The Attitude Shift – How Heathy Eating and Sustainability is Changing Public Sector Procurement

Mike Haslin, COO at The University Caterer’s Organisation (TUCO)

“‘Think globally, act locally’ as the saying goes. Over the past few years, there has been a rise in the popularity of locally-grown and produced food as consumers become increasingly aware of just what goes into their meals. This comes alongside a growing awareness of the importance of a sustainable, healthy diet as well as concerns around ethical food production and animal welfare.

“High-profile campaigns around the food provided in educational establishments have caused heated debates everywhere from the kitchen table to the Houses of Parliament. Coupled with the Government’s ‘Supermeals’ and ‘Five-a-Day’ programmes, as well as published NHS resources, there is more information available than ever before. Changing attitudes have even encouraged prominent organisations to change their ways; the World Health Organisation recently announced that it has removed all sugary drinks from its headquarters and the University of Brighton has become the first UK University to adopt the sugar-smart initiative.

“The generation now approaching university is more likely to care about these issues than those who have gone before them. This group has grown up with healthy eating campaigns and messages around the importance of a sustainable food chain – now many of them are moving away from home for the first time it’s important that the food choices available across the public sector reflect these attitudes.

“Take university catering for example, over the past few years the innovation within this market has been vast, leaving the outdated perceptions of bulk canteen meals a thing of the past. The variety and quality of the food outlets across universities is now rivalling that of the high street, in line with changing student expectations. The demand for more sustainable and healthy diets along with the rise in cost of attending university, means that students also want value for money. In a sector already operating on wafer-thin margins, this complicates matters and it has become a juggling act of providing high-quality food with top-grade service levels and constrained budgets.

“So how do public sector catering professionals cope with the change in attitudes and requirements to provide healthier, more sustainable meal choices and keep within tight budgets? This is where specialist procurement frameworks come in. From assessing the supply chain and working with local producers and suppliers to simply talking to customers, ensuring that procurement procedures provide the best value for money can all have a significant impact.

Supply chain – provide the right assurance

“To meet the demand from today’s consumers for transparency and traceability across the food chain, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for them to identify dishes and products that support causes that they care about. Flagging ingredients accredited by a food assurance scheme sends out a clear message about a catering outlet’s sourcing practices and brand ethos. Ingredients accredited by organisations including Red Tractor, the Soil Association or Fairtrade all carry assurances about content and/or sustainability and are a good place to start. Keeping on top of this and clearly marking menus sends out the message that sustainability is taken seriously.

Go local and support small producers

“Many public sector caterers may think that sourcing locally-produced food is too difficult a task when catering to hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. However, offering a few carefully-selected local dishes or ingredients can make a huge difference when marketing to consumers and demonstrating sustainability credentials. A good procurement framework should offer options to source goods from SMEs and local suppliers too, taking away the administration headache.

“Sourcing locally also allows for seasonal ingredient variations, cutting down on the amount of food that is imported. Take TUCO’s frameworks for example, where 75 per cent of our suppliers are SMEs (many on a regional basis), and we have built-in flexibility to allow our members to work with local producers, whether that is for a short-term agreement or on a more permanent scale. And now, through our frameworks, universities are able to purchase Fairtrade milk in the first procurement agreement of its kind.

Get the best value from a procurement framework

“Maintaining individual agreements with suppliers and negotiating the best price is a time-consuming and often impossible task for public-sector bodies to do on their own. This is why many organisations in the sector across the UK make use of a procurement framework and are able to take advantage of the deals negotiated by a larger organisation. As with any agreement, catering professionals should assess what arrangement suits their needs and ensure that they are getting the best deal for them. So what should you look for when choosing or reviewing a procurement framework?

“It should not and cannot be a one size fits all approach. As a guide, below are other elements that should stand out when considering this approach.

  • Choose a procurement partner that has deep understanding and experience of the public sector.
  • Explore the aggregate spending power and prices that frameworks offer and don’t forget the cost of engagement with a partner.
  • Member feedback and collaboration should be invited – it is the members that benefit from the framework so it is important that their individual needs are taken into account.
  • Built-in flexibility is a must, if a framework is going to take the complexities out of procurement; it needs to work across the board, not just for a set number of items or certain type of product.
  • Products should be independently benchmarked to ensure that there is a real saving and not just a perceived one.
  • Quality assurance of all suppliers is key. The framework should be responsible for ensuring that this is the case, it should also be flagged where suppliers are accredited by official bodies.
  • Customer service has to be first-class, support to guarantee that the best deal is being achieved through regular contract review is invaluable.

“If done well, this type of agreement can save public sector organisations time, money, and administration headaches, while also positively impacting the bottom line. However, decision-makers need to take the time to understand the business benefits and the best option for them.

“At TUCO we help our members and other organisations in the public sector to secure the best deals. Because TUCO is a not-for-profit organisation solely owned by its public sector members, we offer transparency and free access to framework agreements. As such, users can be sure that their procurement framework will work for them and their company before deciding whether to go ahead on a longer-term basis.

Walk the walk and talk the talk

“One of the simplest ways to work out if customers are happy is by talking to them – it sounds simple but is often overlooked in the everyday bustle of a catering outlet. Ask them what they would like to see on the menu, if they’d like more information on the choices available and as importantly, what they don’t want. This on-the-ground research should provide an easy starting point for menu planning and determining appetite for trying things such as locally-sourced specialities.

View for the future

“Consumer trends are constantly evolving but the move towards a healthier, more sustainable diet is certainly one that is here to stay. It isn’t a fad, but a concerted effort that is backed by government bodies and large-scale campaigns. As the next generation moves into higher education and then the workforce, there is likely to be a permanent shift in mentality that means public sector catering professionals need to provide transparency in terms of their supply chain as well as demonstrating sustainability credentials. Consumers have more choice than ever before and it’s essential that public sector catering outlets keep them on site and avoid losing custom to high street chains and eating establishments.

“Catering professionals can’t ignore the expectations of the younger generation, who will simply go elsewhere if they don’t see what they want on site. This shift in attitudes is indicative of what future consumers will want but by thinking creatively, assessing supply chains critically and getting help through procurement frameworks, it need not be a difficult task.”

For more information on TUCO and its specialist public sector procurement frameworks, please visit: