This summary was written by Oxford University ECI-funded intern Aaron Hanson.
The report aims to:
- give an overview of the current state of food procurement procedures and practices within the public sector in Oxfordshire – specifically with respect to the extent to which these procedures emphasise local sourcing;
- explore the potential for improvements to public-sector procurement procedures, examining the feasibility of alternative strategies, identifying current barriers to progress and reviewing relevant examples of improvement to procurement practices from elsewhere.
The public sector in Oxfordshire is estimated to account for a higher-than-average share of total food demand compared to other counties on the basis of the University of Oxford’s system of colleges which cater to its student body. The main public-sector institutions are schools, the two universities and the two NHS Hospital Trusts. They are some of the largest food purchasers in Oxfordshire; for example, the University of Oxford’s colleges between them are estimated to spend around £20 million on food each year. However, in practice,
food procurement procedures are highly fragmented across the county, primarily because (1) the University of Oxford’s procurement decisions are spread across dozens of its departments and colleges, and (2) increasing numbers of schools have opted to manage food procurement themselves (typically contracting out catering to a provider of their choice) rather than through the County Council.
Food procurement by public-sector organisations might be summarised according to three different categories: preparing food on-site themselves, outsourcing such operations to private firms, or purchasing ready-made meals from private firms (minimal/no on-site preparation). A key point is that local food has been more easily incorporated into meals where there exists the capacity to prepare them on-site. The county hospitals’ meals are overwhelmingly prepared in Wales and re-heated on-site before serving, and there is limited interest in moving to on-site preparation. The two universities tend to opt for contracts with large-scale food suppliers for a variety of reasons, including maintaining stable and large-scale supplies of food; and being able to trace food and thereby reduce the risks associated with ‘food scares’ (a concern shared by the schools and hospitals). However, some local suppliers have been able to scale up their operations through public-sector contracts with both universities and schools. There is widespread ‘in principle’ support for fresh, local, healthy produce among schools, although budgetary limitations mean that the highest standards (organic certification, for example) are not felt to be financially feasible. Accordingly, the majority of schools in Oxfordshire (61%) have achieved a Food for Life Award from the Soil Association.
Overall, financial constraints are only one of the barriers preventing moves towards greater sourcing of local, high-standard food by public institutions. Logistics and engrained attitudes create barriers too, as well as concerns over stringent food safety. Encouraging institutions to aim for Food for Life Awards is one possible avenue towards improvement, as is getting individual schools and colleges to group together to negotiate better deals with suppliers, although this latter option could make it harder for small local producers to supply such institutions.
When it comes to relocalising supply, restaurants and individuals may be better placed to lead the way. There are plenty of other first steps for institutions to take, especially if they have on-site food production and preparation facilities. Local authorities and institutions need to decide their priorities and create policies and plans accordingly. As the report concludes, ‘collaboration opportunities between what externally might be considered to be similar organisations are not being fully realised’.
In the light of this research, Good Food Oxford is setting up a Catering and Procurement Working Group to better realise collaboration opportunities within the sector.
Read the full report here.