Craving a juicy apple? Find a tree near you and pick one…or come back with a full basket. They’re all for free at one of Ghent’s 40 pick-your-own fruit gardens.
Are you concerned by the environmental impact of food deliveries? A solar boat navigates the Belgian city’s waterways to bring local and organic produce to consumers in the town centre.
Here’s just two initiatives of Ghent on Garde, an all-encompassing, cooperative project carving a new path in sustainable food production, consumption, waste management and social access to provisions.
How we produce and consume food has an immense impact on climate and the environment, but also social, economic and health effects.
Since 2013, the programme has been reshaping Ghent residents’ habits by, for example, facilitating the growth and consumption of local vegetables and fruit, fostering dietary changes and helping to raise awareness about the environmental cost of food.
“How we produce and consume food has an immense impact on climate and the environment, but also social, economic and health effects,” says Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent. “That is why we are working towards a sustainable food system for the city.”
Producers, farmer organisations, residents, vegetarian associations and researchers are at the heart of Ghent en Garde; they form a close-knit community working in tandem with the municipality to transform the city’s food chains.
Ghent en Garde is a local example of what the EU Commission is trying to achieve via its Farm to Fork strategy. It shows that cities have the willpower and strength to turn EU policies into action, in this case by ensuring that food production is sustainable, healthy, resilient and environmentally-friendly.
Ghent en Garde is the sum of 20 initiatives that, combined together, give new impulse to the entire local food chain.
The Vanier online platform connects farmers with restaurants and food stores so that locally-grown vegetables, fruit and other produce can be sold directly to clients in the Belgian city. Since 2018, this online tool has linked producers with over 50 restaurants and retailers, all located within 20 kilometres of each other.
The creation of Vanier’s short sales chain allows both farmers and buyers to lower costs by sharing expenses for transport, IT and promotion while making good quality food available to customers. Vanier offers added advantages to producers who receive a better price for their sales and can further expand their market opportunities.
We don’t want to act for, or on behalf of our citizens. We want to act with them.
The municipality has also promoted schemes to foster urban agriculture. With the De Goedinge project, for instance, it has leased a 10-hectare plot to an urban farming project. The land is given for free on condition that it is used sustainably and to promote cooperation and employment in the local community. De Goedinge introduces a novel approach that will serve as a model to formulate future legislation on city-owned land.
Elsewhere in town, residents eager to taste zero-km seasonal fruits can simply consult a digital map, spot an orchard near them and harvest the apples and pears of their choice. At the same time, Ghent is coaching 42 schools and 25 neighbourhood communities to help them take care of their urban vegetable gardens by refining their agricultural skills.
Other Ghent en Garde schemes focus on the way residents consume food in an effort to reduce the city’s environmental footprint. For 12 years, “Thursday Veggie Day” has been encouraging residents to lower their animal protein intake by eating vegetarian at least once a week. From schools and public services, the campaign promoting a plant-based diet has spread to shops and restaurants and includes vegetarian cooking workshops for both restaurants and residents.
The city says “Thursday Veggie Day” has convinced a high number of citizens to reduce their meat consumption, raising Ghent’s profile among businesses, restaurants and researchers specialised in plant-based food.
Ghent’s revolution has also entered the kitchens of city-run schools and childcare canteens. Meals here contain organic produce, seasonal products and less meat; choices are guided by animal welfare and waste reduction.
…to those in need
Meanwhile, the effort to stop leftovers from going to waste has led to the creation of Foodsavers, a programme that has so far managed to redistribute 1,000 tons of supermarket food surplus to poverty associations and soup kitchens.
The initiative aims to reduce carbon emissions from waste, offer jobs to people in long-term unemployment and lessen the consequences of poverty by making meals available to the poor.
If supermarkets are the engine behind Foodsavers, the Restorestjes scheme is the result of a partnership with local restaurants to create lunchboxes with their food leftovers. Over the past five years, 180 local eateries have taken part in Restorestjes and handed out 71,000 doggie bags.
Managing Ghent en Garde’s many limbs is crucial to its success.
The project’s initiatives all come together under the direction of the Food Council – a body comprising farmers, entrepreneurs, civil society members and researchers who meet three times a year to offer guidance, advice and recommendations on pursuing new directions.
Mayor Mathias De Clercq says the project’s driving force are the people of Ghent. “We don’t want to act for, or on behalf of our citizens. We want to act with them”, he explains.
A portion of the Food Council’s budget is allocated to research into food systems innovation, setting the stage for further growth.
Communication and citizens’ engagement have given the scheme an added push: hundreds of citizens and organisations have taken part in Ghent en Garde-led events, workshops and public consultations. The conversation continues to flow on the project’s online platform with the participation of 50,000 people and 1,000 food initiatives.
This multi-layered effort is yielding results, according to Ghent officials: achievements include a reduction of food waste, better access to fresh meals for poorer people, a 7% increase in the number of vegetarians, and more sustainable and healthy meals available to thousands of students.
Tackling future urban challenges
Over the past couple of years, success has mixed with challenges brought on by the Covid19 pandemic. Faced with this unexpected test, the Food Council has adapted Ghent en Garde to respond to the new circumstances. For example, after the pandemic imposed the closure of local markets, Ghent en Garde assisted farmers in switching to a take-away distribution model and directed budget funds to support local producers so that they could remain in business.
With United Nations experts predicting that cities will witness a demographic boom by 2050, controlling city residents’ dietary patterns is key to lessening the environmental impact of the food they consume. In this respect, Ghent en Garde can be adopted as a paradigm for future urban sustainable food initiatives elsewhere in the world.
Outside Belgium’s borders, people have been taking notes: in early November, Ghent en Garde was awarded the top prize at the Eurocities 2021 Awards in Leipzig for the “From farm to fork” category. In 2019, the programme won the UN Global Climate Action prize and the previous year the Transformative Action award assigned by the European branch of Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI).