Local Goal Getter Borut Vovsek, event manager Foodbank Maastricht and coordinator Foodbank space @ Landbouwbelang, food for thought

For this week’s Local Goal Getter, we had a thought-provoking conversation with Borut Vovsek, the event manager of Foodbank Maastricht and coordinator of initiative’s home space in Landbouwbelang. Foodbank Maastricht is a non-profit organization raising public awareness about the global and local problem of food waste. They do this in several ways, foremost by teaching people about prevention methods for reducing food waste in households. They teach about sustainable practices in the kitchen, and they do it by using food from the market that would otherwise be thrown away. This way potential food waste is transformed into fresh food packages on Fridays or a tasty meal at their sustainability dinners on Wednesdays. All this happens in their Foodbank space at Landbouwbelang.

Starting from scratch

The idea for the current Foodbank Maastricht initiative has started more than a decade ago by a few housemates of the former Mandril squat at Boschstraat. As the story goes, one Friday afternoon they have noticed that at the end of the weekly open market one of the food vendors was about to discard unsold food into a trash bin, and they asked if they could instead take it home. Afterwards, their food pickups became a regular weekly practice and the amount of food they collected grew fast beyond their personal needs. Therefore they decided to start sharing it with their friends’ circle and established a Foodbank Maastricht group on Facebook. Borut joined this initiative and helped out together with many other volunteers. At one point the Mandril squat got evicted and the initial organizers moved away, however several participants in this circle stayed behind and joined forces to find a new spot for Foodbank and to continue the activity.

The Landhuis building in the cultural freezone Landbouwbelang (LBB), a municipality-owned terrain in Maastricht’s city centre, soon after became the new location for Foodbank. Landhuis also contained a small kitchen space, which enabled Foodbankers to start thinking about possible cooking activities and to organize Friday’s dinners for and with the wider public. The idea caught on, especially among the students and other regular visitors of the LBB, and soon the number of participants  grew beyond the limitations of the small house. Consequently another move was on order, this time to the Eetcafé spot on the second floor of the LBB building.  Unfortunately at the end of 2015 the municipality decided that due to the safety concerns all large activities in there needed to stop, which meant that the Foodbank Maastricht faced yet another challenge. Faced with a threat of becoming ‘homeless’ and without space for its popular activities, the decision was made to create a new place on the ground floor of the building, which is now known as Foodbank space.  Looking further down the future current spot is likely to be yet another temporary space since the LBB estate is meant to be soon sold and repurposed for commercial undertaking. And such developments can take that definitely take up a lot of energy – effort that volunteers with limited resources (also in time) could much better spend, if having a stable environment and being able to focus on their primary goal.

“We had to partially rebuilt a rather large area of the LBB’s event space, because nothing was there when we started, not even the inner walls of our current space”

When the municipality increased the pressure in 2017-2018 for Landbouwbelang to move out, Foodbankers faced a question of whether they wanted to fight for the LBB and their spot in the heart of Maastricht, find yet another new home, or simply cease with all activities. Although it was a risky move, they invested all their savings and renovated the space in the summer of 2018 with around ten volunteers working each day for several weeks ten hours daily in order to make the space as functional and inspirational as possible.

Sources of food

The focal point of Foodbank has always been to reduce local food waste and consequently contribute to a more sustainable planet. Eventually, also their original food supplier from the market started to notice the large amount of food that they unnecessarily ‘threw away’ each week and subsequently reduced the proportions of food they sold at the market. Foodbank’s involvement essentially lead to less food being wasted, however, this also meant that Foodbank Maastricht had to find new sources of potential food waste. Therefore they decided to approach all other vendors at the market. By being present on the market every week, month after month, year after year, the trusty relationship with vendors started to grow, and the amount of food in their shopping carts increased enormously, from 2 to 3 carts originally to 20 to 25 nowadays, and they do not expect this growth to discontinue.

“These market stall vendors nowadays expect us to come on a weekly basis. They might not know who of us will approach them and might not even recognize the face of the person, but they know that Foodbank Maastricht with its shopping carts will be there, and they keep us in mind”

Food giveaways

The pandemic disrupted Foodbank’s day-to-day activities. They used to host weekly board games nights together with Board Game Club Maastricht, poetry evenings, comedy stand-ups and several cooking events. When COVID-19 caused a lockdown, Foodbank Maastricht was pushed to find an alternative way to raise awareness and reduce the continuous inflow of food waste. Therefore they started to organize food giveaways in the form of a free market, a safe and manageable way to repurpose food that would otherwise be thrown away.

“COVID-19 frightened us all, but did not stop us! Following the regulations helped give people the feeling it was safe to continue to come to these places”

It is important to note that with the prolonged state of the pandemic people’s resources and savings also started to deplete, which consequently caused Foodbank Maastricht to be the last resort for many of them to get their weekly fresh food.

After the government’s lifting of the certain Covid-19 restrictions, they created a new small scale cooking event on Wednesdays because Fridays are nowadays due to the heavy workload with food distribution reserved for their food giveaway event.

“Even when we could start cooking gatherings again, we continued with food giveaways, because the amount of food we received could not all be used up in these dinners. We are still a fully volunteer-run initiative and with limited resources, yet we also wish to be as efficient as possible when it comes to our mission and focus.”

Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, their workshops currently revolve around a smaller audience than in the past, however learning practical ways to diminish food waste remains part of their primary concerns. Their sustainability dinners, based on the principle of learning by doing, help workshop participants to see the path on how to effectively reduce their personal food waste.

A brown banana

One of Borut’s primary concerns with Foodbank Maastricht is to stop people from having an idealistic idea of food. Its purpose is to be our nutritional resource, not an object of art.

“sometimes fruits are even tastier when they do not look like they would fit a commercial catalogue because they are ripe”

Fruits and vegetables do not have to be shiny and of perfect shape to be edible, and people that go to Foodbank Maastricht understand this essential point. If something has a dark spot or a brown leaf you can remove that part, and still eat rest of the food.

Raising awareness and educating people about the proper management of their own food is at the core of Foodbank Maastricht.  As Borut says, in order to change your behaviour you first need to realize the problems that come with wasting food. Everyone can relate to food – you need it to survive -, yet we think so little about it, let alone about the cost of the production of food. We use a tremendous amount of energy and resources to produce foods for the population of our small planet nowadays, and this will even further increase in the next 30 years when we will presumably hit the nine billion population mark. All this is further worsened by the fact that people nowadays eat more diverse foods, meaning we produce more foods per person as we did back in the day, however, we still eat about the same amounts. Consequently, more food is and will be also in the future, thrown away – if we don’t properly educate people on food management.

A vegan diet

Although Foodbank Maastricht only cooks vegan meals, everyone is welcome to attend their events. There is a twofold reason behind the fact that Foodbank Maastricht strongly supports veganism. Firstly, Foodbankers share the thought that this type of diet is better for the environment because it requires fewer resources and can be used for a longer period of time. Secondly, vegan ingredients are better from a food safety perspective, considering it can sometimes be hard to tell whether certain meats or kinds of milk are still edible.

“Safety is priority for us in anything we do and food is much easier to manage through a vegan diet”

While the expiration date of animal dairy products, for example, milk, are usually around the corner, those of cashews or oaths for example expire much later and are often good also beyond the expiry date.

A green alternative

SDG 2, zero hunger, ADG11, sustainable cities and communities,  and SDG 12, responsible consumption and production, relate closely to the mission and work of Foodbank Maastricht.

Foodbank is itself a case of how we are never too old to learn and to adopt new, more sustainable behaviour. In the old days, when even the initiative could use the food anymore, they might have to throw it away. However two years ago, just before the pandemic hit, they have decided to follow the path of zero waste. They have redesigned their original process structure and began working with local farmers, and to provide them with their leftovers for animal feed. This way Foodbank nowadays repurpose almost all food (waste) which they are not able to use for their cooking activities or give away to the participants at their events.

“We need to make the planet more sustainable, or there will be no planet for future generations”

An important part of Foodbank’s vision relates to the French solution for reducing food waste. France opted in 2015 for a law clearly combatting food waste. Their supermarkets are nowadays prohibited of disposing unsold food products and are instead obliged to donate it to charities. A law like this could help to reduce food waste also in the Netherlands,  while at the same time also facilitating an increase in charitable contributions and increased support for the people in need.

International hub

Foodbank is more than just a community initiative focused on food waste, they are an international hub, and offer their space other to other initiatives with similar values. In Borut’s words, it is about co-creation and getting something new in the world, to be a center where ideas can meet – a house that values equality for everyone, and a voice for all.

When Foodbank space was initially shaped from the ground in 2016 it was not initially intended for activities beyond cooking and serving food, however it transformed into a space that hosts also other non-profit events and initiatives. These activities are of wide range and include board game events, music jam sessions, movie nights, poetry evenings, lectures, even language exchanges. They gladly share their space with other initiatives, which are in line with their values and can be presumed to be responsible users of the space. If anyone is interested in cooperation with Foodbank Maastricht, then feel welcome to contact Borut.

Curious about their activities

Take a look at the webpage of Foodbank Maastricht on Facebook and at the Website of Landbouwbelang: Website & Facebook

Author: Jo-Anne Jaegermann

Pictures: Jo-Anne Jaegermann