Food in European public canteens is neither particularly healthy nor sustainable. As sustainable public food procurement is a “low hanging fruit”, several organisations, Slow Food included, published a Manifesto for establishing minimum standards for public canteens across the EU.
When US First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” initiative to help children become healthier back in 2010, she put a strong focus on improving the quality of the food served in public school canteens. And she was right: in order to promote healthy food and healthy diets towards youth, start where they spend most of their time: at school. As well as in the United States, a vast majority of European kids get their lunch at school, which is often the only full, balanced meal of the day for some students. On a bigger scale, millions of Europeans eat several times a week in a public canteen, thus relying on public food procurement.
Public food procurement – a complicated word that simply means the process by which public authorities purchase food and catering services from companies to prepare, cook, and serve meals in public canteens. This is a strategic tool to promote health, environmental, socio-economic, animal welfare and other food policy objectives via people’s plates.
Why is it such a hot topic at the moment? Because it determines what thousands of people eat every day. Imagine all the public canteens in Europe: from schools to hospitals, prisons to universities. It is a lot, right? Now imagine all of them serving healthy and tasty meals sustainably sourced from agroecological and local producers. Seems like a dream, but it is one at hand.
Positively changing the food served in these public canteens is possible and would have such tremendous transformational power – not only over the health of citizens but also over the whole food supply chain revolving around it. Plus, given the fact that these diets tend to be more expensive, having them served in public canteens would contribute to ensuring equal access to all citizens to healthy and sustainable diets.
Therefore, European public canteens, and in particular school meals, can immensely contribute to achieving the targets set by the EU Farm to Fork Strategy, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That’s why we always say that public procurement is a “low-hanging fruit” because by simply changing or adapting some current rules, public procurement can have an immensely positive impact on the whole food system.
At the moment, EU rules for public procurement are weak, which means the food we find in public canteens is neither particularly healthy nor sustainable. Therefore, we need stricter rules and targets so that we have good, clean, and fair food in canteens – contributing not only to ensuring people’s health but also promoting a food system that is sustainable in a holistic way.
At Slow Food, we strive for the ambition that all food served in European public canteens become healthy and climate-friendly, partly sourced from organic and agroecological farms, while supporting small-scale farmers, and ensuring labour rights, animal welfare, and fair trade.
All of these crucial aspects are outlined in the EU Food Policy Coalition’s recent Manifesto on sustainable public procurement that calls for establishing minimum standards for public canteens across the EU, to which Slow Food contributed.
Our goal? To inspire the European Commission to develop comprehensive, ambitious, and mandatory criteria for all public canteens around 7 targets. We describe them in our Manifesto (see picture below) as the 7 “actionable propositions”, each with its own defined target and guiding instructions on how to assess the target achievement.
As the above picture shows, our 7 targets touch upon many different areas from health, energy, environment, procurement, education, and waste to social welfare, because coherence in food policy is key. To quote the Manifesto, “taking a systemic approach to food systems transformation calls for cooperation across different departments, to avoid the creation of contradictory forces in the transformation towards sustainable food systems”.
This year is a strategic moment to discuss public procurement since the EU is revising its rules as part of the Sustainable Food Systems Law, with a proposal expected for the end of 2023. With this in mind, the Manifesto was officially handed over to the European Commission last October by ICLEI Europe – the organization that led the work on the Manifesto, during the European Week of Regions and Cities, calling for the EU Farm to Fork strategy to ambitiously advance sustainable food transformation.
But we did not stop there, as Slow Food, together with other civil society organisations from the EU Food Policy Coalition, met on December 16 with the Cabinet of Frans Timmermans (Vice-President of the European Commission) and the cabinet of Stella Kyriakides (Commissioner for Health and Food Safety) to present our Manifesto and its 7 targets.
It was very well received, and the European Commission welcomed it as a good basis to pave the way for the work that has to be done in 2023.
During the meeting, they confirmed their will to establish minimum criteria for public procurement, but have yet to decide if they will be voluntary or mandatory. The working process to define those criteria – crucial but challenging, will start early 2023, and the Public Procurement Task Force of the EU Food Policy Coalition will be consulted to clarify the different criteria pointed out in the Manifesto.
We were also asked to give more examples of good practices and examples of cities that are already implementing strategic public procurement with good results. From Mouans Sartoux to Copenhagen, from Torres Vedras to Milan, we have plenty of good examples of cities committed to making a change in their food system through ambitious and strategic public procurement.
If this topic interests you, don’t hesitate to consult our latest papers:
- Policy paper Sustainable Public Procurement of Food: A Goal within Reach
- Policy paper on policy recommendations for using sustainable food procurement for a systemic food transformation.
And learn more about how Slow Food is helping sustainable public food procurement become a reality:
- Check out our case study of Qualitá & Servizi – a public company that produces the mealsl for school canteens in Tuscany and completely changed its very badly scored catering service into a good, healthy, sustainable and educational one, connected to the territory whose development it promotes.
- Discover the “Food Trails” project, which is a four-year project launched in October 2020, with the aim to stimulate the development of sustainable urban food policies in 11 European cities (Bergamo, Birmingham, Bordeaux, Copenhagen, Funchal, Grenoble, Groningen, Milan, Tirana, Thessaloniki, and Warsaw). Cities are supported by different partners, including Slow Food, who has been enabling the collaboration between cities and their citizens to design food policies that empower their community, make the farm-to-fork journey sustainable, promote a zero-waste use of resources, encourage environmentally friendly behavior change and ensure people have healthy and secure diets.