy Coalition, we also believe that sustainable food procurement in schools, especially when combined with educational programs, has the potential to address childhood obesity, educate youth about diets and nature, reduce health inequalities and stimulate the “power of young people to promote food system changes”. 

Green Public Procurement in the EU is a Low Hanging Fruit

Despite this tremendous transformational power, the only EU instrument available to promote more strategic procurement  is the Green Public Procurement (GPP) – voluntary guidelines which recommend Europe’s public authorities to purchase environmentally friendly goods. Although it is a step in the right direction, it remains a limited instrument since its implementation remains voluntary and its scope very narrow. There is barely a mention  of the importance of local food production, healthy and balanced diets and the need to shift towards more plant based meals. More should and can be done at the European level to push Member States to support a green public procurement in the EU, which is, to quote the EU Food Policy Coalition, a “low-hanging fruit”.


In our policy brief, we call for:

  • A strategic food public procurement with minimum criteria that go beyond the Green Public Procurement (GPP) and that considers environmental, social and health concerns, while also complying with the Farm to Fork Strategy
  • A public procurement strategy that is aligned with national dietary and nutrition guidelines, and that progressively includes sustainability dimensions. 
  • EU and national financial and technical support to public buyers and in line with the EU’s work to promote social economy enterprises
  • A socially responsible food procurement that encourages the presence of more farmers in rural areas and includes social cooperatives in the supply chain, while ensuring compliance with latest labour and employment laws. 
  •  More clarity on the rules related to local food procurement to support sustainable, fair and short food supply chains

Slow Food’s Multifaceted Actions for  Sustainable Public Procurement 

Slow Food considers sustainable food procurement as fundamental and believes it is crucial to use the power of food to promote effective and long changes in the food system: therefore, our global movement is involved in a good number of projects and activities to influence how food is produced, procured, processed and consumed in public settings.


Slow Food is a key partner in the Food Trails Project which supports 11 European cities in shaping their food policies in a systematic way: public procurement plays a crucial role in this context. Slow Food also collaborates with cooks and producers, especially in Italy and Germany, to shape more sustainable and healthy menus in school canteens. The Slow Food Cooks Alliance plays a crucial role in this sense, and is increasingly active in the domain of public canteens, helping to deliver healthy and sustainable diets for all.  

Public food procurement is a solution within the EU’s reach to deliver good, clean, and fair food for all. 

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