Organic Student Life

Organic Student Life

04 March 2018 by Mehdi
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Recently, I had an interview with Jacob de Vries, the owner and manager of the organic shop De Nieuwe Weg, asking him about his shop, his customers, whys and wherefores of leading an organic lifestyle, and his take on the “organicity” of student life in Groningen among a few other subjects.

How do you define an organic product? What reasons are there to use organic products?

First question, you can and must define organic in a formal way; it is a product that copes with a set of (international) rules, the do’s and don’ts that regulate organic farming and proceeding food. The word “organic” is well defined and protected in use.
These rules express a different attitude towards how we use land, water, plants and animals. In short, nature has an integrity of its own and must be respected. This opinion on nature is an interesting mixture of romantic philosophy and scientific (ecological) notions.

As for the second question, you can distinguish different reasons that motivates people to buy organic food; first, Concern for the environment including all living animals that feed us; second, concern for bad quality of “normal” food, both from an esthetic point of view (i.e. taste) and concerning buyers’ health; and third, a politically motivated choice against capitalism, mass production, exploitation etc.

What motivated you to set up an organic shop?

I was educated as a biologist. For me, it became clear that every human act can reach an ecological level we can’t go beyond. Because, as humans, we feel the repercussions (e.g. climate change) but the main reason is that we have to respect nature for nature’s sake. The loss of biodiversity makes humans poor.
The choice for an organic shop was incidental: I probably would be a biology teacher if it were not for the former owner of the shop who quit and offered me the ownership of De Nieuwe Weg, back in 1988.

You offer about 2500 consumable organic products and a few hundred environment-friendly [household] products. What percentage of the items in this shop are locally produced as opposed to mass-produced? Can you give me a few examples of such items? Can we trust mass-produced organic products in terms of quality and safety?

The border between local or global, or small and mass production is vague, grey. But a lot of customers like products to be local. But banana, orange, pistachio, pasta, peanut, chocolate, coffee, tea, to name a few, will never be “local.” And as nature has no borders it is good to have farmers in other parts of the world that choose the organic path in their own environment and make a living!
What helps motivating customers is to know the producers, and of course this is far easier when they are local, like our baker from the Terp, or Brian and Cathrien who make dedicated products for our shop. A point of discussion is the ecological foot print products have especially imported products. Therefore, none of the organic vegetables are transported by plane. And my main grocer tries to find suppliers within Europe although it might be cheaper to buy from China, for example.
I think there is, in principal, no difference in quality of a small or a mass organic producer. They both have strong and weak points. But there might be a difference in working conditions and the role money plays and determines decisions.

Who is this shop for?

Organic food only covers 3,5% of all the food that is sold in the Netherlands. The sales are growing but it is still a niche market. As I see in my shop it is definitely not only food for the elite. Many customers don´t have a good income, or rather are relatively poor. And I like and appreciate their choice. Most customers buy a small part of their food organic, the other things they buy in local markets, supermarkets etc. We supply for nearly every demand in the daily choice for food. There is and must be no obstacle for anybody to come and try organic food. But of course, in reality there are obstacles, like the small numbers of organic food shops and the relatively high price of the food.

How popular organic products are among students in Groningen? What products are the most popular ones among students based on your own experience with student clients?

I have a discussion on this topic with my niece, Lotte, who is now helping us to improve the use of our social media. She is 25 years old and finished her study two years ago, and is positive about the eagerness of students to use organic food. In my experience students are, generally speaking, not very interested for three reasons: first, they have to discover how to cook. Second, they don’t have a lot of money. And third, for young adults the social discovery of the world is much more important.
Of course there are many exceptions. I estimate the number of students in my shop to be less than 10% and the revenues less than 5%.

Organic products are arguably more expensive than their non-organic counterparts, and I can imagine that great many students might be of the opinion that using organic products should be considered a luxury. Do you think organic products should be considered luxurious and hence unnecessary, if you will?

Is breathing a luxury? As many of my poor income customers show, it is a matter of choice. In the Netherlands, the average daily expenses for food are ± €6.-. Everybody can afford a small expense on organic food, you don’t have to mutate in a 100% organic foodie to be part of the deal.
Of course, I would like to sell organic products for lower prices as may happen when the scale of production, grow and the cost for overhead and logistics are getting less. On the other hand, the shadow side and real price of ‘common’ food is rarely shown. For example, the price of drinking water is raised because the water companies need to make more efforts to clean the water from pesticide pollution. The price of pollution is enormous, the loss of species is priceless.

Given that most students are in their 20s and have a high metabolism, is that a good enough reason to avoid consuming healthier?

Hmm, strange question. Young people tend to enjoy being fit and make a lot of effort to stay fit. Why not including food? My advice is start learning how to cook from the base with fresh vegetables, dairy, meat etc. Develop a taste for what is nice and good food. Readymade food tends to be sweet, salty and fat and can be very expensive! Compare the prices of Albert Heijn-to-Go with organic food: we are cheaper.

Relatedly, should organic products be regarded as a class of commodities produced for particular strata of society or should they be regarded (by consumers) and advertised as products that are worth buying for everybody?

You will not be surprised that I plead for organic food for everybody. We can’t cross the ecological border which defines life, we must learn to respect the way our food is made and not waste it, we must develop a better taste for quality.

Providing education about and doing research on healthy ageing has turned into a major focus for the main higher education institutions in Groningen, namely the University of Groningen and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, as of late. For example, the University of Groningen is trying to address the knowledge gap concerning the influences of lifestyle, food patterns and environmental on the development of health. Both institutions are in cooperation with the business sector to address some of the issues that the society is faced with the ageing of its members. The aim of their research is to help more people participate in society and thereby to help increase economic productivity. What is your opinion about linking healthy ageing to increasing economic profitability help the cause?

This is a very complex matter, beyond my knowledge. I’m getting suspicious by making the economic output as the main goal for ageing healthier. Economic goals are just a small part of living well. Working is much more than just producing. Enjoying the work you do, enjoying the food you eat are the main reasons, beside others, to live and keep in shape.

Organic products consume lots of resources such as land, water, …. Given the shortage of such resources in tandem with the population growth in the world, what can be the role of organic products, consumable and non-consumable, in achieving a healthy ageing model?
What role can small businesses such as your shop potentially play in addressing issues related to ageing?

Feeding all the people that live on our earth is a major political issue. But most of the poverty and hunger has nothing to do with lack of food. Again, we have to make choices. If we want every global citizen to be able to eat 75 kilos of meat a year as we do in the Netherlands, there will not be enough arable land and water left. Much of our consumption is a luxury. Of course, I like cream cake, or meat, but I don’t have to eat them every day.
I think that quite subtle with the organic food (movement) comes a different attitude of consuming. An old German research reported that German organic food consumers spent less money on food that the common consumers.
As for the whole picture, organic farmers can contribute a lot to a sustainable way of farming, which is usually easier for small farmers in poor countries to adapt than the modern high output farming which needs a lot of technology, knowledge and money.
Our shop is just a tiny piece in the chain between production and consuming. Supplying organic food to the customers and hopefully improve the awareness about the sustainable quality organic food offers.

You welcome those who are interested in volunteering with you. Who do you think would benefit from volunteering with you? How do you think the students who want to go to the field of healthy ageing can benefit from volunteering at shops such as yours?

The most of the volunteers are trying to pick up their lives after a burn-out, divorce, imprisonment, accident, addiction, mental disturbance etc. In a normal working setting they would not easily find a job that fits their abilities and handicaps. For them a volunteering job can be a very good temporary in between. A small group of volunteers don’t have any of these uncertainties in life. For them the work can be a tribute to an ideal or a working experience they want to try out for their next choice in their career etc.
As regards to the students I point to the above answers. Organic food can be a part of a different way of thinking and living. We usually propagate ´slow food´ instead of ´fast food´. And of course, there are links between life style, health and food but the matter is complex. You can’t say organic food makes you healthier, food is no drug!

You frequently organize a special day on which certain products can be tried (de proeverij-dagen)? Is that a new tradition in your shop or goes back longer?

The proof of the pudding is in eating!
It is very common that in food shops customers are invited to try things out. My dream would be to have a lunch room combined with the food shop. So, every month some voluntary cooks are making a soup. We even had a Persian customer who made chickpeas cookies!
Some producers offer ‘proeverijen’ in the shop with their line of products. The more we can offer to taste, the better.
A special day, the annual ´Klantendag´, is the Saturday close to the longest day, the 21th of June. Than we offer music, discount and a lot of free food. We’ve done it for more than ten years and it is a lot of fun, for both sides!

What is special about this shop in your own words? What distinguishes your shop from other organic shops in the city?

To be honest, I don’t think the shop has special features; we are as any other shop, although the small physical food shops become rare. What defines a good shop is the way the customers are treated: they must feel at ease. And they determine the ambiance as well.

I would like to thank Mr.  Jacob de Vries for this interesting conversation and invite the readers to visit De Nieuwe Weg on Nieuweweg 5. For more information about the shop, please visit www.denieuweweg.nu.  

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