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BLOG | Five reasons why healthy food procurement is a promising strategy to address obesity

NewsBLOG | Five reasons why healthy food procurement is a promising strategy to address obesity

Five reasons why healthy food procurement is a promising strategy to address obesity

Author: Corinna Hawkes
Honorary research fellow at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy.

What is healthy food procurement and why is it a promising policy for obesity prevention? This will be the subject of a presentation I will be giving at next years International Congress on Obesity (ICO 2016). The conference promises to be a great event: 2000 expected, the latest science and evidence reported – and, to boot, it’s in the city of Vancouver.

What is healthy food procurement?

First, what is healthy food procurement? “Procurement”  – the acquisition of goods, services or works from an external source – applies to a range of different contexts in the food world. It can mean, for example, governments buying food commodities from farmers for public stocks. It can mean the process by which, say, a fast food company sources potatoes.  It can mean the process of purchasing food to serve in public institutions, like meals in schools, hospitals, prisons, and at public events. It is this latter context to which the term “healthy food procurement” refers – with the all-significant “healthy” bit referring to the process of making sure that procured food contributes to healthy eating behaviours among those served.

Healthy food procurement can thus be defined as the process of obtaining foods to serve in public institutions and ensuring that these foods promote healthy diets. It’s about ensuring that people are able to eat well while in these settings, and more broadly, promoting the healthy habits and preferences that help people make better choices wherever they eat. It involves decisions not just about the logistics of sourcing – who to buy it from and how – but what foods to buy and serve. In the public health world the term is sometimes use interchangeably with setting nutrition standards for public institutions, but as a process it involves a lot more

Why is healthy food procurement a promising policy?

Why is it a promising policy? In the lead up to the conference I’ll be penning a series of blogs presenting the case for healthy food procurement. Here are the five reasons I’ll be talking about:

  1. Healthy food procurement has been tried and tested. Governments – national and local – have been relatively willing to put policies on healthy food procurement into place. In the United States, many of the States and localities have introduced standards for vending and for foods served in schools; there are national standards for the US Army and Parks Service too. In the EU the School Fruit Scheme is active in most Member States. At least 35 countries around the world including in Latin America, the Pacific, Asia, Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East have put school food standards into place. This is hardly a majority of countries – but it’s a lot more than have implemented other obesity policies like reducing marketing to kids.  And while it doesn’t mean there aren’t real challenges with healthy food procurement – there are – it does mean there are examples from which we can learn.
  2. Healthy food procurement can work. It’s not clear cut – it never is – but it is clear enough: evidence from school settings suggests that healthy food procurement can work to encourage healthier diets (if well-designed and implemented). In my next blog I’ll be looking more closely at the evidence and how to interpret it.
  3. Healthy food procurement has a diverse array of interests cheering it on. Healthy food procurement is not just a strategy proposed to improve diets. Far from it. A key advantage is that it can yield multiple food system benefits. Improving the livelihoods of the people who produce the food is one. For example, the “Purchase for Progress” (P4P) programme of the World Food Programme – the UN agency that provides emergency assistance for people short of food – aims to increase participation of small farmers in World Food Programme procurement activities while also improving access to nutritious food for participating producer households. Another example is “Home Grown School Feeding,” a movement gaining traction around the world which aims to deliver cost-effective school feeding programmes using food from smallholder or family farmers. Food procurement is also a strategy used to encourage suppliers to produce food using sustainable methods – often termed “sustainable food procurement.” The City of Rome is an oft-cited example. This range of food system benefits means that healthy food procurement has a lot more people fighting for it than the obesity community alone. And that’s a huge – and inadequately tapped – advantage given we know we need to build partnerships to create a more receptive political environment for obesity policy.
  4. Healthy food procurement can address malnutrition in all its forms. Healthy food procurement is also relevant to people who are food insecure and/or inadequately nourished – many of the aforementioned school feeding programmes, for example, were initiated in the context of undernutrition. Brazil has range of institutional procurement programmes designed to address food insecurity. Yet procurement policies have historically been designed as if undernutrition and obesity are totally separate problems. A lot can be learned from this history to leverage the potential for healthy food procurement as a synergistic “double-duty” action to address both problems.
  5. Healthy food procurement provides a positive space for engagement with the private sector. Whether we like it or not, the production and distribution of food into our public institutions is conducted largely by the private sector – be it a family farmer or a transnational food service company. Healthy food procurement thus involves, by its very nature, engagement with the private sector. Often it also involves imposing rules (we know we don’t want junk food in public institutions!). So there are bound to be tensions. But if we think and act carefully it’s a space where we can develop innovative and positive relationships focused on achieving outcomes to better leverage the power of the private sector to produce good food, and the power of the public purse to purchase it.