Who has never been to a canteen in a school, a hospital or at a public museum? Public catering is an essential service provided by governments for their citizens. Its procurement is a relevant part of public spending. At the same time, the food system as a whole is facing several challenges. Public procurement and catering services can be part of the change towards sustainability.

Public procurement and catering services (PPCS)

Public catering takes place in many locations from schools and universities, hospitals and elderly homes, to the canteens of ministries, military facilities and, yes, also prisons. It is such part of almost every citizen life, guaranteeing for at least one hot meal per day at an affordable price. With an EU-average of 85 million catered meals per day in the EU (over 50% through contract catering), sustainable food procurement in public institutions provides an enormous potential to push market demand for greener products (ICLEI 2019).

The underlying system of public procurement and catering services (PPCS) is rather complex and varies from country to country and institution to institution. The notion of PPCS contains, on the one hand, the buying of food and catering services by a public servant and, on the other hand, the preparation and serving of public meals by a catering service.

Visual model of PPCS

The following model is to visualise the complexity of the PPCS system, in order to understand where sustainable innovations take place. It looks different depending on the location and institution. In the model, regulations, strategies and the local market situation form the basis of the system. Public procurement can either relate to the catering service or it occurs in-house, then procurement is about the foodstuff and equipment, etc. The operational context of the catering service itself ranges from manufacturing models (like “cook and serve”), the meals and menus provided, the procurement criteria used and the communication taking place between catering service, customers and procurers, etc. In these contexts, innovations implemented, lead to enhanced sustainability. For example when, in the context of waste surplus, meals are donated to food banks in order to reduce food waste. Read more about the model, the findings and sustainability possibilities from the StratKIT partners in the Outputs and materials section!

Treemodel with empty leafes

Sustainability challenges of the food system and the PPCS

So, what is wrong with the food system, and why PPCS need a change? For one, there is an evolving demand from the customers for more organic, more healthy and more ethical food. This demand is triggered by the sustainability challenges of the current food system.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems names the following Environmental, Health, and Socio Economic impacts of the European food system in their report (IPES FOOD, 2019). source


  • Agricultural land use increases soil erosion,
  • Pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers kick off a chain reaction by causing biodiversity loss (amongst other things), which leads to less pollination (amongst other things), which leads to reduced yields (amongst other things),
  • Agriculture and the food chain produce 30% of the greenhouse gases globally,
  • One third of the food production and more than half of the fish and seafood production is located outside of the EU, with severe consequences in terms of deforestation, overfishing, rights abuses, etc.,
  • Food waste amounts for about 20% of the food produced.


  • The rise of unhealthier diets has led to a higher risk for disease and mortality in Europe.
  • Current food production leads to air and water pollution as well as to antimicrobial resistance with severe consequences for human health.
  • Also in the EU, not everyone can afford quality food every second day.


  • Consolidations in some sectors along the food chain ( i. e.: seed producers, farm machinery providers, food retailers) lead to power imbalances, enabling large players to drive down prices and working conditions along the supply chain. This affects the wages and the working conditions of the people employed in agriculture, processing plants or logistics.
  • It also threatens farm viability, as the costs for necessary faming inputs (like seeds, fertilizer, machinery etc.) rise, while the prices paid to the farmers for their products decline.

Thus, it makes a big difference, which food is procured and catered in public facilities. PPCS can perform as the role model for society, creating a market that enables larger changes in the food system.

Policies and regulations for transition

Which is the way to sustainability in the food system and for PPCS? While most public authorities, public food procurers and catering service providers focus on cost reduction, many also want to make a change towards increased sustainability. Several policies, regulations and strategies, from the European to the regional level support this endeavour and approach sustainability of public catering from multiple sides.

Sustainable Development

Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development source several are of interest for PPCS. Those include "Zero Hunger" (no. 2), "Sustainable Consumption and Production" (no. 12) and "Life below Sea" (no. 14). “Promoting sustainable public procurement according to national priorities” is an explicit target under SDG no. 12.7.

In the Baltic Sea Region (BSR), the sustainability strategy of the Federal State of Brandenburg includes a more sustainable public procurement as a governmental aim.

Climate Change

By increasing the demand for climate-neutral goods and services, green public procurement can be one tool for public authorities in their endeavour to meet the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement source of 2015.

In 2019, the EAT - Lancet Commission developed the so-called “planetary health diet”, a diet that is healthy for the people and the planet (Willett et al. 2019) source. It combines the impacts of food on human health with the impacts of agriculture on several SDGs and the climate. The diet is more plant-based and can be adapted to the local conditions and preferences.

In the BSR, the Finnish national strategy on energy and climate source includes sustainable public procurement as a support to reach such goals.

Agriculture and Food policy

The European Green Deal, the new EU policy to make Europe the world's first climate neutral continent by 2050, embeds the “Farm to Fork Strategysource. The goals are to:

  • Make sure Europeans get healthy, affordable and sustainable food
  • Tackle climate change
  • Protect the environment and preserve biodiversity
  • Fair economic returns in the food chain
  • Increase organic farming

With regard to PPCS it is planned to set minimum mandatory criteria for sustainable food procurement. The aim is to increase the availability and affordability of sustainable food and to promote change towards more healthy and sustainable diets. Special attention is put on schools, including education on healthy nutrition, sustainable food production and food waste reduction.

Already for some years, food policy gained more attention. Since 2015, more than 200 cities around the globe joined the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact source. These cities are committed to create a more inclusive, resilient, diverse and safe food system, providing healthy, affordable food for all, follow human-rights, reduce waste, conserve biodiversity and tackle climate change.

In the BSR, in Germany (e.g. Berlin, Land Brandenburg) food strategies are developed, which also frame the regional goals and actions for a more sustainable food system.

Circular Economy

The new EU Circular Economy Action Plan source sets out measures to "close the loop" in the European economy and tackle all phases in the lifecycle of products: from production and consumption to waste management. The plan recognises public procurement as a key driver in the transition towards the circular economy.

Thus, the European Commission plans for

  • minimum mandatory green public procurement criteria and targets in sectoral legislation
  • capacity building with guidance, training and dissemination of good practices, and the “Public Buyers for Climate and Environment” initiative

The Action plan addresses key product value chains of which “packaging” and “food, water nutrients” are important for public catering.

Other EU directives on waste, packaging and Single Use Plastic also push the shift to circular economy.

Health and nutrition

The European Commission launched a strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues (EC 2007) source highlighting that health and nutritional aspects are often an integrated part of other policy areas, like agriculture, education, regional policies. Examples are school fruit schemes or food labelling. In 2016 the Food 2030 research and innovation policy framework was launched. It aims to future-proof European food and nutrition systems, so they become more sustainable, resilient, responsible and competitive.

Public procurement policies

A common ground

The EU public procurement directive (2014) source provides the overall legal framework for all purchasing done by local and regional authorities within the EU. It was adopted into national laws in all EU countries. It enables the integration of “green” criteria to decide for an offer, not only lowest price.

The directive is supplemented by the EU Public Procurement Strategy (2017) source and a set of green public procurement (GPP) criteria for different goods and services, one of which is the EU GPP criteria for food, catering services and vending machines (2019).source The GPP criteria cover aspects from organic food, animal welfare, to (food) waste reduction, energy consumption to fair trade and education of the kitchen staff.

National and regional policies

The EU has also encouraged the Member States to adopt National Action Plans (NAPs) for greening their public procurement, e.g. Poland adopted such a National Action Plan on Sustainable Public Procurement, focussing on information of the public procurers and the implementation of GPP is voluntary.

Although not part of the EU, Russia also has a public procurement law that provides a possibility for GPP implementation. Whereas in Finland, the Government Decision-in-Principle on the promotion of Sustainable environmental and energy solutions (Cleantech solutions) in public procurement (2013) source is binding for central government bodies.

Other city regions developed training programs to foster change.

The Copenhagen House of Food source successfully approached and changed the public kitchens in Copenhagen to provide more than 90% organic meals without increasing the price per meal.