Learning from the Brussels food ecosystem - how can communities keep working together?

Notes from the online session on June 3rd 2020

@Yannick introduced Fermenthings, a fermentation project based in Brussels - started as a shop, with catering and brunch events. He was about to expand the space, invest in a complete kitchen and production space. What happened in March was that 95% of the business went down because it was event based. Did not have the cash flow to keep running costs (rent), so looked a bit at what he really wanted to do with fermentation. Could do short circuit production, work with the biomarket next door and also found a local farm where Yannick can put a workshop inside the farm. Major concerns now are the broader logistics (certification, how to bring it to customers and to shops). ‘I see a lot of small projects that don’t want to become a reseller on a big level, struggling at that point.’

With covid, I saw lots of small producers coming together and creating networks that worked well in that urgency, but now with coming back to normal you don’t see where it’s going. There is a willingness, but it doesn’t mean it’s economically good.

The flow I see, maybe in oct-nov the events and classical restaurants may go back to a normal pace. We know that we can reopen the restaurants, but only 4 people at a table and on a capacity between 30-50% of what we are normally doing. I’m skeptic that once business goes back to usual, everyone goes back to their own little place and their own fires to put out. For small food producers, there is a lot the problem of scalability if you want to be fair, to have good products, good transport. - Yannick

@Puja: Hasn’t this issue of logistics been there all the time, before covid19?
Yannick: This has been enhanced when everyone is trying to use logistics and delivery options. You saw that they were making barbecue packs, or setting together a shop to sell, and it created a faster start to work together. Everyone was talking about it, but no one had the time. Now you had to create those possibilities.

John: In the UK, we’ve seen a combination of small producers setting up a route to the market - ie a digital portal that they would sell through - and another network called “In my backyard”, where on a local level they can parcel together. In that way they can also be represented online. In New York, people who have premises, who might have been doing one thing, are now becoming an outlet for small producers i.e. a bookstore which is now part bookstore, part a hub to sell directly.

This uncertainty: what happens next? How much distancing will we continue to have, therefore how would your restaurant be able to continue? I’ve seen an emergency reaction - a restaurant who will go to delivery, but that’s employing one chef and maybe his son. The uncertainty is what’s bugging most people at the moment.

I’m interested in how community can be a resource. Slow food people around the world: the first reaction was we need to look at our community, the closest to us, that’s proved to be the salvation.

The challenge is now going forward. If everything reverts to normal, how do we not lose that intimate connection that was made in a community?

John: We are at a moment when doors have been opened to people who did not use community before. How do we keep them from returning to the grocery stores?

Yannick: Our shop is turning into a group buyers place. I want to continue to support the producers with whom I work all the time. I asked them: ‘Would you be interested to work 2 hrs a month and buy from fermenting producers?’ I found 25-30 people who want to spend 2 hours that want to be part of that model.

Where it blocks is in the administrative and legal.
If you lose the entity of the company to create a cooperative this poses legal problems.

How to invest a community while being able to follow all the rules, especially in food?

@angelo: in Italy, what I’ve seen that surprised me in rural areas is that the old shops in neighborhoods got a revival. In crisis, the people were discovering again the sense of community. I was surprised, I was convinced that the hypermarket was the future.
I think that we’ll never get back to the way we were. I’ve seen it in wines for instance. The restaurants remain the main point of sales for them. They started some strange wine tasting events on zoom, but the online selling of wines for them was not known. Most of them simply didn’t give value to it. So maybe you can find some new people who are interested in doing this.

John: That question of how many would stay that way - I think people have been reminded very brutally that hunger is not far away. It’s hard because in a way you are in a good place, but practically it is a struggle. 6 months ago, people were less open to that sense of community. It’s valuing what’s around you - in your street, village or wherever. We run a hashtag that Eating local is the new normal. I think people want to believe that local is the new normal and some think that we can come out of this better.

@Nadia: We have a community member who’s a developer but wanted to be in cow-herding. Marco was working on an app and was interested in these small mom&pop shops. They were missing out on a lot of consignments. There has been an explosion of initiatives that work on one or other part of these problems. First, there’s a community wrt neighborhood (which may or may not connect), people who have a relationship with each other culturally or along languages. Then there’s people in one part of the food sector at the fringes (niche). It’s all of these smaller factions - dealing with logistics on how people move across the city. Then there’s infrastructure - Digital, and Buildings & transport

The issue that’s closest to hand is maybe transport and delivery. We have a model (food delivery apps) and UPS (logistics companies). There are open source softwares that could be used by people in food sectors. Right now, I think Uber is taking a 30% cut on their revenue. In Brussels, there’s already taxi drivers that developed their own alternative to Uber. When you call the hotline, the people on the call decide which people would drive which routes. So they set up their own app called the Victor app. The difference is that you can pay cash or by card. It solved a problem for the taxi driver - knowing in advance what they’ll be paid.

John: My take would be to speak to similar networks that share your value, Yannick, and see what they can. They might be very well connected and may know others who are swimming in the same sea and can make an ecosystem.

Geographic scale is key.

Yannick: I want to get back to what Angelo said. I think it’s the locality at the geographical level is really important. In Schaarbeek, the restaurants, the producers, they all played along. It resonated with people living there - who thought ‘I can support my local space’.

  • The moroccan and the Indian scene is interesting. They have their own solutions. Example, dabbahwallas (lunch-box delivery systems in Indian cities). Grey economy alliances, peers in moroccan, Indian mom and pop shops. I like to say that Edgeryders should be like a Bangladeshi supermarket family

  • Cycle coop is already up and running. They are happy to help, we would need to fundraise a bit to cover their coding time because it’s income they need to keep the software going and well maintained

  • The Cabas initiative - a cooperative that was built in Brussels that wants to make a basic payroll for food producers. It’s between being an office structure and independent.

Noemi: There’s an issue with scale and logistics for small producers.

Caroline is the owner of Hummus x hortense (best plant based restaurant in Brussels):

We created a veg box service to help a farm that only sold to restaurants - 5 restaurants. He could have broken even at 50 boxes, but we sold 200-250 boxes every week.
Our restaurant is very much about storytelling - to tell them stories about the farms and the people around it. To nurture them, not just to feed our customers. If we look at the behaviour of our guests, there was only a minority who expressed eco-consciousness in their daily behaviour. There was the biggest group that were moderately conscious and I think that group has become more conscious in their food choices. I think that group is quite critical. Of course, there is a minority of people who are not moving anywhere.

John: Is there anything we could do to keep and nourish them? Other than continuing, do you think there is anything we can do?

Caroline: We have different levels - individual, social, political, societal. We have to tackle it at all different levels. I’ve noticed it’s helpful if you can connect all these little dots. Now there are so many people involved and creating networks and communities is so powerful. There are pioneers and there are followers. We are the pioneers but we need followers to push the wave forward.

John: One of the suggestions we were looking at was even practical advice on how to live more ecologically would be helpful.

Nadia: How much of this comes down to technology? We’ve seen in edgeryders that there are people who are working in different communities and come together in a free flow network. What kind of challenges are practical and can be solved by use of technology or better logistics? What are the main obstacles for things scaling up?

Caroline: If I think of tech, I think of SoMe. Are you talking about tech concerning farmers or in SoMe?

Nadia: Technology in supply chains and flow of information. We have a lot of technologists in our community. We have case studies that are very community driven and were looking at what are threats to their community. We saw that these were coordination costs - the missing glue.

Caroline: I think data-collection is as we see with our farmers. They have a range of flowers and vegetables. After the first few years, he updates what is available and what has to go. If he has an overload of certain veg, we buy them and make cocktails and dishes with them. That helps us reduce food waste as well as supporting a farm.
He had a lot of shiso, so we bought it and made pralines with that.

Yannick: I think there’s a part of it that could be coordinated. It’s a question of scale. I like to do everything myself, but sometimes it takes a lot of time. In my case, it’s not interesting enough for them because I’m the only supplier in that space.
Some basic needs could be supplied by technology. If there’s a website that I’ve built myself, there could be a follow-up and help update it regularly.

Nadia: I have a questions regarding capacity for restaurants. How much of a difference would it make to use outside spaces? Would it help the regulations about lowering capacity?

Caroline: Normally, we have 32 seats now reduced to 22 seats. In Belgium, the weather is unpredictable. In our case, we can handle 22 seats. If we need to employ more staff, then it would be a case of our values.

Puja: https://www.tasteofhome.com/article/amsterdam-restaurant-greenhouse-dining/

Nadia to Caroline: Could some of the clients volunteer to help?
Caroline: It’s really interesting to work in our kitchen. We offer that opportunity. Have 3 interns this summer staying for 1-3 months. There are international interns coming and we work with people who come for one day and get the feel of the restaurant. We tried to organize different events. We’ll organize a 3 day event at the field, with dinner in the fields. We’ll also organize one day with young chefs to inform them of this new way of running a farm, with the Culinary Institute Ter Duinen, Koksijde. Hopefully, they’ll also work with local farmers. We also work with a renowned culinary institute with chefs in training. (Le Monde des Mille Couleurs, Farmer Dries Delanote)

Wrap up: what’s next

  • New conversations on the topic - Suggestions here.
  • Identify a specific problem that our community can help solve, especially using technology for improving coordination which is usually expensive

How is this all financed?

This event is part of the NGI Forward project Generation Internet (NGI) initiative, launched by the European Commission in the autumn of 2016. It has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 825652 from 2019-2021. You can learn more about the initiative and our involvement in it at https://ngi.edgeryders.eu

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Hei everyone. Thank you for the lively conversation and energy you shared yesterday. Here are the notes from the event.

@yannick For the follow-up event, may I suggest that the problem statement be narrowed down and made more specific (including known limitations)? Then everyone can contribute with best examples and ideas that they have seen succeed around them. Like @noemi said, it’s about finding solutions for the challenges you have come across, but there are other people facing the same challenges but are in a much less privileged and less connected place than you are. We can go on to poke holes in those suggestions where useful.
We can even split different events in the series by different aspects of the problem. The topics could be like:

  • Transitioning to a more local food scene

  • Helping the farmers - making supply chains shorter

  • Involving the community in food logistics

  • Helping the vulnerable - making our society (and its diet) stronger

  • Building a network around sustainability-focused restaurants



It seems I lost the part with more practical suggestions and a real taste of Brussels’ lively food environment. I remember @Nadia making reference to “pro-bono” support for accountancy and administration, but I cannot find it in the notes. Am I mistaken? I think it is worth recover it. I followed the development of Cortilia in the first years and it switched from a free platform for making farmers’ supply meet consumers’ demand to a quite ‘conventional’ online food market because many farmers were not accomplishing basic tasks necessary for taxes and administration. This leads to another point. Dabbahwallas are an interesting example because they achieve keeping high community standards and high-efficiency standards. This is not the case for many parts of the food chain and for some informal networks. My personal experience with a GAS (Groupe d’Acquis Solidaire) in Brussels was not positive at all. Maybe the hint of @yannick to ‘profesionalization’ (it was in the preparatory notes) is worth to be recovered.

@angelo No, you’re not mistaken. There are many segments of the conversation that weren’t recorded in time, but it’s in the recording and will be transcribed later. Right @noemi?

If you chef the full google doc there’s a reference there (I added everything I could, but it’s a loong conversation):

Nadia: We can help with the process if you want Yannick. I found us a lawyer who would put in pro-bono time and already has clients in Horeca

I didn’t record the name of said service, unless @nadia wants to share it publicly?

Thanks, @Puja and @noemi
@Puja I think the topics are very good and comprehensive of the conversation we had. Besides the events, they are a framework to give continuity to conversation and actions.

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Hi all, for those interested, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation is hosting a series of events next week on the future of food - in particular, there is one session on Monday afternoon on




ping @stefanoboski

The software or the legals? Legal support = individual lawyer I know, not an established service.