NFU brings public sector caterers together

06 February 2024

Children eating school dinner

Public sector sourcing, support for home grown food, and long-term sustainability were high on the agenda when the NFU brought together public sector caterers to discuss getting more British food onto people’s plates.

NFU's Deputy President, Tom Bradshaw, hosted a webinar focusing on Sustainable Public sector catering. Tom was joined by Sara Stanner, Senior Scientist from the British Nutrition Foundation and Cumbrian beef and dairy farmer, Helen Dent. Representatives from the public sector catering industry attended the event, which sought to highlight the importance of sourcing British food, with a particular focus on sustainability.

A poll among the audience revealed that although British quality, sustainability and environmental credentials are all valued by public sector caterers, product availability and cost prove to be barriers for getting more British produce into public sector catering.  

In his introduction, Tom highlighted British farmers’ critical need for both long-term supply agreements and greater support from government policy, explaining that British farmers want to reduce their carbon footprint, but Government needs to deliver a compelling climate policy.

Tom recognised the extreme budget cuts facing the public sector catering industry, and the financial barrier to British sourcing as a result of this, but added that this also worsens the financial challenges British farming is currently experiencing, and that “we all need to be able to reinvest in the supply chain”.

The NFU’s general election manifesto asks for a commitment to source 50% of food into the public sector from British farms.

“The British public want to source more home grown food,” Tom added, highlighting recent surveying which has shown that 82% of the public believe government should set targets to increase food production.

Straight from the nutritionist’s mouth

Science director at the British Nutrition Foundation, Sara Stanner, spoke next.

A healthy diet is important for children for a multitude of reasons including growth, brain development and general health. However, Sara shed light on some concerning figures indicating the nutritional needs of children are not always being met.

Research has found that 1-in-10 children start reception with obesity, with a rise in weight-related health conditions being seen in youngsters.

In contrast to this, the Child Measurement Programme in England last year reported the highest rates of underweight children since the survey began. Hospital reports of conditions such as rickets and anaemia have risen, and as few as 12% of youngsters are meeting their 5-a-day requirement. 

Those catering for young people have a huge opportunity to improve the quality of children's diets and reduce dietary inequalities.”

Science director at the British Nutrition Foundation, Sara Stanner

Sara emphasised the importance of healthy school meals to ensure children get at least one healthy meal per day and the role that the caterers play in delivering this. “Those catering for young people have a huge opportunity to improve the quality of children’s diets and reduce dietary inequalities”.

She explained that high intakes of foods, drinks and snacks that are high in fat, salt and sugar can have detrimental impacts on the health of young people, altering healthy dietary habits from a young age and heightening the risk of ill-health and obesity.

Lean meat, dairy products, wholegrain foods and fruit and vegetables are nutritionally dense and contribute important vitamin and minerals in young people's diets. Restricting meat and dairy products, particularly in children and young adults’ diets can result in inadequate nutrient intakes unless appropriate substitutions are made via other foods, fortification or supplementation.

Source British for sustainability

In agreement with Sara, Tom emphasised that food is part of the health solution, it’s not just for sustenance and that the value of a healthy, balanced diet cannot be underestimated.

He explained the importance of sourcing these healthier foods from British farmers, and that the focus needed to shift to long-term sustainability and future investment rather than short-term cost.

While the poll held within the webinar showed that the key barrier to sourcing more British food and drink was cost, Tom explained that importing cheaper food only exasperates climate troubles and increased volatility and risk. Whereas investing in British food producers supports longer term sustainability, with a clear drive toward net zero targets.

First-hand farming for the future

Cumbrian beef and dairy farmer, Helen Dent provided the catering representatives with a fantastic insight into the work farmers are doing to support the environment.

Since 2020, her dairy and beef farm has reduced its carbon footprint by 40%, thanks to actions such as swapping out soya as feed, sexed semen to improve herd efficiency, and planting hedgerows.

Helen explained to the audience that her key priorities were:

  • Animal health and welfare
  • Soil health and farm biodiversity
  • Climate impact.

Farmers are farming for the next 10, 50, 100 years, not just the next quarter.”

Cumbrian beef and dairy farmer Helen Dent

She said that climate priority was not only to support a wider global goal, but that the climate directly impacts farming and therefore her business. “Farmers are farming for the next 10, 50, 100 years, not just the next quarter,” Helen explained, driving the need for investment into long term sustainability.

What did the caterers think?

The question-and-answer session showed promising engagement, with representatives from the public sector catering industry asking an array of key questions.

When asked if public sector caterers would be rewarded for serving more than 50% of British produce, Tom said that the NFU is looking to “creatively drive investment in public sector sourcing and needs to find a way of gaining government commitment on this”.

The NFU believes that the government should be utilising their own procurement power and food spend to drive a more sustainable future for British food and farming. In our manifesto asks we have called on all parties to drive investment in British food and farming through public sector procurement.

On supporting organisations such as in-house caterer membership body TUCO (The University Caterers’ Organisation) and public sectors to access produce, Tom said: “British ingredients should be available on these buying platforms.

“We need to build links to support British food producers to access public sector markets and debunk myths that supplying to certain markets is not feasible.”

This is about having conversations to support British food sourcing through processors, wholesalers and contract caterers about how to support British sourcing to enable greater direct supply relationships with food producers. We must understand how businesses with capacity to supply directly can maximise these opportunities.

Responding to queries on if there is enough fresh produce and meat to supply these markets, Tom said it was essential to “to turn this juggernaut around so we’re not more reliant on food imports”.

For this to happen, the NFU has said the government must support all sectors on meeting the demands on the market, through productivity and reliance measures. Examples of sector specific measures are highlighted on the NFU’s horticultural development strategy.

Other opportunities for meeting market demand lie within how our supply chains are currently constructed.

Tom added: “Currently we export a lot of poultry brown meat but this could be diverted to public sector catering market as it is perfect for the dishes being served and helps with carcase balance.”

Sourcing more seasonal produce is also a good way of reducing costs and being more sustainable, Tom explained. He said this would be key for future sourcing strategies.

The NFU is aware of the School Food budget disparities between the nations and the challenges this causes faced within the school food sector. We were proud to support the LACA roundtable in 2023 which discussed the budget challenges of school food provision and we were pleased to sign the LACA mission statement and are supportive of the letter which addresses the funding challenges within the school food sector.

The NFU hopes to continue this dialogue to government, specifically addressing how the barriers of the public sector supporting sustainable food production without the necessary resources.

Watch the webinar now:


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