Kort’om: Leuven city bets on food ‘from around the corner’ for everyone

Kort’om: Leuven city bets on food ‘from around the corner’ for everyone

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Three men sit around a conference table and watch a large screen with a spreadsheet showing all kinds of foods and numbers. “We still lack tomatoes; 300 kilograms is not sufficient. Apples and pears, more than enough.” Speaking is Patrick Pasgang. He is a consultant of the Support point for Innovation ( Innovatiesteunpunt ), and with his expertise in starting up various short chain initiatives in the Belgian region Flanders, he is the ideal man to help support the short chain platform, called “Kort’om Leuven”. The other persons present are Joris Aertsens, from Rikolto, who steers the ambitious project, and Nick François of the Farmers’ Union ( Boerenbond ). “I try to use the Farmers Union’s network to motivate farmers to work together at Kort’om Leuven”, says Nick.

A few months before launching the local platform Kort’om Leuven, these men met to assess whether there is enough supply from local farmers who wish to offer their produce to local consumers through the platform.

Straight from the farmer to your plate

Aertsens clarifies, “The intention of the local platform Kort’om is to become a central pivot for local produce in a radius of forty kilometres around Leuven, and for professional buyers in and around the town. We collect products with the farmers and deliver them to supermarkets, local shops, hotels, restaurants and industrial kitchens, among others. We strive to supply a varied range: potatoes, vegetables and fruits, dairy, meat and processed meat, but also local products such as marmalade, cookies and chocolates.”

“Both conventional and organic products are welcome, and both small- and large-scale producers. Until now, 60 producers have shown interest in cooperating with Kort’om.”

Joris Aertsens Rikolto's Programme Advisor

Thanks to Kort’om Leuven, producers can better connect to the consumer. Which is why the initiative is considered a short-chain: a distribution model that is gaining adepts in Belgium. Farm shops, farmers markets, CSA companies, neighbourhood farms (Buurderijen), vegetable subscriptions, Food Teams… they all start from this short-chain principle, in which the farmer or producer is in direct contact with the buyer.

Short chains in number

A report of VLAM (the Flemish centre for marketing for agriculture and fishery) shows that the market share of short chains increased by 5% in 2017. This increase is mainly due to improved sales in farmers markets and neighbourhood farms. Sales on farmers markets in Flanders have increased by 6 percent, nearing 11 million euros.

Short-chain sales are a way of broadening that is gaining importance. According to data from Statbel, in 2016, 2,404 companies (10% of all farms) were involved in one or more forms of 'direct sales'. Of these, 10% (234 companies) were exclusively selling directly and 19 % (446 companies) were selling between 50 and 100% directly. For 72%, the share of direct sales in their total sales was less than 50%.

Although it is increasing, the market share of the short-chain still remains limited. Compared to other fresh-food distribution channels, the market share of farm shops is only 0,8% and 0,15% for farmers’ markets. So, in total, the share of the short chain remains stuck around 1%.

“Our ambition is to scale up the principles we find in the short chain. At the Flemish level, we want this 1% to mount to 5% of short-chain sales, says Aertsens. “Which is also why we work with the mainstream distribution channels, like supermarkets and restaurants. Those give us the potential to scale up. This is a pilot project, with the idea that this may also be interesting in other cities.”

“In other regions we also see these types of initiative, such as Vanier in Ghent, for instance, ‘Lekkers uit Pajottenland’ (Goodies from the Pajotten region) and Fresh From the Farm in the Kempen area. Those are already functioning well and contribute to that higher percentage”

Patrick Pasgang Innovatiesteunpunt

A win-win for consumers and producers

A more sustainable Leuven

There are many ways in which Kort’om Leuven can contribute to a more sustainable food system in Leuven. “In principle, all producers can join, but we communicate in a very transparent way about how the company works.”, Aertsens says. “We also want to develop a scoring system to inform buyers and consumers about how sustainable a company is, based on a number of criteria such as climate, animal welfare and water use. With that score we want to encourage consumers to choose more sustainable products, which in turn stimulates producers to produce in a more sustainable way. Partners such as Innovatiesteunpunt and Food Teams are there to help farmers. Our survey shows that half of the interested farmers hope that Kort’om Leuven can help them make their enterprise more sustainable.

Leuven’ Food Strategy: Food connects

“The food chain is transparent. The benefits and costs are fairly distributed between all the players in the chain. There is a large mix of high-performance distribution channels for products from the region, both via the short chain and via local traders, the hospitality industry, catering and retail. Sustainable local food is recognisable and accessible on every corner of the street and is affordable for everyone.”

This is an extract of Leuven’s Food strategy “Food connects” established in 2018 with the City of Leuven and other actors. It supports the development of alternative food systems such as Kort’om Leuven, aiming at making the food system in the city more sustainable.

Food waste prevention

In terms of sustainability, a short chain can also prevent food waste, Pasgang says. “Wholesalers usually work with an AB system: at night, a restaurant must order before 10 p.m., and delivery is then made at 5 a.m. in the morning. A short chain often works with an AC system: you order today, tomorrow it is harvested and the day after tomorrow your order is delivered. That is good for quality, as it means you always have fresh products. In an AB system, the wholesaler must predict what will be sold, on the basis of which they purchase at an auction or from a farmer. That results in stocks often waiting for long periods in the fridge; after a week they are no longer fresh and become waste. In an AC system, you can harvest exactly what is ordered. In that part of the chain you don’t have to waste any food.”

Right prices

Another major advantage of the platform is that farmers can determine their own price. “Within a certain margin, that is.”, Aertsens nuances. “if they were to charge more than 30 percent on top of the price they charge for conventional sales, they would have to explain why. If producers ask substantially more than through other channels, there is a real danger that we price ourselves out of the market. Half of the interested producers indicated that they expect to get a better price for a product with Kort’om Leuven”.

The price that farmers receive today for their products is a problem talked about among Belgian farmers.“Especially when there is a surplus on production, for instance in the tomato season, prices fall very sharply. Through this platform, farmers will then be able to ask at least their cost price says Aertsens.

“A farmer is a price taker, not a price setter. So, often he receives for his product what the buyer, such as a wholesaler, gives for it.”

Nick François Farmers Union

Less workload, less risk and better visibility for farmers

“The workload also becomes less heavy for farmers who already sell through short-chains; they no longer need to make deliveries themselves to the hotels, restaurants and cafes. In addition to the larger sales market and larger margin that you can take on a product, it also ensures that your income is distributed. It is wise not to put all your eggs in one basket, but to generate income through different channels. And it is good for the visibility of the agricultural sector. If you can ensure that the consumer is closer to the farmer, this increases respect and knowledge about food and also increases the willingness to pay the right price.” Adds Nick François, Farmers Union.

Stumbling blocks

It is not self-evident to establish a well-functioning platform and have short chains flourish in a town. Several similar projects had already started but had to stop. On the one hand because the organization of logistics revealed to be difficult and on the other hand because of the cost structure behind it.

"I have seen examples where, on top of the price of an article, 10% was charged for logistics, paid by the farmer" says Pasgang. “That is not feasible in a short chain. In the wholesale distribution sector, there is an additional cost for logistics of between 3 and 12%, but in the short-chain sector, you have to charge at least 20%. That is because volumes are much smaller, so instead of a large truck you need smaller means of transport - you want to avoid driving around with half-empty trucks, because that is neither sustainable nor cost efficient. You need enough customers and enough demand from the right actors. We certainly need large buyers, such as industrial kitchens, for example. A good news? There is already a lot of demand from supermarkets that increasingly focus on local purchases."

The platform will be tested from March 2020 onwards, and it will become clear whether the thorough preparations will be sufficient to turn Kort’om Leuven into a success. “We don’t expect it to run like a train from the beginning. It won’t be profitable for a few months, but the project is supported by many different parties: Food Teams, the Farmers Union, many other civil society organisations, the City of Leuven and the province. If all of them give it publicity, there is a bigger chance of success” continues Aertsens.

We hope to be able to surf along on the wave of enthusiasm that is now clearly there, and to write a success story in the long term! We need everyone on board!

Editor: EOS, Marieke van Schoonhoven (Eos Tracé)


Michael Moulaert - michael.moulaert [at] rikolto.org - 0484/060.047

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