One of the policies that was suggested by the Conservative Party during the election campaign was an “Honest Food Campaign” which, amongst other things, would ensure that local councils and NHS organisations would have to publish details of the food they buy so that people can see if meals served in schools and hospitals are locally sourced.
As regular readers of this blog will know, this is something I have been banging on about for years and I am glad that we finally have a government that is going to do more about getting the public sector to purchase food locally.
Of course, I fully expect that there will be those who will suggest that purchasing from local firms will be more expensive and may lead to problems with sourcing, although evidence from one NHS Trust in England suggests that hundreds of millions of pounds could actually be saved as a result of a more locally-based buying strategy.
Last week, it emerged that by cooking hospital food using fresh local ingredients rather than sourcing from abroad, catering managers at Nottingham City Hospital and the Queen's Medical Centre have already saved more than £6 million per year.
By working with a network of local farmers, their new “farm-to-plate” scheme has generated a million pounds for the local economy, a figure that is likely to double over the next year, and has saved a number of small businesses from closure.
In addition, their sensible approach to purchasing also has a direct environmental impact, especially as the food served within the hospitals travels a shorter distance to get there than the majority of patients.
As a result, it is estimated that the hospital is saving over 150,000 food miles per year which is not surprising given that a lamb chop produced in New Zealand travels around 10,500 miles to get here.
Therefore, encouraging people to buy local produce not only supports local businesses and communities but can help to save the environment by cutting down, drastically, on the amount of miles the food has to travel to get to its point of sale.
So not only is the taxpayer getting value for money and hospitals can implement cost savings without hitting frontline services, but the local agricultural sector is gaining direct benefit as well.
Clearly, there could be benefits across North Wales if we adopted a similar scheme for all public bodies based in the region.
For example, under the last government, the economic contribution of agriculture across North Wales declined by 67 per cent as compared to an overall UK decline of 7 per cent. In 1997, agriculture was producing £175 million for the North Wales economy but this had dropped to £57 million a decade later.
If local farmers are being starved of their market by the purchasing decisions of large buyers such as the public sector, then there is little wonder that their contribution to the economy has fallen so dramatically.
But why stop at food purchasing only?
Few would disagree that the public sector in Wales should, where possible, look to buy locally first, especially if it can save money in the long run.
At the very least, I would expect that every public body in Wales, including the Welsh Assembly Government, should be happy to publish full details of the amounts they spend on buying from local companies every year.
With an estimated £5 billion spent annually by the Welsh taxpayer, we need to ensure that not only is this money spent on supporting local jobs and businesses but that, through intelligent purchasing, we can also reduce public expenditure at a time of economic hardship.