Stephen Jardine: We can’t chicken out of sourcing food locally

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Councils importing school food from Thailand is not sustainable writes Stephen Jardine

Thai chicken curry is one of my favourite things to eat. To make it you need lemon grass, ginger and coconut milk. What you don’t need is Thai chicken. While the other ingredients have to originate from south east Asia, the protein part is in plentiful supply here. It would make no sense to bring chicken 6,000 miles from the other side of the world. So why are some Scottish schools doing just that?

This week a BBC investigation showed Scottish councils are spending millions of pounds importing food which could be sourced here. More than £1m is spent on chicken from Thailand but £125,000 goes on Belgian carrots and £12,000 on Serbian raspberries.

The reasons behind this are mired in the labyrinth of procurement policy and European trade laws but that is no excuse. Back in 2009 the Scottish Government published it’s “Recipe for Success” document outlining a national food and drink policy. It called for public sector bodies to adopt “sustainable food procurement as a corporate objective”.

This week’s revelations fly in the face of that. Part of the commitment to local sourcing is to support Scottish producers but it is also about our global responsibility in terms of sustainability. The local authorities importing chicken from Thailand might as well take their glossy environmental policies and place them in the recycling bin. They will have to plant an awful lot of trees to compensate for the carbon footprint created by flying poultry half way round the world.

Scottish farmers, already worried about the impact of Brexit, must be particularly baffled by all this. For rural schools to be importing mash from France when potatoes are growing fields just down the road sounds like Oewellian bureaucracy gone mad and another slap in the face for those who work all weathers all year to keep us fed.

Perhaps the worst thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. While North Lanarkshire Council is spending £200,000 a year importing chicken from Thailand, East Ayrshire bought none at all.

For years that local authority has been leading the way in terms of taking a sensible, healthy and sustainable approach to school food. The majority of produce used is sourced locally and only Red Tractor farm assured chicken is served in the area’s schools.

To make that work requires a creative approach to menus. Chicken from Thailand has crept on to school menus because it is cheaper and the supply from Scotland can’t always meet demand.

If we cannot afford to have Scottish chicken on the menu several times a week perhaps we shouldn’t put it on the menu several times a week. Instead we could use fish, minced beef, pasta or more vegetables to ensure we meet the required price point while respecting dietary guidelines. And if the guidelines require multiple chicken meals, perhaps we have to look at them again to reflect the real world? After all, our children are some of the most overweight in Europe due to sugar in food and drink, not because of haddock or lean minced beef.

Scottish farmers and food producers are not automatically owed a living but they deserve to be allowed to compete on a level playing field based on quality, environmental credentials and the wages they pay staff. Procurement needs to reflect that.

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing says: “I think we are doing quite well but we could do better.” He’s right. In the seven years since Recipe for Success was launched, the amount of public sector food in Scotland sourced locally is up 41 per cent.

However #ChickenGate should be a wake-up call. As long as we are still putting chicken from Thailand on school menus, when it comes to procurement, we still have a long way to go.