Despite the reputation of school and hospital food, the public sector is crying out for fresh, local produce, according to experts hosting a recent event on public food procurement organised by the East Midlands’ Food and Drink Forum in Chesterfield, Derbys (click here for more dates/venues).

Caroline Plane of Larch Consulting said the flexibility and quality of small-scale suppliers meant they really could compete successfully with the big multinational foodservice companies when it came to supplying schools, prisons, hospitals and local authorities.

“Small producers have more unique selling points, including competitiveness, a lower cost base, innovation, responsiveness, flexibility and quality service.”

And the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative aimed to harness them, she added.

Jane Staley, principal procurement officer for Derbyshire County Council, agreed.

“People might always think that it is all about the price, but we have got to ensure coverage for the whole county and where children are concerned, they have to eat the food, so quality is at the top of the list.”

* For more detailed advice on bidding for a public tender, click here.

Jeanette Longfield at Sustain, th e alliance for better food and farming, said its project to get more local and organic food into London hospitals had proved that more expensive produce could be better value.

“The local meat contains less water and fat, so it goes further and sells more, defraying the extra costs.”

But being local was not in itself enough; producers must be capable of explaining why that is beneficial. “You really have to sell yourself the whole time,” said Ms Plane.

Approaching a public sector body to enquire about supplying it with food was fairly straightforward, although the tendering rules themselves could be complex.

Ms Plane said it came down to relationship marketing and making the effort to call buyers to introduce yourself and your business.

Every council provided the phone number of its buying department on its website, while many other public bodies advertised tenders in the local press.

Meet the buyer events – usually for a small fee – were another valuable way of making contacts, she said. “One of these is worth 50 hours spent on the web.”

Some public bodies, such as the NHS, kept a database of interested suppliers, while some private companies also offered to list a producer’s details in a searchable database.

And the smaller the tender, the simpler the bidding process, so many buyers accepted an oral quotation for tenders up to £5000 and a written one up to £15,000.

As a rule of thumb, businesses appeared too risky if they bid for contracts whose annual value is more than 25% of turnover.

That may not discount the larger tenders, though, because they were often split into smaller lots, and the value was for the life of the contract and not yearly.

It was also vital that small companies took a position on key policy issues such as equal opportunities, health and safety, environmental protection and quality.

“You don’t have to go to town,” said Ms Plane. “Just a one-page company statement saying you adhere to the right policies.”

For small contracts, the public sector was less demanding about a supplier having three years of audited accounts, but experience would be necessary, she said.

“Get references and letters of recommendation from existing customers, if you can. If you are a new company and don’t yet have a track record, go for a quick win in the private sector.”

In the end, Ms Plane added, winning a public sector contract took time and effort, but the rewards could be great. “They are excellent payers and they will always need suppliers, even in the worst of circumstances.”