Photo credits: Yan Krukau
Four years ago nine city-regions took on the challenge to establish FoodSHIFT Accelerator Labs. In this final blogpost, the Avignon Lab reflects on the journey and development made during the whole project, through an interview with Elsa Chiffard-Carricaburu, the Avignon Lab coordinator. Explore the Transition Toolkit to learn more the other Lab’s experiences, Avignon’s city’s reports.
Avignon Lab Focus
- Avignon’s focus on food system transition was on public procurement and specifically increasing the quality and locality of meals served in school canteens
- They chose this focus food that doesn’t belong to official topic in the French school system program while children are missing the skills and knowledge about healthy and sustainable food. Besides, food at school in France is a daily shared moment for children which is especially important when living in a society that is individualistic as we are today
- Some challenges were related to changing long-standing processes and mindsets around how the central kitchen would source and process food. Especially changing from plastic containers to steel containers required some convincing and creative problem-solving.
- However, a lot of challenges could be overcome by human connections and finding solutions first before engaging with the political implementation of them
- The city achieved a lot! Among other things, awareness of the importance of sustainable food was elevated in kitchen staff and inspired other French cities to consider similar initiatives. A subsequent EU project will build on the FoodSHIFT outcomes to further strengthen the importance of bringing topics of food closer to the children in Avignon
- For a city wanting to embark on a similar journey, the recommendation is to remain curious and very open-minded to the specific opportunities of your local food-system. Trying with local stakeholders to find some solutions to work together, in a public/private partnership that can be adapted to fit the preservation of children’s health.
Interview to the Avignon Lab Coordinator
What was your city’s specific focus in your food system transition and how did you initially start working with this focus area in your city?
Our focus was to improve the quality of meals we are offering to all children that are eating daily in our canteens, and to create a food ecosystem around the central kitchen. That also means to be aware that we have a power on our small local level, to build partnerships that are important, and that we can sustain food activities that need us. Because we are a medium-big central kitchen. We have the possibility to sustain some food activities. You have both this aspect to improve the quality of meals, and to improve sustainability around the meals. Because there are not only the plates and the meals that we are acting upon but for example also the packaging. And lastly also the willingness to build an ecosystem that is made of partnerships.
What were some obstacles or challenges you faced in your food system transition and how did you overcome them (or are planning on overcoming them)?
Usually in the central kitchens, you always have these plastic containers. Because the central kitchens were created in the 90s – a plastic era. So, we all have these plastic containers. And now we have decided to have a ban on plastic, to constrain the use of plastic. Because it’s not possible on a sustainable level or on the health level. It was a big, big challenge, because it has an impact on our entire procurement process, on preparation, conditioning, delivery. It has a big, big, big impact on all our partners and suppliers. It was a really, really big challenge. Maybe the biggest one we had to face.
But when we finally decided to make this big change to steel containers, we realised that one of the key points was really the washing step. And we were unable to wash all our containers daily ourselves. Because we have to wash them every day. It was impossible, because we don’t have the space and we don’t have enough human resources to wash. It’s impossible, it’s not on our level. We made a proposition to collaborate with a local washing company. He was just starting to develop his activity in Avignon which was an additional challenge to select someone who was just beginning his activities. But that was more accepted on the political level even though, in the end, the price you pay to the company would be the same as if you had some internal resources and internal investments. But okay.
Another challenge is that in France, a lot of school rules and activities are decided on the national level. We, the municipality, are only in charge of lunchtime and time, that is after school time – from four to six in the afternoon. We have very few possibilities to do or decide or have an impact on something around the topic of food. And I know that human resources actually in Avignon are especially strict. And it’s impossible to have the budget to have someone to do workshops or work with the schools on food. So, it’s only through some European or other projects that we have to fund the possibility to fund projects like this.
Something else I want to touch on is finding new producers. It’s always a big challenge. And to make our contracts with local producers. Because there is still always an urge to go back to contracts with big suppliers. So we constantly have to defend and to be very active to say, no, we want to keep this contract with our local producer active. And to keep it in the municipality. Because of the prices, it’s always difficult to defend local producers. Even though with the global crisis, we’ve seen that the prices have increased with big suppliers and remained the same with local producers.
If you look back on the last four years, what would you say were your biggest achievements or impacts that you achieved during the project?
I can say that a lot of cities from France are visiting us to see how we managed to ban plastic as quickly as we did. Because we’ve done it in an easy way. I don’t know why. But it was really okay. And so many cities are visiting us. And we had at least 10, 12 visits from cities that said, “Okay, we would like to see your process.” So they went to the central kitchens, they visit, we show, we explain. And afterwards we go to UZAJE, our industrial washer, and they are always so inspired by the experience.
And actually we are now involved in a second European project, the Feast project. And we are developing this topic that we want to create some educational material and pedagogical material. So it taps into the conclusion we had with FoodSHIFT in terms of there being no space and no activities within the schools about food. We said, “Okay, we have to be active on this point.” And our new project is now to create space for that and to propose to have initiatives about it and to propose to the schools to do some cooking workshop, for example, or some activities that we can do in the schools.
I would also say that I’ve seen during the project that the team of the central kitchen got more and more aware of the importance of what we are trying to do. And more involved. Because at the beginning, it was not easy. But I’ve seen that the assistance of the central kitchen or the boss of the central kitchen, really got more awareness about this topic during this last year. She has understood a lot of things. And especially when she came with me to Athens to see how they work with the schools there, she said, “Oh. Okay, it’s interesting. Meeting all the European partners and seeing how they are doing things.”. She had some things changed in her mind and now I am not doubting at all that we will continue our approach with our central kitchen beyond the FoodSHIFT project.
What advice do you have for other cities who want to embark on a similar journey?
Remain curious and very open-minded to the specific opportunities of your local food-system. Trying with local stakeholders to find some solutions to work together, in a public/private partnership that can be adapted to fit the preservation of children’s health.
Check out previous Avignon’s blogposts: