© Beeldbank Ghent

Saving the world with tomatoes

A tomato can make all the difference. At least for kids in front of a school lunch.
“Pupils often get meals with potatoes,” Lieta Goethijn explains. “But the yellow colour does not quicken their appetite, especially when it’s served with white-coloured chicken and cauliflower.” Red is a much better appetizer. That is where the tomato comes in.

A tasty look with an appealing colour combination is important if you want to make children eat, Lieta Goethijn and her fellow city officials in Ghent, Belgium, learned from a psychologist. Why they had hired him? Because they wanted to understand how they could reduce food waste in the city’s schools.

One third of food gets wasted

Food waste is a major problem around the globe. According to the United Nations, roughly one third of all produced food gets lost or wasted – 1.3 billion tonnes a year. In the EU, around 88 million tonnes of food never make it to the table. That has also an impact on the climate: the European Commission estimates that food waste generates about eight percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.

To reduce food waste is therefore one of the objectives of Ghent’s food policy, launched in 2013 under the title “Gent en Garde”, meaning something like “Ghent keeps an eye” (while “en garde” is a term in fencing, the logo of the food initiative shows a hand holding an egg whisk instead of a sword). “How we produce and consume food has an immense impact on climate and environment, but also social, economic and health effects,” deputy mayor Tine Heyse says. “That is why we are working towards a sustainable food system for the city.”

The initiative has not only led to more colourful meals in Ghent’s schools, but also to other practical innovations. Often, school lunches get thrown away because pupils are ill and miss school, but the caterer doesn’t get this information in time. Having understood this, in many schools in Ghent the secretaries now check all classes in the morning and inform the caterer about how many kids are there, so the number of meals can be adapted every day. Since that requires more flexibility from the caterer, contracts have been re-arranged.

Doggy bags for the climate

Also, the use of meat in school meals has been reduced, since meat production is responsible for another 14 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. This school year, one out of ten school meals in Ghent was vegetarian, trend upwards.

For kids who don’t get a proper dinner at home, doggy bags are offered from schools. As in many restaurants in Ghent which provide their guests with compostable boxes, to take the leftovers home with them. Promoted by the city, the use of those “restorestje” boxes has increased in recent years. 127 restaurants in Ghent have given out 48,000 restorestjes in the past five years and thus saved an estimated 12 tons of food waste. So, people can continue to enjoy their meal at home, and less food ends up in the bin.

Foodsavers: collect and share

The driving force behind these changes were the people of Ghent, mayor Mathias De Clercq says. “Ghent is a city that works closely together with its citizens.” The city acts as a facilitator, bringing people together and adding expertise – like the school psychologist – and, sometimes, money.

Funding was needed for a project the City of Ghent and the Public Centre for Social Welfare launched two years ago – Foodsavers. In Ghent, as in most cities, supermarkets have a permanent overstock: goods they have over-ordered and fresh fruits or vegetables with minor blemishes. These products are usually thrown away. Foodsavers now collects those surpluses and distributes them to the poor, via social restaurants, homeless shelters and other welfare organisations.

The food is collected daily from supermarkets and depots with refrigerated delivery vans and transported to more than hundred local poverty organisations the next morning. Besides reducing food waste and providing poor people with healthy food, the project also fosters social employment: people with difficulties finding work have been hired for the logistics.

More than a thousand tonnes of food saved

When started in 2017, Foodsavers aimed to redistribute 100 tonnes of food – instead it eventually became 300 tonnes, and more than 600 tonnes the following year. This year, that number was reached already in October. More than 38,000 people got free, healthy and fresh foods. And 25 people have been employed by Foodsavers.

“We don’t want to act for, or on behalf of our citizens, we want to act with them”

The idea, again, came from the people of Ghent. Voluntary organisations had started to redistribute food surpluses from supermarkets to people in need. But the initiative encountered organisational, financial and legal limits, whilst the offer of food surpluses is very large. So, the city decided to organise the logistic hub and take care of the collection and distribution of the food.

Reward for all the work: the renowned restaurant guide Gault & Millau awarded Foodsavers with a Culinary Innovators Award in 2019.

Ghent’s food policy work has been supported by the food council, a governance body consisting of representatives from politics, economy, science and civil society. “We don’t want to act for, or on behalf of our citizens,” mayor De Clercq says. “We want to act with them.”

New partnership of cities and citizens

To involve citizens systematically has become more popular in recent years. Scientists have developed a special collaboration model called “Quadruple Helix”: along with the trio of public sector, academia and industry, citizens are “co-shaping the future”, as the title of a recent study reads. This cooperation is conducted in “multi-layered, dynamic, bi-directional interactions” or, as the Fraunhofer Institute summarises: “Business, science, government and society team up to innovate.”

Based on the experience with the food council where civil organisations contribute to the city’s policy, Ghent wants to develop further and become a “partner city” for citizen initiatives. For this, the city council has consulted the Belgium researcher Michel Bauwens, an expert on peer-to-peer cooperation and author of the book “Save the world”. Bauwens sees a fast-growing trend of urban bottom-up initiatives and calls for new forms of partnership between cities and their citizens.

UN Climate Action Award for Ghent

According to the United Nations, civic involvement is already well on its way in Ghent. “Through participative governance models, including a food policy council, Ghent’s food policy has evolved from a range of small-scale initiatives to enable wide-spread structural change to the city’s food system,” the UN writes in its motivation to award the city with a prize for climate action which will be handed over at the climate conference in Madrid in December.

And further: “Ghent en Garde has shown how one city can make a big impact when it comes to fostering a more sustainable lifestyle.”

How? – With citizen participation. And with tomatoes.

in numbers:
  • 600 tons

    of food have been redistributed every year