Hosted by Public Sector Catering Magazine, as part of their PS100 Club, this webinar focused on how the public sector can ensure the government listen when it comes to key issues around public sector catering, food and farming.

The session was led by David Foad, Group Editor at Dewberry Redpoint, with a panel of industry heavyweights, including public sector catering expert and Foodservice Consultant Andy Jones, Sustain’s CEO Kathy Dalmeny and Bethan Williams, foodservice and procurement adviser to the National Farmers Union. It was a fascinating session focused on what is often the unsung hero of our industry – the public sector. Central to the discussion was the Government’s apparent lack of any real focus on food and farming – as illustrated by the lack of any mention of food or farming on their Ten Point Plan – ironic, as I’m pretty sure from my old civics sessions that one of the defining purposes of Government is to secure the food supply for its citizens.

The public sector serves an incredible 2.1bn meals each year, of which 1.5bn are main meals. Half of this is accounted for by schools, while the care sector delivers a hefty 576m, mainly because it serves its residents three meals a day, every day of the year. The rest is made up of MOD, NHS, Unis, colleges and prisons. When you add all the pupils, patients, prisoners, students, care home residents and service personnel in the UK together you get about 15m people. That means roughly 25% of the population, or one in every four people, is fed in the public sector. With such a wide reaching role you would expect it to be high on the Government’s agenda, but sadly this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Covid has made people more aware of the insecurity of the food system, but in their wisdom the Government focused its efforts wholly on the grocery sector with its token scheme, ignoring in the main, public sector catering. The panellists expressed strongly how public sector catering could have helped, had it simply been considered. Despite lack of any direction from Government, as a highly creative and agile sector they proved their worth by pivoting to feed those in need – front line workers etc. but mainly off their own back with no real organised effort from central Government. Kathy pointed out that in Paris they have an extreme weather plan where they turn on meals on wheels, something that would have worked well in the recent Covid crisis for those isolating or shielding. France was also held up for having a strong commitment to buying local and seasonal produce, helping to support native farming and agriculture, whilst improving the quality of produce and environmental impact.

The overriding feeling is that the industry needs to act and develop a clear and concise agenda to move forward with and look to reach those in Government who are open to working with them. By working with the National Food Strategy Team (DEFRA) and aligning all the different stakeholders behind one clear plan they hope to keep things clear in what can be a highly complex sector in order to get their voice heard.

Despite many reports over the years exclaiming the importance of public sector catering it never seems to really break through on the Government’s agenda. It takes a crisis to draw attention to it, be it BSE or Covid, before they look to consider public sector catering and the food and farming supply chain. A fact that seems incredible when you think about how many policy issues farming and food touches on, from climate change (with COP26 the UN climate change conference on the horizon) to nutrition and obesity, employment and the farming sector. Indeed, the PS100 recently pledged to reduce meat, fish and dairy by 20% with a commitment to buy better (higher welfare, sustainable). A clear step, which based on the scale of the sector should see a significant reduction in consumption and focus on quality, sustainable produce.

One challenge however is measuring this pledge with Kathy suggesting an allowance system for meat, fish and dairy based on meals served, which could be written into procurement contracts – something that landed very well with the audience via the online poll and who knows may become reality – whatch this space. Whatever the answer simplicity is key, which is where carbon calculators often fall down according to the panel.

Now that the issue of a hard Brexit is off the table and the focus can shift away from planning for that, maybe now is the time public sector catering can get its voice heard. A simple pre-agreed plan that all bodies and lobbyists can agree on, that is workable and stress tested against WTO rules by a trade lawyer to ensure it doesn’t break any trading rules – this is what is needed. One that can be implemented as part of the general procurement agreement and audited to ensure compliance without adding unnecessary red tape. Working to improve things for farmers, public sector caterers and the public, who at the end of the day pay for public sector catering through their taxes. By approaching those in Government who are willing to listen we can make change happen – just look at the sugar tax which Kathy was instrumental in seeing come into legislation! With plans afoot to get going off the back of the webinar (even to infiltrate parliament with the somewhat tongue in cheek idea of putting notes on plates via the head of catering) I feel sure with people like this at the helm we should stand by to see things happen.

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