The public sector: an overlooked market where produce demand is ‘on the up’
Foodservice operators are seeing a huge focus on healthy eating and educating children plus staff

The public sector: an overlooked market where produce demand is ‘on the up’

Steven Maxwell
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Fresh Direct schools foodservice produce education session
Fresh Direct stages development days in schools and runs education sessions on produce, its supply chain and procurement

The continuing focus on healthy eating is boosting business for companies that supply fresh fruits and vegetables to the public sector, with some believing more opportunities for growth could yet be realised. Produce Business UK investigates the potential for suppliers and distributors

When it comes to fresh produce, the demands of supermarkets almost inevitably dictate debate, but grocery retailers are far from the only market out there. Away from the limelight, the public sector is a steady, and some say increasing, consumer of fresh fruits and vegetables, driven by growing awareness of the importance of fresh produce in health and childhood development.

Key participants in sector, including some of the biggest names in fresh produce, claim that far from being a closed market, opportunities abound, provided you understand the rules and have reliable partners.

In the case of Fresh Direct, the company supplies fruits, vegetables and dairy to the public sector, focusing on providing high quality and a reliable service. However, far from being satisfied, the company’s Sarah Jane Thompson reveals that Fresh Direct is looking to potentially increase the volumes it delivers to schools and hospitals.

“We excel in schools and universities, but more recently we have been doing quite well in health care,” she says. “We offer really good quality fresh produce and dairy, and a competitive service.”

Part of this renewed interest in the sector has, says Thompson, come from a noticeable uplift in fruit and vegetable orders from the public sector, which she believes is a result of a greater awareness of the importance of healthy eating. “We’ve seen a huge focus on eating healthily and educating children, and councils are also educating their staff about the importance of eating five-a-day,” she says.

Fresh Direct has also been contributing to this trend, by staging development days in schools and running education sessions that have covered everything from “weird and wacky” fruits through to looking at the supply chain and how products are sourced.

Of course, pupils are not the only focus and Thompson says Fresh Direct has also worked to educate school staff on the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. “We’re being called upon more frequently to support schools and colleges, and their catering partners – fresh is definitely on the up,” she says.

What’s in favour

In terms of products, Thompson says Fresh Direct typically supplies apples, pears, bananas and table grapes, as well as potatoes and carrots. “It’s not groundbreaking, but it is the core of the basket, although we have seen some wild and wacky requests,” she says.

Salad volumes have also experienced an increase in recent years, with a move away from simply offering iceberg to a range of different leaves and new varieties of tomato.

Fresh Direct, according to Thompson, is large enough that it is able to supply schools and hospitals at a local level, but the firm is seeking to broaden the basket of products that it supplies to the sector by educating customers that different options “do not have to cost the earth”.

“Putting a different leaf in your salad can give it such a different taste,” she says. “We have a team of development chefs and well-trained people on the ground that are offering different options – we are innovating all the time.”

“We want to grow this category and push the boundaries, such as introducing more seasonal produce where we can,” she adds.

Practice is required

Total Produce, meanwhile, principally supplies fresh fruits and vegetables to the National Health Service (NHS) and schools, both directly and via Local Education Authority caterers, as well as being an active participant in the School Fruit & Vegetable Scheme.

Having worked with the public sector for decades, Total Produce’s foodservice operations director, Richard Clements, says this area of the group’s business is now worth “several million pounds a year”, with schools being the principal focus.

“A lot of it is education-based catering, so it’s important to think about the kinds of products we supply to schools – it has to be small-sized fruits, small-sized jacket potatoes because they are small people,” he says. “A lot of it is whole head fruit like apples and bananas. Salads and jacket potatoes are also a big part.”

The introduction of free, stage one school meals has made a difference in helping increase demand, adds Clements. Total Produce and fellow public sector suppliers have also benefited, he says, from a move by hospital trusts towards handling their own fruit and vegetable sourcing.

In other areas, namely the Ministry of Defence and the Prisons Service, the trend has been moving in the direction of more centralisation, with rival foodservice company Bidvest (formerly 3663) now in charge of the exclusive contract for the latter sector.

Given that Total Produce was in charge of the prisons contract for many years, you might expect a certain amount of bitterness, but Clements says there is plenty of opportunity for all to supply the public sector.

“We lost out on that one, but if a contract caterer takes over the catering for a group of schools, then we will benefit from that,” he says.

However, Clements stresses that working with the public sector “requires practice”, emphasising that fresh produce companies wishing to get involved need to become familiar with the different ways sourcing for schools and hospitals functions.

“The public sector expects a certain level of due diligence, that you will hold technical accreditation and that you can show traceability of supply,” he explains.

“The tendering process can be complex and requires practice – you need to understand the area you are targeting and how it sources its supply.

“It’s inconsistent – you can’t lump together all government contracts because they are as different as commercial contracts.”

Although facilities managers have to follow pre-determined guidelines, Clements emphasises that tendering can take different forms and follow “many and varied routes”.

“You need to be able to engage with the caterer or the local authority in the region you want to work in,” he adds.

More opportunity

As honorary national chair of the Hospital Caterers Association – a role he combines with that of facilities manager for Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton, Somerset – Phil Shelley is well placed to speak about the role that fresh produce can, and could, play in the NHS.

“The experience we’ve had across the country is that there’s more opportunity around than there ever has been to supply hospitals,” he says.

Although quality and local sourcing are important considerations, Shelley emphasises that the market is very much price driven. “If you get a consistency of quality, price is going to be the main concern,” he says.

“There’s a pretty good market out there and plenty of competition – plenty of people want to supply the NHS.”

The advantage of working with the NHS, says Shelley, is that hospital trusts tend to order the same products time and again, meaning suppliers have a definite idea of what is required. With most patients staying an average of three to four days in hospital, Shelley says the menu cycle can be relatively short, with an emphasis on salads (“mainly iceberg”), tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

Simple meal options, such as soups, are often prepared on site, using prepared vegetables, especially diced cabbage, swede and potatoes.

Fruit by contrast is typically purchased with more practical considerations in mind, so apples, pears and bananas are the principal focus as they are easier for patients to handle.

“Most fruit is given to patients whole and they have got to deal with it themselves, so it has to be something they can peel without too much trouble,” he explains.

However, Shelley says fruit consumption has increased over the last two years as a result of the inclusion of fresh fruits in snack trolleys, alongside soft drinks and processed foods.

Despite this, Shelley believes more could be done to increase the presence of fresh produce on hospital menus. “We have encouraged our members to do so and I think it’s something we need to continue to push,” he adds.

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