Groningen’s Free Café continues the fight against food waste

By Giacinto Bottone

Yesterday the ‘United Against Food Waste’ initiative was launched in the Netherlands, as the fight against the quantity of food waste continues. Meanwhile, the Free Café Groningen has been offering free dinners made completely out of leftovers for more than three years already.

The mental image of a good meal made completely out of food waste might be difficult for some. But the Free Café Groningen‘s beautiful and tasty vegetarian dinners will surprise both you and your palate.

“It is insane that so much food could be wasted,” said Alise van Wingerden, a 27-year-old who has been volunteering at the Free Café for almost three years now.  “If we would have volunteers to cook we could do this every day.”

The Free Café Groningen was born as an initiative from artists Rachel Tillotson and Ivanka Annot in September 2014. According to Annot’s website the initial goal was “to find a pathway around the financial system to the extent that no money at all is involved, so that in this place, money cannot form a strain on social status.”

Getting money out of the way meant overcoming numerous challenges, among them getting the food. The Free Café Groningen uses only food that otherwise would’ve been thrown away. The repurposed ingredients for each dinner are mainly collected from the market at the Vismarkt, but some bakeries and crossanteries in the city also contribute to the free leftover feast.

While some might think that getting food waste can be easy the reality is different.

Alise mentions some of the challenges of getting the food.  One of the biggest obstacles to accessing leftover food is shops’ reluctance because they can be held accountable if a person gets sick when consuming one of their products.

Supermarket bins can be a source of good food being wasted, but going into bins can result in a 90 euro fine and big supermarket bins are locked so people cannot go in them, explained Alise who usually volunteers in the kitchen.

Despite this, some supermarkets give their “food waste” to the Food Bank. But, the food bank is restricted to many rules that prevent them from getting potential ingredients that the Free Café could use for their meals.

Paul van der Vlis is in charge of collecting the food from the market and other suppliers on Tuesday afternoon. He goes to the market at closing time, around 5pm, with a carrier tricycle that he lends for free to carry the food from the market to the Wednesday dinner location at BackBone050 in Travertijnstraat 12.

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According to him and Alise, there are also people who would rather throw away their food waste before giving it out, because they feel like they are losing money.

Paul has been volunteering for over 2 years now, but he doesn’t like to use the word volunteer. He likes to see it more as a ‘sport’, something more fun than what ‘volunteer’ or ‘work’ imply.

“I was there to buy plants for my brother and I smelled food,” he remembers about the first time he helped at the Free Café which back then could be found at a greenhouse in Friesestraatweg. Paul remembers how after getting dinner he offered to give something in return and despite their refusal he stayed and helped to clean up.

Until now the cafe has managed to remain 100% free.

“We do not accept money,” said Paul. “You just come to eat.”

The main ingredient that contributes to the success of the Free Café is not the food that they find, but the volunteers behind the scenes.

“Without volunteers, there is no Free Café,” emphasized one of the older volunteers at the location.     

The range of people going to the Free Café is quite colorful. It is aimed for everyone regardless of social class, and everyone is welcome to enjoy a free meal as long as there are spaces available. The Scoop participated one of their Wednesday dinners, enjoying a menu that included things like salad, cheese, soup, guacamole and homemade mango ice cream.

“I have a weird obsession with not wasting food” said Elisa Kephart, a 27-year old and a regular at the cafe. She is also a resident at De Vinkenborgh, the building where Wednesday’s dinner took place.

Although, when asked about the reason why she came to the cafe, without hesitation she said “because it is free.” A popular opinion among the public.

After four years the cafe has managed to remain a tightly-knit community, full of people who donate their time without expecting anything in return, and offering a place where people can go and meet new people.

“We do it for the smiles,” said one of the volunteers while cooking a charge vegetable soup.

In the Netherlands food waste in 2016 had an average of 135 kg per person, which brought a total of over 2 billion kilograms a year.

The Dutch government wants to cut back food waste in the country. They are committed to help organization that promote this ideology such as the No Waste Network.

On March 21, the Samen tegen voedselverspilling (‘United Against Food Waste’) initiative started in the country, with a current taskforce of 25 members. This initiative seeks to cut food waste in The Netherlands by half in 2030. The Dutch government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, has promised 7 million euros over the next four years to the initiative.

Other organizations in the country promote the same idea.

No Food Wasted was founded with the sole idea of fighting food waste. Their goal is 50% reduction of food waste within five years, and so far 13% of this goal has been met. They also promote start-ups, apps and food waste initiatives in order to have a more informed audience.

“So much food being wasted is a shame. [There are] so many people in the world that don’t have access to food,” said Alise from the Free Café.

At the Free Café, all food waste is recycled as pig food, and if there are leftovers people are welcome to bring their own container to bring some food home.

You can visit the Free Café Groningen every Wednesday at 18:00 at Travertijnstraat 12 and Sundays at  van Oldebarneveltlaan 6. If you want to help cook you are welcome from 14:00, or if you want to help save food from the Vismarkt you can contact them through or just look for a carrier tricycle every Tuesday and Saturday betweek 17:00 and 18:00 at the Vismarkt. 




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