City and regional governments across the globe have demonstrated that urban food procurement within public institutions can improve beneficiary experience whilst reshaping food systems to be healthier and more sustainable.
To learn more about urban public food procurement in low- and middle-income countries, we searched online literature and interviewed key stakeholders in various locations where Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) also operates its Keeping Food Markets Working programme.
These cities/counties – Kiambu and Machakos in Kenya, Rawalpindi and Peshawar in Pakistan – exemplify urbanisation challenges in African and Asian countries, which will undergo the most significant urban population growth through 2050. This article shares some takeaways from these case studies involving school feeding, Covid-19 food provision, hospital and social welfare institution food provision, and sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) bans.
Actionable data accelerates programme development and implementation
Kiambu County established government-run Early Childhood Development and Education (ECDE) centre feeding in 2013, demonstrating how data drove action. Kiambu County conducted a baseline child food security survey after Esther Ndirangu, County Executive Committee Member for Education, noticed children sleeping in ECDE centres, exhausted from malnutrition. Ndirangu and her team used this baseline data to target centres highest in need with a pilot programme serving uji (a Kenyan porridge). The pilot’s results motivated Kiambu County Assembly to make the programme county-wide in 2016.
Machakos County’s Covid-19 food provision for vulnerable households relies on communication between the County and municipal governments to identify people in need. In Punjab, the region containing Rawalpindi, the provincial Food Authority’s 2017 school sugary drink ban stemmed from Pakistani data on youth SSB consumption and rising diet-related disease rates.
Collecting local and regional data and sharing it at the right time with the right stakeholders is an important way to empower food system leaders, especially by putting subnational data into tools like the Food Systems Dashboard.
Multistakeholder governance enhances coordination and participation
Participatory multistakeholder governance is vital for food systems transformation; in other words, getting people involved from all parts of the food system and sectors, including government, business, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), and community members.
Some cases involved formal multistakeholder governance structures, like the Kiambu County Nutrition Action Plan (CNAP). The CNAP was developed through a multistakeholder forum that will continue coordinating food and nutrition activities. In addition, the Punjab Food Authority (PFA) formally convened businesses, NGOs, and government stakeholders to draft a law to promote redirecting food waste to food assistance organisations. The law was previously approved by PFA’s Board and is expected to be adopted in 2022.
Other case studies display multistakeholder governance through coordination and networking among government departments, NGOs, businesses, and community members. For example, the Punjab Social Welfare Department Kashana (Home for Destitute Girls) involves girls served by the homes in menu creation. As part of Covid-19 food provision to vulnerable households, the Machakos County Government exercised networking power with local businesses to donate food, masks, and other supplies for newly unemployed urban poor people.
Along these lines, there are exciting opportunities to drive cooperation through multistakeholder bodies, like local food policy councils or the multistakeholder forum in Surabaya, Indonesia. Such bodies align with the City Region Food System framework, which emphasises multistakeholder governance for resilient, well-coordinated, and participatory food systems.
Multistakeholder governance – nontraditional funding and public-private partnerships
Ehsaas Saylani and Food 4 Education’s (F4E) nontraditional government funding sources reflect the usefulness of multistakeholder thinking. These programmes do not receive funding from government departments typically in charge of food procurement like Education, Health, or Agriculture.
Food 4 Education (F4E) is a Kenyan NGO founded in Kiambu County. F4E has opened central kitchens at public schools where their staff can prepare and deliver meals to neighbouring schools. F4E identified an urban government construction department as a funding source because they are responsible for upgrading public infrastructure like school buildings. Despite the lack of mandatory Kenyan school feeding legislation, F4E found government funding that didn’t require a new law to authorise spending. In other words, stakeholder analysis that considers all parties involved in service delivery can help find nontraditional funding sources.
Resource limitations can sometimes be circumvented through public-private partnerships. For example,Ehsaas Saylani is a Pakistani public-private partnership between the national Ehsaas social safety net programme and Saylani Welfare International Trust (SWIT), an NGO. SWIT provides meals at Langars (soup kitchens) and truck kitchens at public transport hubs, outside hospitals, and in urban slums. An Ehsaas-SWIT memorandum of understanding formalises this partnership without government funding. It is recognised that SWIT has the best local knowledge to run its programme. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s government elevates Ehsaas Saylani’s legitimacy and reach by raising awareness and networking with decision-makers, such as local governments. Policymakers and funders can support innovative pilot programmes, whose success is often enabled by the collaboration between government, NGOs, and businesses.
Multistakeholder governance – champions
Champions can enable better urban food system coordination because of public and internal advocacy. In Kiambu County, Education Department leader Esther Ndirangu and two governors advocated for ECDE centre feeding. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Dr Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety, have made food security a central cause, helping accelerate Ehsaas Saylani’s implementation.
Nutrition can and should be prioritised
According to the World Health Organization, public food procurement programmes should create menus that consider the nutritional needs of the people being served. This was common across programmes we studied, although during Covid-19, many programmes focused on non-perishable staple distribution.
Ehsaas Saylani requires meals to follow Pakistan’s national dietary guidelines. For Kiambu County’s ECDE feeding programme, Kiambu County Department of Health advised procuring more nutrient-dense uji formulated with soy, omena (small Kenyan fish) and later, added iron and vitamins. Food 4 Education’s founder, Wawira Njiru, is a nutritionist who designed a menu focusing on dietary diversity and protein content. Nutritionists in Kiambu County hospitals perform patient nutrition assessments to tailor patient meals (e.g. lower sugar meals for people with diabetes).
Public procurement tender processes, in which governments specify what they would like to buy from a food service provider, are an opportunity to articulate and mandate food specifications that promote nutrition, cultural adequacy, and other values like labour rights and environmental sustainability. Public tenders are employed in Kenyan County public institutions, including hospitals and schools. Similarly, the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governments use public tendering for their Social Welfare Departments’ institutions to specify food needs.
Some programmes provided diversified nutrient-dense foods even without large amounts of refrigeration space. For Ehsaas Saylani and Pakistan Social Welfare Department programmes, staff purchase fresh ingredients frequently at urban markets. Food 4 Education receives ingredient deliveries two or three times per week. For Kiambu’s ECDE feeding, uji porridge mix does not require refrigeration.
In 2017, Punjab Food Authority banned sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) sales at all educational institutions, from primary schools to university. This inspired Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinceto pass similar bans. This shows how local policies, including those that restrict unhealthy foods, can be replicated across other local governments.
Sustainable financing is needed
Public food procurement is vulnerable to budget constraints, meaning we need further political commitments to protect funding for adequate food quantity, quality, and nutrition. For example, Kiambu County’s ECDE feeding programme’s budgetary constraints caused a service interruption in 2018 and lower meal frequency when the programme returned.
Our case studies also show ways to overcome budgetary constraints. For example, Kiambu County Nutrition Action Plan receives matching funds from Nutrition International, which intends to incentivise Kiambu County to put in ongoing funds. Food 4 Education bulk-purchases ingredients through food aggregator Twiga Foodsto reduce operational costs. Though Pakistani programmes like Ehsaas Saylani benefit from provincial wheat subsidies, it remains to be seen whether similar policy tools could incentivise nutritious food production.
Moving towards sustainability
In our case studies, procurement criteria focused on food quantity, nutrition, food safety and quality, and community development. In Kenya, schools and hospitals focus on hiring food service providers from vulnerable groups because of the Access to Government Procurement Opportunities programme (AGPO).AGPO follows a 2013 Presidential Directive that 30% of government procurement contracts be set aside for youth, women, and people with disabilities.
Though local procurement may have a positive climate impact, our case studies didn’t have explicit environmental sustainability procurement criteria. Moreover, “value for money” procurement, common to many public procurement systems worldwide, can force public institutions to choose cheaper options without considering the true costs of food. Therefore, we need to continue exploring how to structure public food procurement to integrate even more nutritious, diversified, and safe foods while advancing sustainability in all its forms.
We have much more to learn from these stories, showing the importance of actionable data, public-private partnerships, and multistakeholder governance. They also show how inconsistent funding threatens these programmes. Well-supported urban public food procurement can help drive progress on Sustainable Development Goals relating to food and nutrition security, health, gender equity through serving female beneficiaries and hiring women, environmental sustainability, community development, and sustainable consumption and production.
Julian Xie, MD, MPP is the Senior Healthcare Innovation and Evaluation Manager at Benefits Data Trust, a US organisation focused on data-driven outreach to help individuals access food assistance resources, and consultant for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. This blog post summarises findings from a paper published in Sustainability in March 2022 entitled “Urban Public Food Procurement in Kiambu and Machakos Counties as a Driver of Food and Nutrition Security and Sustainability: A Literature Review and Case Studies”. The paper is part of the journal’s Special Issue on Public Food Procurement: A Transformative Instrument for Sustainable Food Systems)