Foodbank Maastricht – local fighters against food waste!

Written by Maja Bartczak

Posted on 10/10/21

According to the UNEP Food Waste Index 2021, there were around 931 million tonnes of food wasted in 2019. 61% of this amount came from households, 26% from services and 13% from retail. There are various reasons for throwing away food, but the most common factors include our own behaviour, such as insufficient shopping and meal planning and aesthetic considerations, but also the general shopping environment which heavily promotes sales tactics like “buy 2, get 1 for free”.

In the EU alone, there are around 88 million tonnes of food wasted across the supply chain. In total, 173kg of food is estimated to be wasted per person every year across the supply chain, which equals to 0,5 kg per day! Food waste is not only an ethical and economic problem. It is also directly related to climate change. 170 million tonnes of CO2 is emitted every year due to the production and disposal of food waste in the EU. The Netherlands is one of the top food wasting countries in the association, with estimates of over 500 kilograms per capita every year.

Around ten years ago a group of Maastricht students started an idea which is nowadays known as the Foodbank Maastricht initiative – a non-profit, voluntary organisation which aims, among other things, to encourage people to waste less food. I had an opportunity to conduct an interview with one of the early members of the organization, who took over and developed the initiative to what it is now – Borut Vovsek, the leader of the initiative.

How did you come up with this initiative? How have you developed it?

The seed for our initiative was originally planted by a few housemates from the former Mandril squat on Boschstraat around a decade ago. It all started with them going to the local Friday’s market, where they saw one vendor throwing away food into the bin at the end of the selling day. They asked the vendor if they could take the food and the vendor agreed. The squatters then became regular visitors to this market stand to grab the leftover food at the end of the day. Soon they realised that they had too much food for their own needs, so they decided to start a Facebook group for sharing the food with others – this is also how I joined this initiative.

Unfortunately, the squatters in Mandril were evicted, but there were people, like me, who wanted to continue the Foodbank idea. We looked for other spots and, in the end, we landed here – in the cultural freezone Landbouwbelang (LBB). Our first stop was the Landhuis building, where we attained not only a space to organise our food giveaways, but also a small kitchen, where we could start to cook together. The cooking part especially contributed to an increased popularity of the initiative. Firstly we were preparing meals for 10-15 people, however with ‘word of mouth’ promotion, this suddenly increased to 100. This meant that we needed a bigger space, so we moved onto the second floor of the LBB building.

At the end of 2015 due to the new municipality regulations that space became unfit for hosting large groups of people, so we were basically forced to build from scratch our own space, now known as Foodbank space, on the ground floor of Landbouwbelang. This project demanded a lot of hard work by many of our members and volunteers in the Foodbank community. Now we are in the year 2021, and as you can see, the work has definitely paid off.

How does Foodbank’s Food Giveaway work? How does a usual Friday afternoon look like for Foodbankers?

There’s many people involved in the Foodbank community, so it all depends on who we are talking about. Firstly, we have a core team of ca. 10-15 people who deal with the food pickups during the week and take care of food preservation in our space until Friday. On Friday afternoon several more regular volunteers join us to do the large food pickup from the Friday’s market and several neighbouring shops. We always meet at 3 pm in our space and then go together to the market to pick up food with our shopping trolleys. Several volunteers of course also remain in the Foodbank space to sort out the food from previous pickups and in addition also the newly brought in food that we get on Friday. At 5pm, after two hours of transporting and sorting the food, we open up the event space for the public, who come and pick up all the food for free. Officially we close the event at 9 o’clock in the evening, however afterwards we usually still need at least 2-3 hours more to clean up and sort the food that is left behind.

So, what happens with the food that is left behind once the Food Giveaway closes? How much food do you save each week?

Each week we receive approximately 1000 kilograms of food. In the peak summer period this can increase even above 1,300 kilograms. Of course, with such a large quantity of available food, not all of it is picked up by the visitors, so we do two things with the food that is left after 9pm. Some of it we try to preserve until Wednesday for our Sustainability Dinners, while the rest, which is not suitable for human consumption, we give away to a local farm for feeding the animals – this also means that Foodbank Maastricht is essentially a zero waste initiative!

Does Foodbank Maastricht engage also in other activities beyond the Food giveaway?

While Foodbank is primarily focused on sustainability and on raising public awareness about the problem of food waste, it is also a multinational social hub which aims to connect people from different cultural backgrounds. This is actually already insinuated with our name. ‘Foodbank’ is actually a mixed word – “food” derived from English, but “bank” derived from Dutch, which means “couch”. In this way the word Foodbank actually means ‘enjoying food with friends on a couch’.

In the Foodbank space we host diverse events under the Foodbank’s umbrella as well as provide space for other initiatives with similar values to ours. In other words, we always welcome interesting non-commercial events, where people can meet, get to know each other, and share knowledge on diverse topics.

Foodbank itself organizes two large events, Food Giveaway and Sustainability Dinner. Together with the Board Games Club Maastricht initiative we organize weekly boardgaming evenings. Maastricht Goes Vegan initiative organizes vegan cooking workshops. Vegan Student Association organizes vegan potlucks. Together with other initiatives we have also successfully organized language exchange sessions, poetry and comedy stand-up nights, even music jam evenings and movie screenings. All in all, we wish Foodbank space to act as a socio-cultural bridge between internationals and locals and a meetup point for inclusive social interaction.

How is Maastricht community reacting to this initiative? How did food businesses react to it?

To be honest, even after a decade of our existence, I think that for the many Maastricht inhabitants we are still an ‘unchartered territory’. While we have already received recognition from the Maastricht University and the Municipality of Maastricht for our sustainability efforts, our main marketing tool remains word of mouth. This consequently also means that our initiative is much more known among the student population and regular visitors to LBB events. We also have good contacts also with the local population, especially people in our neighbourhood who see us picking up food from the market with our trolleys every Friday.

Compared to where we started a decade ago on Boschstraat street, Foodbank has grown a lot in terms of workload, organization and volunteer management, and this goes also for our cooperation with local businesses and market vendors. Of course, at the beginning, when we approached them, we first had to establish a trusting relationship with them, so that they would leave the food waste for us, instead of throwing it away immediately. Through the years of cooperation and mutually-gained benefits from it, the results can be clearly seen, not just in the amount of saved food, but also in the benefits for society stemming from it.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

That has definitely been the Covid-19 crisis. In these times, when all social venues needed to close immediately due to governmental restrictions, we had to find a way to continue distributing food in a safe way, not just for the public, but also for our volunteers. Prior to Covid-19 pandemic our most important regular event was Sustainability Dinner on Fridays, cooked together with 100 participants, however this was suddenly not possible anymore. We adjusted to the situation by providing weekly free Food Giveaway events outside. Governmental restrictions due to the pandemic affected us also more deeply. One of our core values has always been to be an inclusive multinational hub and to foster positive social interactions in the community setting – and all of the sudden people needed to keep distance. Some members of our team also found it rather challenging at first to make sure that visitors comply with the rules. Luckily we successfully confronted all these challenges and have actually also grown as an organization in the process.

What is a message you would like to convey in your actions?

Think twice before wasting edible food. We all need to contribute our share to a more sustainable planet, if we wish to preserve it for future generations!

Do you want to help and become part of initiative? Join Foodbank volunteers at 3pm at Foodbank space @ LBB every Friday!
Also feel free to come and pick up food and make sure that less food is wasted!

Sources

European Parliament, Food waste: the problem in the EU in numbers, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/society/20170505STO73528/food-waste-the-problem-in-the-eu-in-numbers-infographic

V. Neri (23 March 2021), Food waste, a paradox the European Union is determined to solve, https://www.lifegate.com/food-waste-european-union

The author would like to thank Laura Ochner and Borut Vovsek for the pictures.

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