Organic foods in school canteens: Europe divided on whether to make them compulsory

How can we support organic agriculture while helping citizens have a healthy and balanced diet? One of the measures discussed is to encourage the purchase and use of organic products in public canteens. This would have a significant economic impact for companies involved in pesticide-free agriculture and would also be a way to reach certain types of consumers who need quality food most, such as children and hospital patients. Various cities and institutions in Europe and beyond have adopted policies in this direction, encouraging the (full or partial) adoption of organic products. We need to understand whether making this measure mandatory is the best way to achieve the European Union’s self-imposed targets of 25% organic production by 2030.

Almost a fifth of Italian fields are organic

The organic trend is now vital for agriculture in Italy. As the latest Nomisma report on the subject reveals, 19 percent of the peninsula’s fields are cultivated organically, with the participation of more than 82 thousand agricultural producers; This number is the highest among EU countries. In 2023, a record 2.3 million hectares (+7.5%) was reached, without the use of synthetic pesticides and based on a less competitive production model than the traditional one. Between the pandemic, galloping inflation and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted the global agri-food structure, there was a contraction in organic purchases, which were considered too expensive in many parts of Europe. Not all regions reacted in the same way. In some regions where these productions are now well-established and there is strong interaction with public institutions, organic expenditures have remained at a good level or even increased. Thanks to greater independence from imports and chemical fertilizers, organic prices were no different from conventional food prices. At the European Organic Award, producers, politicians and officials discussed the measures that should be taken to increase this production and at the same time make it more accessible to the consumer masses. Despite numerous nominations, this year Italy did not win any of the available awards, but the finalists included Sicilian Roberto Giadone as best producer, Biodistretto della Via Amerina e delle Forre di Civita Castellana and the NaturaSì chain in the category dedicated to bioregions. Stores in Conegliano in Veneto as the best retailers.

Transformation of canteens

One of the most discussed actions is the possibility of imposing a European obligation on national and local institutions to convert public canteens in schools, hospitals and public administrations such as municipalities or ministries into organic canteens. “There is enormous potential to be mobilized through the public market, which could generate significant turnover for organic products, but we need to talk to all market players to move in the right direction,” said Austrian parliamentarian Simone Schmiedtbauer of the European People’s Party (EPP). ). This year, Austria won many awards for best city, best restaurant and best organic region. The country invests heavily in the sector by supporting small and medium-sized companies that have managed to stand out in the challenging world of agriculture-food thanks to cooperative and community-based investments.

different prices

However, not all of Europe has the same level of awareness among consumers and producers. “Can we afford organic prices? When you look at the prices in the markets, organic products are generally more expensive and we need to explain what it means to spend more on these products,” said the Secretary General of Agriculture. Spanish government Fernando Miranda Sotillos reminded how difficult it is for large companies in his country whose products are mainly export-oriented to switch to organic products. “We have to persuade first. I don’t think coercion is a good approach,” Sotillos said.

Avoid decisions made from above

Danish Kirstine Bille of the European Committee of the Regions also had doubts about the advisability of introducing an obligation at the European level. “In my country there is an ongoing debate on this issue: is there a need for European legislation or local legislation? There have been demonstrations in Denmark where people want to decide for themselves and say ‘there is no European legislation anymore’. If the decision is made from above, citizens will be on behalf of the European Green Party “There is the impression that they have no knowledge or power in this matter,” Bille emphasized. Choosing a strategy in this area does not only concern agri-food choices, but also brings a “democratic” approach to the decisions that most closely concern citizenship.

political consistency

The hypothesis was rejected by Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski: “There are local authorities at school level that can push in this direction, but I do not think that European regulations are necessary to mandate the use of organic products”, commented the commissioner. Peter Schmidt, Head of the Agriculture, Rural Development, Environment expert section of the European Economic and Social Committee, further criticizes the EU and the European Commission, making the issue a matter of “political consistency”. “If we set a target (25% organic production by 2030), ed), you must have a political obligation. Processing companies need to integrate some of the organic production into the agri-food sector,” said Schmidt, a former unionist in the industry and former cheese producer.

Jan Plagge, president of Ifoam Organics, the umbrella organization representing organic food in Europe, took a less strict stance. “Traditional canteens distribute foods that are popular but not healthy, but are still enjoyed by children,” Plagge recalled. “Citizens need to take ownership of school canteens, because parents need to be convinced about these choices,” emphasized the representative of organic producers, for whom the commitment of not only agricultural producers but also others is a priority. In chains such as food companies.

collective work

To clarify how to pursue specific goals in a practical way, Armindo Jacinto, mayor of Idanha-a-Nova, the Portuguese municipality that won the best bioregion award, said: “Nutritionists and food experts helped us determine what to recommend in this regard. “We use our canteens not only for organic products but also for healthy eating in general,” the mayor reminded. “We should not force, but rather encourage, the use of best practices. The EU and the European Commission should value virtuous actors, such as restaurants and hotels that are going organic, because they are excellent examples of virtuous measures that have already been adopted at the local level.” Jacinto concluded.

Source: Today IT