Public Food Procurement

The COACH project analyses collaborative agri-food chains with its aim to drive innovation in territorial food systems and improve outcomes for producers and consumers. In order to facilitate and systematise project outcomes, all COACH actions oscillate around “Spotlights” – 8 cross-cutting themes illustrating particular aspects of collaborative agri-food chains in territorial food systems.

This spotlight showcases innovations in sustainable public food procurement (SPFP) practices, in particular efforts to source healthy and high-quality food from small-scale farmers and food businesses in a legally sound way.


In a reflection on value chains, limiting oneself to an isolated aspect of a food system is impossible and counterproductive. Procurement, with its significant and multidimensional impact on agri-food chains, shows best how collaborative actions can achieve multiple goals with a single public food procurement policy carefully designed and consulted with diverse stakeholders, which not only follows national food guidelines but is also easily transferable into the regional policies.

Sustainable food procurement is so much more than feeding and cost-effective purchasing. In fact, it is about investing in public health, biodiversity, culture, small farmers, companies, and most of all in the territorial community.

Peter Defranceschi
Global Food Program Coordinator
Head of ICLEI Brussels Office
(ICLEI, 2021

The financial value of public food services is noteworthy. Only on the European level, it has an annual value of EUR 82 billion (Egberg Mikkelsen and Bergmann Madsen, 2021). The scale of economic significance gives PFP the privilege to shape the influence of food on the health, nutrition, and education of communities. Decisions regarding food procurement impact the environment, accessibility of healthy products, social equity, sustainability, and the quality of public food services provided in public schools and hospitals, prisons, public institutions, and public events. Public Food Procurement must be sustainable, which means that it should be strategic and support systemic change. To facilitate the transition, it is crucial that the EU legislation clarifies the difference between “local” and “regional” food procurement and thus supports already existing sustainable food procurement initiatives across Europe like the transformation of school food procurement which is considered “a low hanging fruit” (EU FPC, 2021).

According to the United Nations, sustainable public food procurement contributes to 10 out of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Jones, 2021). If well-designed, public food procurement gives small-scale farmers and operators many opportunities to grow, succeed, and positively impact territorial communities. That is why it is important to mix different food policies with strategic policies (e.g., policy focusing on the groundwater or the emission of CO2) for the public policy to succeed in a most efficient way.

Territorial PFP policy shall be implemented in compliance with the relevant EU and national public procurement regulatory frameworks. This puts the European Commission in a position of great power and influence, but also responsibility. The specific recommendations for procurers and policymakers to contribute to a sustainable food value chain prepared by the COACH partner – ICLEI Europe – in collaboration with the UN Planet Network show the diversity of aspects that a comprehensive food procurement policy can contribute to. In another paper written in a collaboration with IFOAM Organics Europe, ICLEI Europe provides strong evidence and overcomes misconceptions regarding the implementation of sustainable public food procurement with a specific focus on contributing to the Farm to Fork (F2F) Strategy.

Specific recommendations for procurers and policymakers to contribute to a sustainable food value chain:

  • SOURCE LOCALLY THROUGH FRESH AND SEASONAL FOOD ITEMS. Farmers within regional geographic proximity have grown the food that is later consumed, with seasonal variance.
  • SUPPORT A HEALTHY & NUTRITIOUS DIET. Serving food that is rich in nutrients and supports a balanced diet.
  • ENABLE FAIR EMPLOYMENT CONDITIONS. Assuring safe, healthy and fair working conditions across the value chain, requiring compliance with ILO.
  • INCREASE THE SHARE OF PLANT-RICH FOOD AND SUPPORT ANIMAL WELFARE. Favouring/increasing share of plant-based meals and assuring good living conditions of farm animals.
  • SUPPORT SMALLHOLDER FARMERS. Enabling small farmers to deliver their products independently, operating with better profit margins, with an emphasis on supporting women-led farms.
  • SOURCE ORGANIC PRODUCE. Sourcing ingredients and food items that have been produced through organic farming techniques including agroforestry, regenerative agriculture or other sustainable production methods.
  • REDUCING WASTE FROM FOOD & PACKAGING. Tackling the amount of food waste as well as single-use plastic and packaging waste.

Contracting authorities are not entirely free to choose what, how and from whom to procure food. This is because they do not operate as private entities and shall follow some core principles, e.g., they shall not discriminate against foreign suppliers/contractors, foster competition, and guarantee transparency in their acquisition processes.

Demand perspective – lessons learnt from Beacons

The City of Copenhagen, one of the COACH Beacons, which has already implemented 90% organic food across all administrations serving public meals, is a champion recognizing the importance of a multidimensional approach to public food procurement. In the Spotlights Template, the City of Copenhagen provides an example of good practice: a visionary action plan incorporating multiple strategic policies into one. While designing the public food procurement policy, they derive from the national policies, the EU framework, and recently UN policy. At the end of 2021, the City of Copenhagen published sustainable food procurement guidelines that assist municipalities in providing public food meals compatible with the Climate Plan and Action Plan for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (One Planet Network, 2021).

The Beacon perceives SDGs as a “universal language” that comes in handy while sharing knowledge and ideas. Most large- and small-scale food producers already know the Sustainable Development Goals, but the EU is also committed to implementing them in all its policies. Copenhagen’s strategy, inspired by political obligations and goals, created new tender demands and criteria for sustainability that translate the direction of innovative public food procurement into clear and measurable factors. Small-scale farmers and operators can use a specially designed SDG Roadmap platform to map their sustainability level and development potential. Based on the majority of all Spotlights Templates, similar assistance with measuring and understanding one’s impact on sustainability and the environment is much needed since most of the COACH Beacons do not know how to tackle this issue and thus cannot provide information on the sustainability level of their actions.

Demand and criteriaSDG
Quality – nutritional and gastronomic23
Hygiene – food safety2, 3, 12
Packaging – environmental requirements and food safety9, 12
Food waste – responsible consumption and production12
Seasonal foods – health, responsibility, and production2, 3, 12, 15
Climate-responsible food – production and climate efforts4, 12, 13
Ecology – health, sustainability3, 6, 13, 15
Palm oil – responsibility and sustainability8, 12, 15
Sustainable soy – responsibility and sustainability8, 12, 15
Trans fat – nutrition, health, and well-being23
MSC / ASC labelled fish and responsible fish – Life in the sea14
Fairtrade – responsibility1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 13
Transport – Environmental considerations, infrastructure, cities9, 11
Working environment – Decent jobs3, 58
Collaboration overall – partnerships for action17
Source: Beacon’s Spotlights Template

In order to achieve the best outcomes of such an innovative public food procurement strategy, the Danish Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with the Municipality of Copenhagen, has established a national network of food procurement officers. The network smoothens the vertical governance applied in Denmark and assists regional municipalities in implementing national guidelines. Moreover, the initiative gives procurers a direct line to engage with the government. Regular contact with all different stakeholders helps to understand each other’s problems and develop solid solutions. Through brainstorming and mutual support, officers and thus local authorities can improve faster and work more effectively, e.g., inspired by the example of Odense, Copenhagen learnt how to organize better ‘market dialogues’ – a crucial element of well-thought PFP strategy. The aim of such dialogues is to understand the diversity of offers on the market (by farmers, retailers, wholesalers, etc.) in order to adapt or develop tender requirements accordingly. Currently, the network works only in Denmark, but the Beacons’ representatives, i.e., Betina Bergmann Madsen, are already working on its European equivalent.

The City of Copenhagen is an inspiration for all. Since 2001, the Beacon was working on achieving the most organic and green procurement possible, and today 90% of the meals served in public institutions is indeed organic. The transition took over 15 years. It succeeded because food producers were informed in advance about the direction of changes and future tender requirements that they should consider to win the contract (One Planet network, 2021). In the interview with Peter Defranceschi (ICLEI) and Josephine Hintz (ICLEI), Betina Bergmann Madsen underlines that such processes require time.


In Denmark, there are three large wholesalers who supply most of all foods for public catering.  Whilst this meets the requirements for 90% organic content, the city authority would like to give small and medium-sized enterprises the opportunity to bid.  The motivations for this vary: for some politicians and citizens, “buying local” is important for political, environmental and social reasons.  For the procurement department, the drive is primarily a desire to improve competition by opening the market for a range of potential suppliers, particularly the smaller-scale producers who have traditionally faced great difficulties in supplying food for the public sector. From a procurement perspective, more equal competition – or the creation of a more ‘level playing field’ – should ensure good or better value for money, for example by buying direct from farmers.  The key point is that any procurement process must focus on identifying the qualities of the products that are desired by the public sector (for example, ‘organic’, or nutritious).  In addition, the city is also looking for the ‘added value’ of buying direct from farmers and is doing this by linking the provision of food to education.  They have introduced innovative procurement criteria whereby whoever wins the contract must be willing to provide learning sessions for school children – either on the farm, or online.  The idea is to give more children more insight into what it is like to be a farmer.  This can also be linked to teaching materials, for example cooking classes, history, biology, and maths. In Denmark, all children aged 13-14 take cookery classes during school time.

The policy change results are even more impressive given that the City of Copenhagen shifted towards organic public procurement without increasing spending on public food. The case of Copenhagen proves that sustainable food procurement can be cost-effective. In fact, the transformation allowed the Beacon to save money. The spending stayed the same by encouraging public chefs to use more seasonal vegetables and legumes but less meat. The City of Copenhagen understood that the key to success is changing eating and cooking habits. Chefs and organizations were offered assistance to work on a more organic menu. They were encouraged to serve small portions with an optional additional portion to minimise food waste. Chefs were asked to use all parts of available products. By applying all the above suggestions, kitchens in public institutions serve higher-quality products that eventually sums up at a smaller total price than before the transformation. On top of that, using diverse ingredients and promoting traditional cooking styles rich in lentils and vegetables inspire pupils in schools and can boost additional educational activities connected to the food topic. Moreover, in some tenders, Copenhagen also links the provision of food to educational activities for school children on food and farming as an innovative procurement criterion that enables more small-scale farmers and small food businesses to access the public procurement market.

Source: Main hindrances in PFP to support small, local suppliers presented in spotlights templates

Finally, from Spotlights Templates focusing on the demand side of public food procurement, one can learn about barriers that stand in the way of small-scale farmers and operators who would like to participate in public food procurement. In all received feedback on this matter, Beacons point out that the volume of products required in public tenders is too big for small-scale farmers who do not produce enough. Several municipalities attempted to find a way around this volume issue by cutting the requirements into smaller, more easily procurable units or by helping producers pool their volumes by selling through digital platforms such as Vanier, a cooperative business-to-business (B2B) platform operated by the city of Ghent.

Municipalities that value local varieties and support biodiversity struggle to stimulate short agri-food chains and minimize food-related transport emissions at the same time. Often, small-scale farmers and operators do not have the approved type of vehicle (e.g., EURO 5/6, electric). Their logistics are expensive and exposed to complex traffic flows in cities that lack logistical hubs.

Other than that, small-scale farmers and operators are used to the business-to-consumer (B2C) business model rather than the B2B. They can find the public procurement law complex and demanding, requiring lots of administration, with limited accessibility (through e-tendering) and heavy penalty systems that might be discouraging. The current public procurement framework favours equality over equity in its approach to suppliers, which means that it does not provide incentives or support for small-scale food producers to meet the required criteria. Everyone is treated equally no matter how many barriers one must face.

The financial risk for small-scale food producers is high given that most governments do not advance payments, nor include costs of the entire production process into the price; therefore, CSA systems struggle to engage with PFP. There is no risk-management procedure that would support suppliers nor certainty of purchase in terms of presumed quantity.

The City of Ghent’s Spotlights template

Another problem that municipalities face when attempting to cooperate with more small-scale farmers is the issue of time. Working with too many small contractors is too time-consuming. Small suppliers are not necessarily experienced with digital systems required in PFP (e.g., OCI catalogue) or might not have sufficient fundings to maintain digital software. On top of that, food producers might struggle with the procedures and jargon of public contracts.

Despite the barriers, the complexity of PFP provides an opportunity to better position local producers with the use of multiple approaches and perspectives. For example, one might reduce the costs of digital maintenance by providing free-of-charge software as a public good.

Supply perspective – lessons learnt from Beacons

Voices of the small-scale farmers and operators expressed in Spotlights Templates and during the Spotlight Encounter echoes the barriers listed by the public demand side. The most problematic points are (1) distribution to too many venues, (2) lots of bureaucracy and paperwork, and (3) low price points in public tenders. These – in combinations – easily squeeze out organic or local suppliers. 

In order to support small-scale food producers and operators, the opportunities for public procurement must be seen in the broader context of the market for agroecological produce. It is important since many of the Beacons participating in COACH align broadly to agroecological principles. From a farmer’s perspective, public procurement must be attractive and compete with other available markets, e.g., the retail market or direct sales channels. In fact, farmers find public food procurement complex and not as financially rewarding as other market routes. Therefore, one cannot simply assume that public procurement is by default more attractive to organic farmers just because of its scale. It is important to invite small-scale food producers to identify best how they can be supported, including understanding how sustainable public procurement could complement other marketing channels used by farmers. 

Logistic issues and effective governance– Caterers do not seek how to break demands into smaller lots, making tender calls more accessible for small suppliers. Awareness-raising initiatives are crucial to support short agri-food chains’ members in accessing and winning public tenders. Innovation in education but also digital technology is necessary. There is a need for digital tools monitoring supply processes that would allow farmers and operators to adjust their production and join the PFP. Additional administrative work often requires more employees, which increases suppliers’ costs and discourages them from participating in PFP. 

Even though the list of barriers is long and complex, some good practices run by COACH Beacons are inspirational and give us all hope. The French Collaborative Food Supply Chain, organized by De la Terre à l’Assiette, is proud of its collaboration with the Central Kitchen in Nantes. Located in the Perray district, the Central Kitchen in Nantes provides meals for 88 primary and secondary schools in town (One Planet network, 2021). This success results from a long and close partnership with local authorities and policymakers, and the project is effective because farmers are invited to participate in all of its stages. Members of the De la Terre a l’Assiette not only can provide 17,000 high-quality meals per day, but they also minimize waste by encouraging cooks to serve whole chickens instead of just the most popular parts, and they are also influencing children and their parents into changing food habits.

Increasing interest in Dynamic Food procurement makes the public procurement market more accessible for small-scale food producers and operators. The Dynamic Purchasing Systems have been used widely during the COVID-19 pandemic to procure large quantities of Personal Protection Equipment and COVID testing kits. 

Price squeeze – Small-scale farmers and operators advocate for a shift in understanding the product’s price. On one side, it is unfair that small-scale farmers are forced to increase prices amid the rising cost of fuel or electricity while supermarkets can distort actual costs. There is a need for a deeper reflection on food prices, given the accessibility aspect of healthy food. COACH Beacons agree that public schools ask for ecological menus; however, they cannot afford it.

At the moment, the issue of price is probably the most intractable problem. Agroecological producers need higher, fair prices to cover the higher costs associated with their production system. On the other hand, public authorities are subject to tremendous financial pressure and cannot increase their spending on food. Usually, price constitutes the dominant criteria for awarding contracts, and thus organic farmers cannot succeed. The City of Copenhagen addresses this issue by sourcing 40% based on the price and 60% addressing other “value” criteria, e.g., environmental impact. While price remains the dominant criterion for awarding contracts, it will remain difficult for small agroecological producers to participate, and this is why the criterion is so important.

Sustainability – Even though there is a demand for sustainable local products, public tenders do not always include agricultural criteria, e.g., incentives for organic production. Adding sustainable criteria to the public procurement, as in the case of the City of Copenhagen that acknowledges the value of short agri-food chains and gives small-scale producers a chance to confront food monopolies. 

In the United Kingdom, Cultivate, a cooperative based in Mid Wales, runs a pilot project focused on supporting small-scale farmers and operators. They also advocate for the change of perception of food value, for calculating the CO2 and environmental impact of production as a factor promoting sustainable food systems. A good practice one can learn from Cultivate is the creation of hubs where fresh produce and meat are being transformed into ready-made meals that can be sold to hospitals and contribute to reducing food waste.

Food qualities – From the perspective of small suppliers, food has a social value. It can sustain a healthy environment, boost the circular economy of local marginalized groups that engage with community gardening, or provide educational and inspirational value to the youth. Only educational institutions with mixed private-public funding can choose high-quality food. 

Public procurement also has an important role to play in food justice. Procuring high sustainably produced food into public institutions is a key in which we can assure that the most vulnerable and food-insecure people in the community have access to high quality, nutritious food.

Eating and cooking habits – From COACH Beacons, we can learn that organic production has increased, but its consumption in the public sector has not. We see that small-scale farmers would be interested in supplying public institutions, but some cooks are unwilling to change their habits. It is therefore important that increased demand for organic food content goes along with an improved offer of awareness-raising on the value of organic food, both in terms of social benefits and health benefits (e.g., nutritious cooking skills of fresh and locally produced food). Another example comes from the French Beacon – De la Terre à l’Assiette – who emphasises the importance of using whole products (e.g., whole chicken rather than only chicken breasts) which also implies different ways of cooking.

Overall, Sustainable Public Procurement would require small supplier-friendly organizations and administrations and specific support for interested small-scale farmers applying the necessary changes.



Torres Vedras


Comedor Escolar


De la Terre à l’Assiette




The City of Copenhagen