School meals don't matter only to kids and their parents. Like other services within the scope of public sector food procurement, they also matter economically. Determination to source produce locally and sustainably can make all the difference to a region's farmers, as can labels protecting its specialities. An EU-funded project is connecting the dots.
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In the Strength2Food project, 30 partners in 15 countries have joined forces to analyse the leverage of quality and procurement policy for the creation of shorter, more sustainable food supply chains.
“We have three main objectives,” says project coordinator Matthew Gorton of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in the United Kingdom. “One is to improve the effectiveness of the EU’s food quality schemes – the ones associated with protected designations of origin. The second is to improve the effectiveness of public sector food procurement. And the third is to stimulate the development of short food supply chains.”
Launched in March 2016, Strength2Food is funded for a period of five years. The researchers intend to conduct research and case studies which will feed into recommendations for policy-makers and practitioners.
Reporting on the initial six months of the project, Gorton notes that the team has already completed crucial first steps, including a review of relevant scientific literature and the definition of indicators. “Now we are going to road-test these indicators in four pilot studies,” he adds.
Public procurement has supply chain effects that can be leveraged to advance societal aims and boost sustainability – and so does quality policy, Gorton explains. “The labels help smaller producers, who are never going to be the most cost productive, to maintain a place within food supply chains,” he notes. “They also offer an opportunity for farmers to add value to their production and receive fair or better returns from their produce, but this is only possible if there is a meaningful connection with consumers.”
More specifically, Strength2Food will focus on the EU quality schemes embodied by the PDO, PGI and TSG logos. Respectively, these stand for ‘Protected Designation of Origin’, ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ and ‘Traditional Speciality Guaranteed’. Part of the project, says Gorton, will be dedicated to the impact of the schemes and to their uptake, which varies considerably among Member States, with the aim of finding ways to improve its effectiveness in countries that don’t have a strong tradition of their use.
Recent changes in the EU’s rules on public procurement have widened the scope to harness it as a driver of change, Gorton explains. The update notably expands the definition of the ‘most economically advantageous tender’ – MEAT, for short – and so gives contracting authorities more leeway to consider social and environmental elements, he notes. Procurement contracts could, for example, be set up to include a proportion of organic or fair trade produce.
“Member States have quite a degree of flexibility in terms of how the relevant Directive is implemented. So there are different models of school meal procurement in different countries. We will compare the economic, social and environmental impact of these models,” says Gorton.
“Strength2Food is probably the first project at EU level to look at public food procurement in depth,” Gorton notes. It has built a broad alliance of contributors to do so.
“We have farmers involved, farmers’ cooperatives, ministries, regulation agencies, manufacturers and retailers; basically we try to bring in actors along the entire food supply chain,” he explains. Many of these partners have never worked on EU-funded projects before, says Gorton, who sees their involvement as an excellent way to obtain new practitioners’ input and fresh advice.
It’s also a way to make research more relevant to practitioners, he notes, and potentially a chance for practitioners to influence policy-makers. “What they can do individually may often be quite small, but being part of a larger consortium creates a synergistic effect,” Gorton concludes.
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