Purchasing Power: 10 Lessons on sustainable institutional food (Sustainable Food Systems)

Most schools, hospitals, long-term care facilities and campuses simply view food as an amenity to be sourced at the lowest cost. We see an opportunity to shift
institutional food purchasing from this “best value” narrative defined by lowest cost, to one that considers the full health, economic and sustainability impacts of local,
sustainable food served to students, patients, staff and families — in addition to simply tasting delicious. Shifting institutions’ significant food spend towards ingredients that are locally and sustainably produced will have widereaching impacts both inside and outside of facilities. And it can help institutions to fully achieve their missions. This food systems work is embedded in the emerging concepts of anchor institutions, whereby hospitals, universities and schools can strategically leverage their purchasing power to generate greater health and wealth in communities.

And in recent years, some hospitals, schools and campuses across Canada have shown it can be done. To provide just two examples, Diversity Food Services at
the University of Winnipeg is sourcing farm direct, cooking from scratch with the expertise of young immigrant cooks. And FoodShare’s Good Food Cafés operating
in Toronto high schools emphasize fresh, healthy, local food, creating good jobs and demonstrating that kids will eat healthy foods when it’s cooked from scratch
and tastes great. These changes have often been led by visionary champions, in some cases aided by supportive public policies or programs. But the presence of isolated
success stories has not proven sufficient to tip a critical mass of organizations towards sustainability.

In 2014 Food Secure Canada and the McConnell Foundation embarked on a learning journey to explore how food service operations and procurement practices can be changed to help shift systems towards greater sustainability, and how we can scale this work. We learned through eight Institutional Food Fund projects
whose work was funded by Foundation grants totalling $450,000 over two years (2014-2016), while engaging with many stakeholders throughout the supply chain and food system.

The Institutional Food Fund projects worked with a range of institutions―healthcare facilities, schools, campuses and an event centre―to increase the sourcing of more
local, sustainable food using different strategies and approaches. Project leaders came together as a Learning Group with two in-person meetings, as well as regular
videoconferences and online exchanges (hereafter the Institutional Food Fund projects as a whole will be referred to as the “Learning Group”).

Priorities for evaluating change varied widely, but all Learning Group projects were asked to track changes in institutional food spend. Tracking in and of itself proved
difficult, and several projects also changed directions or took detours as a result of significant institutional restructuring.

Over two years, the Learning Group projects collectively sourced $3.1 million of local and/or sustainable foods of which $760,000 was sustainable defined using a
range of criteria (discussed in more detail in Lesson 7). Project strategies in some cases focused on one product category, while others worked on shifting purchasing of
meat, seafood, dairy, eggs, produce and grocery items. Almost all projects were able to increase institutional spend on local, sustainable ingredients, with most achieving a 20 – 25% range of total spend on local and/or sustainable. Le Réseau des cafétérias communautaires, a unique food service model in the Learning Group, directed 60% of food spend towards local suppliers.

This report presents ten lessons learned about changing institutional food (purchasing and food services) and identifies barriers as well as levers for change in the larger systems of which these institutions are a part. We finish with some thoughts and recommendations for scaling this work. We hope the report will inform and inspire institutions, organizations, funders and policy makers to leverage local, sustainable food purchasing by institutions and bring about significant social, economic, health and environmental impacts.

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