Leuven 2030 is the roadmap to greater sustainability for the Belgian city of Leuven. One section on “sustainable and healthy food” centres around the launch of a distribution platform for short-chain produce. Short supply chains are a way of selling that creates a direct relationship between farmers who produce food, and consumers.
In other words, involving as few intermediaries as possible. This not only reduces transport distances, and hence the greenhouse gas emissions of our food, but also strengthens the link between consumers and producers. Kort’om Leuven is therefore the perfect stepping stone on the road to a sustainable, climate-neutral future for Leuven.
Local distribution platform Kort’om Leuven will be launched this summer, and will group produce from the area around Leuven and deliver it to Leuven supermarkets and restaurants on fixed days. At the heart of Kort’om Leuven is a group of local farmers, working with Rikolto (formerly Vredeseilanden) and the City of Leuven. One of them is Jan Van der Velpen from Bierbeek, who, together with his brother Patrick, specialises in organic and sustainably grown apples and pears.
We can ensure that supermarkets have a more varied range. Consumers have more choice and can try new fruit produce they haven’t tasted before. Jan Van Der Velpen, Local farmer
On a chilly winter’s morning in February, the bike ride to Jan’s farm in Bierbeek is challenging to say the least. We come across Michael, who makes the journey a bit more interesting by filling us in on some of the details. “Getting the right price for the producer is key in a sustainable food system,” he explains. That’s the central premise of Kort’om Leuven and it makes us unique. The farmers will all be able to have their say, which means they’ll be a lot more involved in the distribution platform, resulting in a stable network with satisfied members.”
When we arrive at the Van der Velpen fruit farm, Patrick is busy putting out the flags to direct visitors to the farm shop stocked with apples, pears, juices and other local products. Farmer Jan greets us and immediately shows us round: the loading area and the cold stores, piled high with fruit crates, are impressively spacious. People are hard at work in the sheds adjoining the shop, cheerfully sorting and packing fruit.
During the tour, Jan tells us what he likes about Kort’om Leuven. “It’s mainly to do with logistics: it’s a relief to us to be able to outsource that aspect. It’s so efficiently organised with Kort’om, so we see a real future in the initiative. Handling our own logistics is really time-consuming, bearing in mind we deliver two or three times a week and there’s a lot involved. If a local pick-up service can be organised, it’s much easier for us.”
Michael adds: “What’s more, Kort’om is a logistics solution for the whole area. Jan already delivers to a few supermarkets, but through Kort’om he can now get his produce to new customers in areas he already had access to.”
It’s not just farmers who have a lot to gain from a local distribution platform, but supermarkets too, according to Michael: “It’s a real plus point for them that we can deliver all local produce at fixed times and grouped together. The quality is also excellent, because the produce we supply is fresh from the field. We collect fruit and vegetables from the farmers and deliver them to the shops the same day. That’s one of the big advantages of a short supply chain!”
Jan also chips in on the subject of the benefits: “We can ensure that supermarkets have a more varied range. Consumers have more choice and can try new fruit produce they haven’t tasted before. We grow around ten apple varieties, some of them organic, such as Natyra, Santana and Topaz. As far as direct sales are concerned, our customers already love the taste of these apples.”
Jan winds up the tour by taking us for a stroll through the fields, showing us how the apple trees are growing and expertly explaining how the anti-hail netting works. A pruning team is working in one of the fields and the noise of their pneumatic pruning shears can be heard from a long way off. When we get closer, we can see the faces and the hard work behind the farm’s juicy apples and pears. This connection with the food we eat also brings the local distribution platform into consumers’ lives.
“If you know where your food comes from and the work that goes into producing it, you’ll be much more food-conscious,” comments Michael. “And you’ll also be more aware of wastage. If you don’t know who’s behind your food, it’s easy to just throw away that last, shrivelled apple. If you know who grew the apple and how much work was involved, you would make more effort to use it up by stewing it. Our local distribution platform has an impact on many other areas, such as food waste.” Since food waste has negative repercussions for the environment, the climate and the economy, it’s good that a short supply chain results in less food being wasted.
We collect fruit and vegetables from the farmers and deliver them to the shops the same day. That’s one of the big advantages of a short supply chain! Michael Moulaert, Rikolto
We say goodbye to Jan and start cycling back to Leuven city centre. Time to chat about the challenges of setting up Kort’om Leuven. “Kort’om will be up and running by this summer, but there’s already been an intensive preparatory phase,” explains Michael as we pedal along. “Even before I was hired as project coordinator, Rikolto had been working hard for a year to get all the stakeholders together and find funding. Our project is ambitious: we get producers, the hospitality industry, supermarkets and consumers involved, so there are a lot of partners to consider.
“The big challenge was to gain the trust of all those parties. We’re gradually managing to do that, because we’re able to provide good, concrete answers to the practical questions posed by those involved. The expertise of, for example, the Innovatiesteunpunt (Innovation Centre for Agricultural and Rural Development), the Cera cooperative and Daniël Cromphout of Berkuus has been a huge help. Farmers are beginning to have confidence in us; they see the potential and are willing to get involved in the project.”
Michael points out that besides winning the partners’ trust, financial support from Circular Flanders (the Flemish centre for the circular economy), the City of Leuven, EIT Food (a pan-European consortium focusing on food sector innovation) and the Belgian Directorate-General for Development Cooperation is crucial. “Without them, Kort’om Leuven wouldn’t exist.”
As Kort’om coordinator, how does Michael envisage the ideal future of the local distribution platform he’s now helping to set up? “Where do I see Kort’om Leuven in ten years’ time?” He thinks about it for a moment. “I see us being one of the primary suppliers of shops, the hospitality industry, schools and mass catering operations in the Leuven area. Large institutions such as hospitals will also order from us, because local food will have become standard. In supermarkets we’ll offer a real alternative to produce from further afield. What’s more, by then our model will have been successfully replicated in other towns and cities. Because a sustainable model that works well is something you have to propagate.”
This article is translated from the Leuven 2030 website