Robin Food, a project by Rikolto, Community Development Riso Vlaams-Brabant and enVie, is set to expand into Europe to transform food surplus into healthy food products to safeguard vulnerable families. This is possible thanks to an investment by EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative.
COVID-19 tears up food chains
Robin Food was launched in April in Belgium in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Due to the sudden economic shock, a growing group of people found themselves without enough means to feed themselves and their families. As a result, food aid organizations and social grocers saw an increase in demand, while less food surplus was coming through supermarkets.
In addition, farmers were confronted with large vegetable surplus, partly due to the closure of the catering industry and the challenges of exporting. “Through enVie, a social enterprise that produces soup from Belgian surplus vegetables, we have been able to collaborate with their partner REO Veiling, which is a fruit and vegetable auction who has also felt the consequences of COVID-19, having larger volumes of surplus products. With Robin Food we can give value to more of these surplus vegetables by processing them into soups,” says Joris Aertsens of Rikolto. “Thanks to the network of Community Development Riso Vlaams-Brabant, the soup is distributed to those who need it most, for example through the social grocers.”
Uniting forces across borders
Meanwhile, restaurants and catering businesses are open again, but the challenge of food surplus remains. The problems for socially vulnerable groups have also been exacerbated by COVID-19. As a result of the economic situation ahead of us, the number of people from socially vulnerable backgrounds is unfortunately likely to grow even more.
The Robin Food initiative now plans to increase its impact beyond national borders and continue its efforts in other countries across Europe. Thanks to an investment from EIT Food, a powerful partnership was established between Dutch, Belgian and Spanish organisations.
“We are a social enterprise working alongside 14 local cooperatives that mainly consist of farmers who process their own products”, says Paolo Fusaro from Robin Good. “We support farmers to help them distribute these products to the market.”
Another Spanish partner, CLC South, has started the “Los Salvacomidas” (or Foodsavers). This initiative addresses the needs of the most impoverished households and also teaches children about healthy food habits to tackle risks such as obesity and malnutrition.
De Verspillingsfabriek in the Netherlands has also been transforming food surplus into new products for several years. The social enterprise is part of the catering company Hutten.“We supply products in a similar way as Robin Food”, explains Drees Vandenbosch of De Verspillingsfabriek. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, they launched Heel Veel Soeps. “For every six packs of soup customers buy, they can donate a pack of soup to a food bank.”
New products for vulnerable people
The Robin Food partnership aims to develop at least three new products that will be launched to the market by the end of 2020 and one additional product by the end of 2021.
“We count on our academic and retail partners in the project to support this product development”, explains Joris Aertsens. “The University of Leuven will set up a mixed student team to support product development and the business plans of social entrepreneurs. Riso, in collaboration with students and the Belgian retailer group Colruyt Group, will conduct a market study identifying the needs of vulnerable customers and the type of products that are most desired. The Spanish retailer Eroski will perform a similar role in Spain.”
StartLife, the food & agtech accelerator located on the Wageningen Campus, joins in this mission. Carla van Heck, startup scout at StartLife: “In this project we support foodservice startups hit by the Covid19 pandemic and help them to redirect their supply chain to retail and online markets.”
The next phase will involve developing recipes, lab testing, consumer tasting, branding, package design and selling the products through different channels.
Towards a sustainable business model
To make the efforts of the project truly sustainable, a viable business model must be developed. One that allows affordable prices for vulnerable groups but also enables food processing companies or catering facilities to cover their costs. “One of the mechanisms we will explore, will be to also sell the products to ‘solidary’ consumers who are willing to pay a bit more for the product and, by doing so, support vulnerable groups”, says Liesbeth Smeyers from Community Development Riso Vlaams-Brabant, who are already applying this model.
We are exploring business models that allow affordable prices for vulnerable groups but also enables food processing companies or catering facilities to cover their costs.
In the meantime, “Robin Food” has been registered as a trademark. Other companies who are processing food leftovers to give better access to healthy food to people in vulnerable conditions may apply with Riso to use the Robin Food brand.
Closing the gap to the regular job market
In all participating countries, the processing companies who are involved, work with people that have a distance to the regular job market and support them to enter the regular job market. The Belgian start-up enVie, situated in Brussels, is one of them.
Naomi Smith, General Director enVie: “In the scope of 3 years, we have hired and trained 12 individuals with very different backgrounds. Their work at enVie gives them the training and practical experience to become a ‘Food Sector Manufacturing Agent’. In addition to their work, we offer them training in professional skills for them to re-enter the job market with self-confidence and good work ethics. Simultaneously, we guide them to plan their future after enVie.”
No time/food to waste
There’s no time to waste for such a partnership. “Before the end of the year we have to complete most of the project, but the potential is enormous,” says Joris Aertsens. “Collaborating with retailers like Colruyt Group (Belgium) and Eroski (Spain) can maximise the impact. It could mean a big leap in tackling two social problems at the same time: more people having better access to healthy and affordable food and a reduction in waste of surplus food.”