The sustainable food revolution in Brussels: Changing eating habits and local demand

Wednesday, 03 April 2019 15:29
Brussels has seen a surge in interest to eat more sustainably produced food. The local products market has grown in recent years and now represent €5m a year, although it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the whole food retail sector which is worth €26bn a year. Brussels has seen a surge in interest to eat more sustainably produced food. The local products market has grown in recent years and now represent €5m a year, although it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the whole food retail sector which is worth €26bn a year.
Brussels citizens eat more sustainable food year after year. A few pioneers initiated the trend some time ago and now the market is booming.
Scandals around industrial food (see our article in issue #30), the development of e-commerce and the shift to vegan/vegetarian and zero-waste have helped boost demand for more sustainable food. But it's still too small a movement to call it a food revolution.

What is ‘sustainable’ food then? When the ‘Brussels community for sustainable food’ (RABAD, see sidebar) was created eleven years ago, its members could not agree on a single definition. Today, the former chef of Slow Food restaurant Trop Bon, Catherine Piette, says she uses three criteria: “One, choose products made from agriculture that does not exhaust the planet. Two, it should not exploit people to produce it. And three, I look to minimise the resources that bring it to me: it’s consistent, because the further it has to travel, the more nutritional qualities are lost during transport and storage.” Piette ended her restaurant career a few years ago to launch an online business called Académie Cuisine Santé, which teaches rushed-off-their-feet house spouses how to cook healthy home-made food.

Local, seasonal food is freshest and buying it supports the local economy. Piette promotes the use of “genuine” products, which are fully natural (i.e. no pesticides during production nor additives after). “You’ve got to start reading labels to know about a product's origin and composition – it should become a reflex,” she advises. “And ask yourself questions about what you can change in your approach to food.” For her, the first step is cooking your own food, because this way, “you don’t outsource your health to industry,” and you strengthen the link – be it physical or virtual – with producers. ‘Sustainable’ means ‘healthy’, both for the planet and for yourself.

But better quality comes with a price tag. Nevertheless, Piette argues that it’s cheaper than going to the supermarket - if you decrease your consumption of meat for example. Almost half of all Belgians reduced their meat consumption in 2018, according to a poll for EVA, the Belgian organisation promoting vegetarianism. In this, Brussels follows in the footsteps of other capitals such as Berlin, London and New York. If just 0.1% of Brussels was vegan in 2016, it was 4% two years later while vegetarians represent 8%. Sustainable food is a concept, not a label: it’s a way of nourishing yourself that goes far beyond replacing your ‘conventional’ food by organic alternatives.

Cooking your own food, reducing your meat intake and sourcing it all as locally as possible are three essential moves – but not the only ones - to eat sustainably while keeping it affordable.

A ten-year itch

When Karikol, the Brussels Slow Food association, was created in July 2007, it aimed at promoting better food in the region by supporting local initiatives and educating citizens to appreciate ‘good, clean and fair’ food. After a series of small events (lectures, tastings, etc.), the first edition of Goûter Bruxelles was launched in 2008. This let the city's inhabitants meet sustainable food producers and processers, eat Slow Food menus at a series of restaurants and buy local food products at Bruxelles-Champêtre festival.

This popular event next to Parc Royal gave sustainable food great public visibility from that year on. At the same time, the ‘Brussels community for sustainable food’ (RABAD) was launched to boost the creation of businesses in the sustainable food sector. Ten years later, Karikol and Goûter Bruxelles have disappeared but RABAD is still active and Bruxelles-Champêtre is more popular than ever.

These initiatives in the sustainable food sector have created a momentum which led to the adoption of the region’s “Good Food strategy” in late 2015. Its priorities are: to boost sustainable food production (to 30% of Brussels’ total consumption of vegetables and fruits by 2035), improve food in schools (e.g. by creating ten new school gardens per year), fight food waste (-30% by 2020) and set up a new food culture (10% of citizens eating or producing “Good Food” by 2020).

“Today, people are more convinced about eating better food, but the biggest obstacle is breaking old habits to actually go out and buy more sustainable food,” says Jean-Philippe Lens, Director at Topino, an online organic food cooperative. Especially in urban areas, people go and buy all their food for the week at the same place, a supermarket. “It’s about how you manage your time,” Lens explains.

Topino therefore tries to make the changeover as simple as possible. “We changed our business model four times in five years to accompany the evolution of the market,” he says. Now, Topino mainly delivers to woodboxes installed by its clients outside their home. This allows for flexibility in delivery times. “Logistics are at the heart of developing sustainable food supplies in a city like Brussels,” Lens believes. “The future will be determined by customer demands and how public authorities see food supply logistics from outside the region and regulate mobility within it.” Food will increasingly be delivered through less-polluting means of transport as trucks face restricted access to the city centre.

The explosion of online commerce and small-vehicle delivery has influenced food consumption patterns in the city. “Some trends took ten years to take off before, but now I see new ones every year,” Lens comments. He cites ‘zero waste’ as an example. This is spreading like wildfire in Brussels. Topino too is taking back packaging waste from its clients. Some of it goes back to its suppliers for re-use. A tendency spotted by hub.brussels, the regional one-stop-shop for entrepreneurs: “More than ‘pure’ organic, the zero waste concept starts to develop.” Meet Lili Bulk, whose business model is centred on the circularity of its glass containers.

Link with producers

Lili Bulk was launched two years ago, surfing on the zero waste wave. It sells - online and through organic shops - glass containers filled with dry organic food products (pulses, pasta, rice, cereals, dried fruits and nuts, sugar, flour etc.) or almost-ready sweet and savoury dishes. It will soon add liquids (e.g. oil and vinegar) to its range.

The target audience is businesses that want to minimise their packaging waste: “There’s huge demand from companies tired from getting rid of all their packaging from food and drink supplies. Canteens and cafés want to reduce their waste from takeaway, too,” says Florence Posschelle, Lili Bulk’s co-founder. Here again, delivery is part of the challenge. The company now works with Brussels’ transport start-up Shippr, a kind of “Uber for package delivery” in the city. It takes back empty containers when delivering full ones.

Fully embedded in the circular economy community, Lili Bulk is keen to collaborate with local players: its biscuits come from Ferme Nos Pilifs in Neder-Over-Heembeek. Its mushrooms are grown by Champignons de Bruxelles under the Anderlecht slaughterhouse. Its protein superburger mix is made of cricket powder from Little Food, which grows acheta domestica (crickets) in Europe’s biggest cricket farm at Greenbizz near Tour & Taxis. Posschelle says: “Buying in bulk is great (read: sustainable), but sourcing is not always transparent. We aim to have clear traceability and the most local origins possible for our products.”

This close link with producers that Lens also refers to is very visible at The Food Hub, a cooperative in Molenbeek situated at the site of the former Bellevue Brewery along the canal. Not only is it closely associated with an urban farm next door, Atelier Groot-Eiland, it has close links with 40 or so producers across Belgium and Europe. Producers are invited to meet their clients twice a year and every month they promote a chef who cooks with local ingredients. Their in-store communication is also highly original: prices unveil how much goes to which part of the supply chain (producer, tax, transport and shop). And they also indicate how many kilometres a fruit or vegetable has travelled to get to the shop. Interesting for other shops in Brussels, The Food Hub is also a wholesaler.

“We use The Food Hub for our supplies from Southern Europe,” says Bart Van Wynsberghe, one of six permanent managers at BEES coop, a cooperative supermarket in Schaerbeek. “Direct trading with producers is great because you know where your products come from, but it’s more complicated than having wholesalers. Hence we do both.” This copycat of New York’s Park Slope Food Coop was launched five years ago by a group of friends who wanted an alternative to supermarkets. Today it has 1,500 members who each own at least one share and give 2 ¾ hours of their time every month. The aim is not to make money, hence a very low margin of just 17% is used to pay the permanent staff and run the place.

Touching more people

“We sell mainly organic products but not only,” Van Wynsberghe explains. “We do not want to impose anything on our members. We want to offer a complete range so that people who don’t necessarily buy organic can at least come into contact with it.” The obligation to work at the supermarket “creates a different approach to sustainable food” because members have to enter into direct contact with the producers. But the coop’s membership does not reflect the social blend of the neighbourhood. “The word ‘sustainable’ doesn’t echo here, although we tried to involve the local associations,” Van Wynsberghe acknowledges. “We’re thinking of doing a cooking workshop, which could attract people and let them see what’s in the shop.”

Raising awareness through education and communication is the first step to entering the world of sustainable food. It is at the core of Slow Food and one of the axes of the Good Food strategy for the Brussels region. Bruxelles Environnement accords a Good Food label to restaurants and canteens according to strict criteria, one of which is the obligation to communicate. But that is not enough to raise awareness. “We are disconnected from nature,” Piette points out.

The hundreds of initiatives around urban gardening in Brussels have a clear value in reconnecting urban citizens to nature (see our article on urban gardening in Brussels Times N°32). And for those who don’t have the land or time to grow their own, there is a compromise solution: harvest the vegetables and fruits that others have grown for you. Peas & Love now has two such gardens in Brussels, one on fashion outlet Caméléon’s roof and the other in Fort Jaco. Its clients rent 3m² plots with 60 plants each from which they can harvest 40kg of vegetables a year. The company’s gardeners take care of the production; the harvest is devoted to the customer. “It has an educative value, because our clients rediscover the vegetative cycles of plants,” says Jean-Patrick Scheppers, Peas & Love’s founder.

“Brussels’ landscape of sustainable food today has nothing to do with that of ten years ago,” comments Philip de Buck, director of Le Clos, the restaurant of L’îlot, a day centre for homeless. He is poised to sell its first glass jars filled with organic, locally-sourced vegetarian spreads made by people who are being rehabilitated into society.

Yes, start-ups are flourishing in the sustainable food sector. Restaurants, canteens and even you are spoiled for choice: open-air markets, vegetable baskets, online shopping, cooperatives linking producers and consumers, and 150 organic shops of all sizes in Brussels. The Brussels ‘Bioguide’ and Good Food lists of eateries and suppliers look like a lot, but it’s still “just a little drop in the ocean”, admits Topino’s Lens. “Local products represent only €5m/year whereas the whole food retail business is worth €26bn/year,” he sums up. Brussels’ food revolution is only just beginning. 

By Hughes Belin
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