When local councils and health boards are buying food for schools, hospitals and care homes, they need to be confident that they’re buying from suppliers who will deliver safe food, on time, and in sufficient quantities to feed everyone every day. That means these public-sector organisations usually buy from wholesalers, who look after quality assurance and traceability, and are experts in transporting food from warehouses to kitchens all over the country. The wholesalers – companies like Castell Howell and Holdsworth – get a contract to supply particular ingredients to the council or health board, and they shop around on global food markets to get the best price and take advantage of different seasons around the world. It is a neat system that for many years has made a wide variety of food available all year round and at low prices. But it also has problems.

Two of the biggest problems are that this system favours big players who can sell lots of produce at once, and it encourages us to ship food all round the world, often importing from countries that have serious social and environmental problems. For example, the wet, rainy UK actually imports huge amounts of water from drought-stricken countries in southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa in our fresh fruit and vegetables. Moreover, many of the workers who produce those crops are treated in ways that would be illegal in this country. It just isn’t fair, or logical. We’re also beginning to realise that global markets are not as reliable as we once thought: remember those empty supermarket shelves in January/February 2023?

Welsh Veg for Schools is a partnership project trying to address some of these problems. The partners are:

  • Food Sense Wales, in the driving seat
  • Castell Howell, a Welsh wholesaler
  • Three small Welsh vegetable growers: Langtons Farm, Blas Gwent, and Bonvilston Edge
  • The local authorities and food partnerships in Monmouthshire, Cardiff, and Carmarthenshire

Together, we are doing a piece of ‘action research’ (a posh way of saying ‘learning by doing’) to work out how to get delicious, nutritious Welsh vegetables from small growers onto Welsh school plates. Wales produces only a tiny fraction of the fruit and vegetables it eats. Although we will never see bananas growing in Barry, or mangoes in Merthyr, we could grow a lot more here in Wales than we do. But if people are going to grow, then they need to be able to sell their produce, and that is where the schools, hospitals and care homes come in. If we can make it simpler for small independent growers to sell to wholesalers and the public sector, we will encourage the Welsh economy, feed our children, grandparents and hospital patients fresh seasonal food that has been produced ethically, and reduce our reliance on long supply chains and imported food. You can grow courgettes in Crickhowell and beetroot in Bonvilston!

The project has been running throughout 2023, building on work done in Cardiff in 2022. We have all learnt so much from talking to each other and sharing our various challenges. It hasn’t been easy, but the supply chain has worked. In Cardiff and Carmarthenshire children had Welsh vegetables to eat throughout the Food & Fun clubs in the summer holidays, and in Monmouthshire we are serving the vegetables in school lunches at ten primary schools through the autumn term. The project has included trips out to the farms for the children, and classroom activities to help everyone learn about vegetables and feel comfortable trying new things. The full report and next steps will be published in the spring of 2024.