Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Sandwell Primary Care Trust and Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council


Sandwell’s views and experience

How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the
food we choose to eat best be reduced?

· This is no longer a distant or aspirational issue for Sandwell –this is an immediate and critical challenge for our future self-reliance and survival. The price of food worldwide is soaring. Reliance on the traditional bread baskets of the world – Canada, USA, Russia, the Punjab and South Australia has lead us to precarious, badly managed, environmentally polluted agriculture and increasing crop failure. We need to grow more food in Sandwell for our survival, for job creation, for land reclamation and for better health.

· Sandwell is responding by developing a community agriculture resource to increase self-reliance, reduce food miles, increase consumption of healthy foods and improve the overall quality of participating communities’ health and well-being. This cannot be effectively exploited without investment to increase production and access. This investment includes material incentives for extending the network of community agriculture resources (currently threatened by public sector financial cutbacks and Public Health structural reforms) and support for encouraging/nudging people to make the best choices of the foods they buy. Sandwell’s Eatwell ( and Slimwell ( projects are good examples of the latter but shaping and mobilising social norms at a larger scale requires legislative, material and social marketing responses orchestrated by Government, the Food Industry and local communities

· Producing more fresh food in and around urban areas will help improve resilience against the effects of climate change, increasing global demand for food and diminishing natural resources such as water and fossil fuels. However, Sandwell Council has recognised for some years that we also need to expand and strengthen the regional food supply chain into the Borough.

· Sandwell MBC spends approximately £1.6m on food every year. The bulk of this is procured on behalf of the school meals service, almost half in the form of fresh food. Fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products are delivered daily during term time to dozens of different locations across the Borough. Some of this food is sourced from primary producers who are based outside the West Midlands region, which could be adding extra ‘food miles’ to the cost of delivery as well as possible detrimental effects on the environment. Other inefficiencies are locked into the current supply chain as well – not least, the loss of potential business and employment to producers within the region who could be supplying the public sector ‘on their doorstep’. This will not only keep money circulating within the region but will also enable primary producers to invest more in their businesses and thus improving their ability to withstand the potential shocks from climate change and the increasing cost of diminishing resources e.g. water and fuel.

· Sandwell Council and REIP West Midlands commissioned a piece of independent research in 2010, into the action required to strengthen the regional food supply chain into Sandwell. This established that there is a range of primary producers in the region that have both the capacity and the will to work with the public sector to produce fresh healthy food for the urban area. One of the necessary elements now needed to ensure that the region can provide sustainably produced fresh food for the urban area is a small amount of additional capacity to enable the public sector to work with local primary producers and build up the necessary knowledge and relationships to ensure that supply and demand are well planned and coordinated for the long term.

· Food production in an urban area such as Sandwell could potentially have a significant greening effect on the appearance of the environment

What are the land-use
trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these
be managed?

· Making best use of opportunities to work with local communities to build their capacity for producing healthy food. This could include using land that will remain vacant for a period of time during regeneration of an area. For example, use of raised boxes on derelict land to get around problems with soil contamination. Also need to explore opportunities for building micro scale food production into new multiple house building developments.

· Hydroponics may provide an alternative in areas with large amounts of contaminated land.

How can the Government help to deliver healthy food
sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

· Government has a critical role in incentivising sustainable local food production (see above re community agriculture) and for nudging people towards more healthy choices through social marketing for example. However, access to enable those choices is a major barrier. Access is not simply about being able to get to a retailer that sells such foods but is also about the quality and cost of those foods. Developing and maintaining efficient and effective systems for monitoring access enables areas of real deprivation to be identified and the impact of interventions to be monitored for effectiveness. This requires a simple but truly reflective indicator and a routine and regular feed of data on cost, quality and availability. Several projects have reported on the distribution of food availability but all have been based on a single snapshot of information which cannot reflect the reality of a rapidly changing retail market with some shops closing and others opening.

· Sandwell has developed a method for constructing and mapping a simple indicator which can use information gleaned during the routine food hygiene inspections of local authority Environmental Health Professionals (EHPs). We are currently assessing the effect of this on the capacity of EHPs but initial assessment of the pilot indicates that this will have little or no impact on the routine work of EHPs. This principle should be formally extended to all EHPs.

· Areas of poor access have been demonstrated in several studies and incentives for retailers including tax breaks and reductions in business rates, and formal award/badging schemes are required.

· Encourage and/or legislate for the least amount of processing and packaging possible

· Sustainably – consider the food supply chain as a whole. The Government needs to continue to put resources into initiatives like the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative to support the public sector boost local fresh food supply via their food procurement policies and practises.

· Sandwell Council has identified the Food Sector as an important sector in the economic regeneration of the Borough. The Public Sector has an important role in helping to develop sustainable long term relationships between the supply and demand side which are recognised as vital for this business sector

How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable
choices about food?

· See above comments concerning improving access.

· It is notoriously difficult to change individual and community values, norms and beliefs around healthy choices. However, it is possible as demonstrated by the change in public attitudes to smoking, fitness, wearing seat belts and drink/driving have shown. These experiences clearly show that a long term commitment through statutory control (e.g. planning restrictions on certain types of food outlets, requirements for local authorities to monitor healthy food access in their communities), partnership with industry (farmers markets in urban areas), incentivising healthy choices (e.g. discounting healthy choices), providing effective and accessible information/intelligence (e.g. see indicator work above) and social marketing is necessary

· Public Sector Sustainable Food Procurement ensures that the most vulnerable in our communities (i.e. the young and the old) have access to fresh healthy food.

Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are
presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food

· We consider that food is not simply an economic commodity but a basic social utility in the same way as drinking water and energy supplies are regarded and regulated.

· Responsible practices need to become the business norm as well as enshrined in law if required.

How might the changing powers of local authorities and the
localism agenda hinder, or be used to encourage, more sustainable
production and supply of food?

· Statutory responsibility for local authorities to assess their areas for healthy food access (as described above) as they have been for almost 100 years for environmental health nuisances with great effect.

· Powers for local authorities to restrict unhealthy access to unhealthy choices through public health input to the planning process-making this a ‘material consideration’

· Using the food sector as part of economic regeneration

· Providing information on access (including public transport) to healthy choices

· Mainstream the use of access indicator (see above)

· Incorporate community growing opportunities into wider work with local communities. In Sandwell, initiatives such as Friends and Neighbours are working with communities to build on their strengths and support them in making decisions about, and influencing change in, their local areas. Local food production needs to be part of this approach, for example through working with the strong allotment community and through the development of community agriculture.

· Using the training agenda to develop skills in local food production and distribution and healthy catering. Develop links with local agricultural colleges.

How could Government procurement practices be improved to
promote better practice across the food sector?

· This is a symbolic demonstration of leadership and a statement of intent to the public. Schools, hospitals and other public institutions offer the opportunity to show how healthier, more sustainable food can be produced, procured and distributed.

· A statutory/contractual requirement on these institutions to purchase sustainably would be a great advance

· Public sector organisations need to be accountable and be able to demonstrate how their food procurement and economic development policies/strategies will ensure sustainable resilient food supply chains into the future

28 March 2011