Shortening the chain: Farmers and consumers reap benefits of food team movement

Before the food you buy makes it to the supermarket, it has to go through a supply chain. From the producer who grows it, through the processor who prepares and packages it, to the distributor who finally sells it to you, with every step, the available profits diminish.

“Organic or not, it’s often the farmer who ends up with the smallest cut,” says Hilde Delbecque from Voedselteams.

Voedselteams started in 1996, as a short-chain movement to “help the local farmers who were too dependent on the food industry,” she says. “The idea is simple: Farmers decide what they produce, how they produce it, and how much they sell it for.”

The organisation operates in 167 locations, run by groups of dedicated food teams, the largest of which are in Ghent and Antwerp. Registered members order groceries from their team’s webshop, and a week later farmers deliver them to the depot, where they get picked up. “We ensure that everything is fresh, safe and, most importantly, local,” Delbecque says.

The idea is simple: Farmers decide what they produce, how they produce it, and how much they sell it for

Launched in Leuven, Voedselteams has close to 3,000 members and works with 180 farmers – a fraction of the 25,000 farms that operate in Flanders, but fast growth is not the organisation’s top priority. Delbecque says Voedselteams strives to build a sense of community around each depot.

“We don’t want to act like a normal webshop where you simply buy food and have it delivered to you,” she explains. “We want our members to know about the farmers’ lives and we want to respond to any concerns they have.”

Compared to organic products found at the supermarket, she says, Voedselteams’ prices are usually cheaper because there are no excessive middleman fees. The farmer receives most of the money, save for 6%, which goes to Voedselteams. Delbecque: “that’s the minimum to help us stay afloat, but still far below the corporate model, where the farmer can only expect between 20 and 60%.”

Although the organisation receives government subsidies, it depends on the continued participation of its members, many of whom also act as volunteers. One of the newest is Charlotte Demedts, who joined because of her conviction that farmers deserve living wages, “so that as customers we can still get food from our own region,” she says.

Since February, Demedts has been running a food depot out of her garage in Ronse, East Flanders. “We have four volunteers and seven families who are actively involved, but we’re hoping to get more,” she says.

Voedselteams has close to 3,000 members and works with 180 farmers

For now, the Ronse depot consists of a small fridge, five shelves and a few empty crates. Nearby are a couple of bikes and a workbench with some gardening tools. Every Wednesday, farmers deliver their goods, and Demedts sorts and labels them so the families can pick them up when it suits them.

“Aside from my belief in sustainability, I order a lot of the food myself because it actually tastes good,” she says. “Some of the vegetables are not ones I would normally think of buying at a grocery store, so that adds variety to my diet.”

Because the team in Ronse works with local farmers, it has a unique assortment of food. Depending on the region, some online shops offer ice cream, while in others members can get fish or wine. “With a bit of planning,” Demedts says, “I can limit my supermarket visits to only once a month.”

Willem Vernaillen, who supplies the Ronse depot with sheep’s cheese and yoghurt from his dairy farm in Brakel, says collaboration with Voedselteams has enabled him to interact more with neighbours. “Farm life is busy, so it’s a chance for me to share my experiences,” he says.

The partnership also ensures he has a reliable network of customers. “When I set out to create this farm, I wanted to keep it small,” he says. “But it also needs to be profitable, or else I can’t afford to feed my own family.”

Originally published in Flanders Today

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