Floris Visser – ‘Good food is a public good’: Lessons from the Netherlands

Making good food affordable to all requires building a movement, not moralising messages and activist jargon.

Floris Visser is the director of Public Food, an organisation working on food justice.

Cross-posted from Green European Journal

Picture by Ella Olsson

Last year, in collaboration with the food knowledge institute Flevo Campus, I set up a prototype for a community restaurant, the Volkskantine. Located between a Burger King and a KFC restaurant in the centre of Almere, a modern Dutch city not far from Amsterdam, the Volkskantine is a new basic facility to make good food affordable like public transport or social housing. Residents had an organic buffet including 15 homemade vegetarian dishes to choose from, with prices on par with those of a snack bar. Using the lessons learned from this pilot, the plan is to open two new community restaurants in other cities by the end of 2023, with the ultimate goal of a basic supply of healthy and affordable food across the country.

The current debate around food is mainly about policies, numbers, and what is sustainable or healthy; it is not sufficiently linked to the need for a different kind of economy, based on the principle that good food is a public good. Economic democratisation and municipalisation, non-profit public enterprises, or a “food board” modelled on the Dutch water authority are all possible ways to create a public food sector in the Netherlands. The outcome should be that healthy and sustainable food becomes the easiest and most affordable choice, rewarding regenerative production and restricting harmful products through laws and regulations. Can a critical mass of eaters be mobilised to make this happen?

What stood out in Almere was that an easily accessible basic service offering affordable healthy meals elicits sympathy from both left and right. Even the fact that the entire menu was plant-based hardly led to discussion. (It also helped that the term “plant-based” was nowhere to be found.) Instead of an abstract menu with activist jargon, the buffet functioned as a welcoming culinary presentation. The crowd included regular guests with colourful bandanas tied to their backpacks, seniors on state pensions, families with younger children, teenagers fresh from the gym, and shoppers. Conversations at the cash register echoed the shared need for affordable healthy options, and expressed amazement that such a basic service had not been implemented earlier.

Broken food system

Whereas the public sector ensures equal access to other basic needs – water, education, transport – what and how we eat is largely dependent on a small number of private corporations and trading companies. This agro-industrial complex is driven by the maximisation of profit, and this is facilitated by transnational trade agreements and national and international policies.

Agricultural subsidies and other public funds are skimmed off by seed breeders, land speculators, fertiliser and pesticide producers, and animal feed companies, some of which are among the richest and most polluting in the world. Poor neighbourhoods have unhealthier food offerings than rich ones. Food advertising is 80 per cent about products that fall outside the Dutch government’s “Wheel of Five” healthy food choices. Organic is more expensive than intensively grown food. Half a litre of energy drink is cheaper than a glass of fresh orange juice. It is financially difficult for less well-off people to live healthily – let alone sustainably. Moreover, people whose life is a daily struggle have little mental capacity left for long-term decisions or world problems. 

A collective shift to a healthy and sustainable diet will therefore not happen by moralising food choices, by giving farmers a face or vegetables a story, or by fair prices in which harmful “externalities” are accounted for. These tactics unfairly shift the responsibility to consumers, but most importantly they are ineffective. Consumers can choose to stop eating meat or start growing their own vegetables,  but as long as the food industry is designed to serve private interests, climate, public health, and equality will remain secondary.

For this reason, the reform of the food system must start by acknowledging that good food is a public good. Where “good” refers to the health of people and the planet, and “public good” means that no one can be excluded from consumption because they cannot pay for it. Health, climate, and equity are not viewed separately in this scenario, unlike in the privatised food market model.

The Volkskantine is fundamentally different from existing services: the food bank is an emergency facility to alleviate acute crises, social meals in community centres are mainly focused on participation, policy is fixated on awareness raising, and lifestyle programs individualise responsibility. Community restaurants as a basic service are based on the understanding that health and sustainability are not derived from lifestyle choices but from the way we function as a society.

Politicising broccoli

That approach resonates with the ongoing political debate and conversations overheard on the street. Harrowing reports of children going to school without breakfast and food banks that can no longer cope with the demand are causing widespread outrage in the Netherlands. At a conference and in his book Beledigende Broccoli (“Offensive Broccoli”), Tim ‘S Jongers’ illustrated the gap between well-meaning social policies and their implementation. A lifestyle coach in schools can try and convince children to eat healthier. But in a disadvantaged neighbourhood, a healthy choice is often not within reach. Over the past year, the “broccoli case” has catalysed a clear wake-up call among professionals about their positions and approaches. Not only must policy become humane, but it must be based on the lived experience of people.

To further politicise this momentum and move closer to a public food sector, progressive forces should focus less on technocratic policies and individual choices, and more on the material needs of people. Enter the Volkskantine. This basic facility that makes a nutritious meal accessible to all is a society-wide approach that contributes to increasing both livelihoods and food justice. Importantly, the Volkskantine is a public place where different social groups meet under one roof. Just like the library, where you can borrow Dostoevsky or a football magazine, get help with your tax return, or follow language lessons.

In Rotterdam, there is a public cooking workshop called Mealprep Café, a professional kitchen where local people on a budget can spend three hours cooking a healthy weekly menu under the supervision of local chefs. In this way, culinary knowledge does not become an intimidating barrier but delivers immediate benefits, and for 15 euros everyone takes home five evening meals to feed a five-person household for a week.

How will the Volkskantine’s snack bar prices and the Mealprep Café be paid for, if the total bill is not passed on to the consumer? Currently, through a piecemeal approach: by volume, by social return on investments from the business community, through compensation for guiding some of the employees into work, through a voluntary surcharge for those who can pay a little more, and by funds and donations.

Coordination between progressive initiatives is essential for further steps towards a public food sector to be taken. For instance, civic initiatives that buy up land to lease at use value to regenerative farmers, like the Slangenburg care farm in Doetinchem, where free vegetables for 250 vulnerable families are grown all year round, based on the principle of “Community Supporting Agriculture”. Unlike with “Community Supported Agriculture”, where a group of well-off citizens collectively supports a farm, the farmer in this case becomes a social producer. In addition, cooperative supermarkets – collectively owned by thousands of members – are being developed in several Dutch cities, modelled on La Louve in Paris and Park Slope in New York. Every month, each participant works four hours voluntarily in the supermarket, eliminating staff costs and making products on average 30 per cent cheaper. In short, there is movement.

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