At the tender age of 24, Jorrit Kiewik is the new director of the Amsterdam-based Youth Food Movement (YFM), part of the Slow Food Youth Network, the international youth movement of Slow Food, an international movement that ‘envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet’. YFM is an innovative movement that aims to create a ‘good, clean and fair food system’ in which animal welfare is respected, the use of pesticides is reduced and producers receive a fair price for their food. YFM organizes a wealth of initiatives, ranging from the YFM Academy in which a group of 25 future ‘changemakers’ work on cases provided by food companies to the Damn Food Waste initiative highlighting the need to reduce food waste. In this interview with Richard Glass, Jorrit talks about the genesis of YFM and Slow Food, the need to protect farmers from big business pressure, returning to a local, more sustainable food system and their current campaign aimed at introducing compulsory food education for children.
Could you explain the genesis of the Youth Food Movement? It seems quite complex with its relationship to slow food and the Slow Food Youth network.
The Youth Food Movement is part of the international Slow Food movement, which was founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986, and was a response to the first McDonald’s in Rome. Italians couldn’t bear that and started a movement against that. At Terre Madre, which is the international convention of Slow Food organised biannually in Turin, Carlo Petrini asked the youth to do something. In 2009, Samuel Levie founded the Youth Food Movement (YFM) in 2009. He found that food is an interesting thing to work on, as it is related to all kinds of problems in the world.
If you were going to describe the objectives and philosophy of the Youth Food Movement in a nutshell, how would you describe it?
We strive for a good, clean and fair food system. And we try to inspire people, and especially young people between 18 and 32, the changemakers of our world in 10 years.
An innovative source of your funding comes from the YFM Academy. Could you explain how this works?
Every year, we select 25 Dutch professionals from the food industry together, from farmers to people working for Ahold or Unilever. They are all between 20 and 35 years old. Those people examine the food system, so they have classes on fisheries, classes on agriculture, classes on trends. Besides that, they also work on cases given to us by companies. Ahold, for example, provided the case last year. These companies have a question and they ask us, YFM, to answer that question. With these cases, we’re able to fund our Academy programme.
We show these Academy participant how the real food system works. We show them the good things and bad things. We try to inspire them to change the system themselves. By organising this Academy every year, we try to influence the ‘changemakers’, or at least the people who will be the ‘changemakers’ in 10 years time.
There is a lot of criticism against these large multinationals and supermarkets in terms of intensive farming, processed food and a focus on profit. What has been your experience of working with theses companies? Do you find they really want to create a sustainable food system?
We are really concerned, or at least I am concerned, that some of them are greenwashing, that they want to show that they are not as bad as people think. Of course, everybody wants to make profit in the end. We try to give them some advice on sustainability in the food system, for example reducing food waste or advising consumers what’s in their products. One of the things we strive for is that people vote with their fork. If people don’t know what’s in their food, they cannot choose what they want, so we really want to enhance transparency in supermarkets and show people what they are really eating. In that way, we try to have a really positive impact on the food system.
What I have noticed until now is that companies are really generous and really want to change something. They see that things have to be done differently. For example, people at Ahold are really concerned about food waste and they really want to change that. Food waste was one of our major issues, for example we co-organised the Damn Food Waste event. We really like to work on these things and help these big corporations do better.
What is the solution to half of our food being thrown away?
What we did with Damn Food Waste is to draw attention to the fact that half of our food is being thrown away. It doesn’t have to be like that. What we did is serve these massive lunches, feeding 5,000 people at the Museumplein with a free lunch with food that would have been wasted. We did this in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Zwolle and a lot of other place. We made the national news and a lot of people started thinking about. Yu see more and more businesses are trying to battle food waste. For example, the company Kromkommer buys non-perfect vegetables from farmers, which would have been thrown away because it doesn’t meet the requirements of supermarkets, and they make a soup from it. And there is Instock, a restaurant chain in the Netherlands that cooks meals with food that would have been waste at the local Albert Heijn.
What are your objectives as the new director what’s your unique selling point compared to the previous director?
Up until now, YFM has been a group of food enthusiasts, but most of them were from Amsterdam, where our movement started. I’m not. I’m from Enschede, a small town in the east of Holland, and I grew up on a farm there. At my parent’s farm, I learned as an entrepreneur how you can still produce good food, but still sell it for a price you can live from. When I started studying at agricultural university I saw a lot of people struggling with their farms. A lot of my friends are producing the food we eat today. It worries me that they get up every morning and have a headache, because they don’t know if they will still be able to have their farms in 10 years time.
I really think farmers are the key players in our food system, as they feed us and produce the crops we need to live. However one of the major problems is that nobody recognises that, nobody sees what farmers are doing for us. One of the things I really want to achieve as the director of this movement is to ensure that farmers can do their jobs without any worries. They should be recognised as the people who are producing food. They should be applauded. It hurts me to see them struggle and to see people here in the city being really ignorant about what they are eating. That’s something I really want to change. Being a farmer’s child really motivates me and inspires me to do that.
You talk about farmers not knowing whether they’ll be able to survive in 10 years time. Isn’t the primary problem supermarkets pushing down their prices?
That is one of the problems, but also the fact that people are not willing to pay a good price for good food anymore. We as a movement strive for a system where the farmers get a good price for the food they produce, and that the consumers pay a price that is fair, which is not too high, but is not like the discount prices we have now. A pack of milk should not be cheaper than a bottle of water. That’s impossible. Part of that has to do with subsidies. I do think that our food system at the moment is bankrupt and unsustainable. We really have to change some things to have a future.
How do you solve that? Wouldn’t you have to get supermarkets, suppliers and consumers to pay more?
It’s not that easy. It’s a process that will involve all parts of the food system. Farmers are entrepreneurs. They produce things and sell it. At the moment they have to produce for a global market, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think everybody should eat more local. If more people eat local, prices will obviously rise, but people would respect their food more.
At the moment we are in a rat race where we have lost our focus on real quality and taste. We have started to produce more and more for a cheaper price. We are in this rat race and we have to get out of it. That is why we don’t build a wall between us and Ahold or Unilever, because we have to do this together. They have a business to run, but at the same time they are also the most powerful players in the food chain. They are never going to say we are going to raise food prices and give all the benefits go to the farmers. So, we have to find a way together where everyone can benefit: companies, farmers and consumers.
You have a campaign and petition to make food education compulsory for primary school children. Where did that come from and why is it so important?
We live in a generation where kids know everything about the new iPhone, they know how to make slow-motion pictures, they can edit videos, but they aren’t taught anything about food. Kids from disadvantaged neighbourhoods often eat the least vegetables and drink the most sugary drinks. And those are the places where there is a lot of obesity. We want to educate people to show how you grow food, how you work with it, how you cook with it. We want to show the whole process. We are striving to make food education compulsory for all children in the Netherlands.
Who would provide the curriculum?
The new curriculums are being written right now. There will be new curricula for 2032. Food has only been mentioned in the curriculum once, so we think it’s about time to change that. We are trying to influence the political system by getting people to sign this petition. In Holland you need 40,000 signatures for it to be discussed in Parliament. We will provide this to the State Secretary, Martijn van Dam in the autumn.
You mention some shocking facts in the petition about how Dutch children drink the most sugary drinks in Europe, 1 in 5 children are obese, only 1% eat enough vegetables. Who verified that? And who is to blame for that: parent, companies or the government?
We worked together with Jaap Seidell, Professor of Nutrition and Health at the VU University Amsterdam. he does a lot of research on food, health and obesity. There isn’t one party who is to blame for this. The parent often don’t know what they are feeding their children, because the products they are getting from the food industry is often misleading. Because they don’t know, their children don’t know. We do, however, think one party can change this, and that’s the government by making food education compulsory.
Some people would point to complicity between big business and their lobbyists, and government in this rise in obesity and processed food. What has been your experience of this and to what extent we need to break this relationship?
The government should be there for all inhabitants of the Netherlands. In a previous interview you did, someone said governments are the puppets of big business. I wouldn’t say the government is the puppet of the food industry like in America, but I do think everybody knows each other, and they talk to each other. So that influences decisions a lot. I think the food system in the Netherlands is getting closer to America. I hope the current Dutch politicians can keep their minds clear and do what’s best for their nation.
You talk on your site about the dangers from the loss of biodiversity and intensive farming. How do you reverse this?
We think it’s about educating people. We want to show people what the effect of their plate of food is having on the landscape in the Netherlands. If people know more, they will vote with their fork.
Visit the YFM website to find out more about their work and the YFM Academy.
Please also sign their petition to demand that the government make food education compulsory for children.