According to a recent poll, 93% of Europeans agree that the food offered in public spaces, like schools and hospitals, should be guaranteed to be healthy. In a Europe where 1 in 3 school-aged children is obese or overweight and 24.4% of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, ensuring healthy and sustainable food in public canteens is an essential investment of public money. Not to mention the climate implications of the current food system – food production alone is estimated to account for 15% of EU greenhouse gas emissions.
Peter Defranceschi is Head of ICLEI Brussels Office/Global Cityfood Program.
Reducing food waste and implementing low carbon food chains when providing food in public places can help. Continuing to serve unhealthy meals, or even nothing at all, will push public health and environmental costs through the roof.
The results of the poll, commissioned by the Buy Better Food campaign and carried out with over 3,000 participants living in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and Spain, could not come at a more opportune time. The European Commission is developing a proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems (FSFS) as part of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy.
The good news is that the Farm to Fork Strategy already contains two relevant action points for the development of the upcoming legislation: the preparation of minimum mandatory criteria on sustainable food procurement and a review of the EU school scheme’s legal framework, which guides the provision of food (mainly fresh produce like fruits and vegetables) and food education in schools.
Despite this foundation, continued pressure needs to be applied to ensure the Commission includes minimum standards for public canteens in the FSFS framework, in addition to focusing on food education in schools. And Europeans continue to show their interest in having a more sustainable and healthy food system: of the respondents polled by Buy Better Food, three quarters believe that public canteens should buy ingredients from small-scale farmers where possible and over 88% confirmed that guaranteeing healthy food in public canteens is a good investment of public money. Meanwhile, a leaked impact assessment also backs mandatory sustainable food procurement requirements as a preferred policy initiative for FSFS.
To put it plainly: providing healthy meals in public canteens, guaranteeing food education in schools and enforcing public food procurement standards means a more resilient food system. Almost 85% of those polled feel that sustainable food procurement measures would help reduce the food system’s impact on the environment. The positive effects of food system transformation would reverberate across the local and regional levels, creating jobs, improving public health and decreasing emissions.
Furthermore, proof already exists that healthy school meals would have a real impact on health and public health costs. Recent studies from the United States illustrate that healthy food in schools can help reduce childhood obesity, which is currently costing the EU healthcare system billions and falls not on the companies producing and selling unhealthy food, but on taxpayers instead. To go a step further, research suggests that healthy school food combined with food education could be a game changer.
The largest EU project on school food procurement, SchoolFood4Change (SF4C), positions schools as catalysts for a sustainable food system transformation. SF4C has developed a holistic approach to school food across more than 3,000 schools in 12 Member States and calls for comprehensive food education to encourage healthy eating behaviours. This includes farm visits, cooking classes and canteen parties.
Cooking classes in particular have been associated with better attitudes towards food and healthier eating in both adults and children. Models in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland and Sweden support these findings and should convince the rest of EU Member States of the validity of food education and sustainable public procurement practices.
With the fragility of our food systems widely exposed and the revelation that food production will warm the planet by between 1.5 – 2 degrees this century, we must act now. The sustainable public procurement of healthy food, and food education, provides a key opportunity to make our food systems more equitable and resilient.
It is important that the responsible European Commission Directorate Generals (DG SANTE, DG AGRI, DG EMPL, DG CLIMA) work together to put forward a substantial proposal for the imminent FSFS legislation; this includes minimum standards for the sustainable public procurement of food and food education.
The Sustainable Procurement Manifesto, promoted by Buy Better Food, already outlines seven actionable criteria to support public authorities to buy better food for the health of the planet, people and future generations. Plus, over 12,000 signatures have been collected by the Healthy School Meals Petition urging EU and national policymakers to guarantee sustainable school meals as part of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy. This is fully in line with the European Council recommendation on the EU Child Guarantee, which implores Member States to consider nutrition and provide at least one healthy school meal per day, as well as Europeans’ desire to see healthy food guaranteed in public canteens.
While the picture of sustainable and healthy food in schools differs significantly across Europe – for example no school meals are offered in the Netherlands or Norway and free meals are offered in Finland and Sweden – it is clear from both polls and practice that offering healthy school meals through sustainable procurement, as well as food education, is a smart strategy to achieve positive impacts that will make Europe, its people, economy and environment, more resilient. And it’s not just a smart strategy – it’s a feasible one too.
So, as Spain gears up for its turn at the helm of the EU Presidency, it must listen to what Europeans want – and need. Poll respondents in Spain, in particular, were very clear on where they stand: more than 94% agree that the food offered in schools and hospitals should be guaranteed to be healthy, while 93% believe that this would be a useful investment of public money.
Feeding healthy food on its own may not be enough to produce lasting change, but investing in young people through nutritious food, sustainable procurement practices and education is a surefire way to tackle the food system’s heavy impact on the climate and rising health-related costs in both the short and long term.
Sustainable school food, food policies and the Whole Food School Approach will be the focus of two appointments at the Forum Compraverde Buygreen 2023, on Wednesday 17 May, at WeGil in Rome:
12.00-13.30 Sala Brundtland
The role of Green Procurement in Food Policy, focus on Italy
16.30 – 18.00 Sala Pinchera
National policy dialogue – School Food for Change: integrating the Whole Food School Approach