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How the Dutch Battle Bulging Bellies

They douse Dunlap’s Disease with healthy food policies.

One of the 800-pound gorillas of the U.S. is its size. Not the size of the country – the size of its people.

Many U.S. citizens suffer from Dunlap’s disease. That’s when their belly “dun laps” over their belt. More than one in three U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

A share of that is caused by heaping helpings of high-fat food and sugary drinks at which health professionals blanch. (Well, bratwurst does taste way better than broccoli!)

The Dutch do things a bit differently, though, as they showed to over 200 agricultural journalists from over 40 countries who met earlier this month at the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) Congress in The Netherlands. One city actually has a food alderman. Leon Meijer fills this position for the city of Ede, located in the central part of The Netherlands. He compares healthy eating to the soccer boys who were caught in the cave in Thailand earlier this month. In the human nutrition world, it’s akin to hungry children in the world who lack for food.

“But we look at the western world, there are (similar) boys (and girls, too) who eat chips and are obese. Those boys are in a cave, too.

“Farm policy is normally about farm income and how to produce food,” he adds. He thinks emphasizing healthy food should be a part of the debate, too. He says his job isn’t to be a finger-waver, food shaming people for eating unhealthy food. Instead, he and his staff seek to educate Ede citizens about the benefits of healthy eating and how it can aid them in various facets of life.

“If you are 65 and break your hip, you will recover more quickly if you have eaten healthy food,” says Meijer. “For the young, it is important to have a food policy. They can avoid problems if they eat right early in life.” For example, one third of the schools in Ede have food gardens, where youngsters learn the importance of growing and eating healthy foods, he says.

“Food can carry a very, very important message,” adds Arjan de Boer, who runs a magazine called Food Inspiration. 

That’s particularly true for millennials born between 1977 and 2000. “For them, food is a lifestyle,” he says. “They want to know more about it, where it comes from. It is about having dinner tonight and putting the phone down and starting to talk to each other about what happened that day.

Food Valley

Ede is in the heart of the central area of The Netherlands known as the Food Valley.  Wageningen University and Research (WUR) anchors the area. 

It’s helped The Netherlands be the world’s second-leading agricultural exporter, right behind the U.S. The Food Valley region generated 4.4 billion euros ($5.5 billion) in foreign exports in 2015.

“The Netherlands is on a mission to feed the planet’s people today and tomorrow,” says Harry Veldhuis, area development manager for the World Food Center (WFC). Veldhuis says the WFC—slated for completion at Ede in 2021—will:

  • Increase public awareness of the nation’s food and horticulture industries.
  • Show the influence of the Dutch’s food sector on the world.
  • Contribute to improving nutrition science worldwide.
  • Provide an inviting food-oriented educational presentation.
  • Initiate a worldwide network of World Food Centers.

The WFC will feature a theatre modeled after the one in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. The WFC will also feature a children’s cooking university and a living lab classroom.

 “The World Food Center provides a ripe opportunity to tell a powerful story,” says Veldhuis.

Food Entrepreneurs

Also present in the Food Valley at Ede is SmaakPark, a food culinary school headquartered in a former military building in Ede.  It’s touted as “an amusement park for people who want to eat well.” It features a Food Hall that houses a cooking studio and also contains room for food entrepreneurs to sell their products.

“Dutch cuisine is about having the best flavor,” says cofounder Christian Weil. “A lot of chefs embrace it. It is simple, but it’s good.”

Supporting Dutch agriculture is a vibrant seed industry. The Netherlands has 250 plant breeding and propagation programs, with 12,000 employees and annual revenues of 2.3 billion euros ($2.69 billion), says Mirjam Both, marketing and communications manager for Bejo, a Dutch seed firm. Much of that centers around vegetable seeds and vegetable production, she says. “People here are eating healthier, so that will keep vegetable demand growing for the future,” she says.

The emphasis on healthy foods like fresh vegetables is aided by Dutch farmers, who grew 2.5 billion euros ($2.93 billion) worth of them in 2017.

Typical is Peter Appleman, who grows cauliflower and cabbage on Appleman Farms near Stompertoren in The Netherlands. “We have a saying, ‘We eat it if it flies, swims, or grows,’ ” he says. He draws the line at processed food in which numerous additives or preservatives are included. Missing in all this, though, is the use of genetically modified crops. Dutch firms are among the world leaders in the seed business, with close to $1.7 billion worth of exports in 2016. Yet they market no GMO products.

 This extends to the grocery shelf, too. Since 2004, The Netherlands has required food labels to indicate if the product contains more than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients. In this case the words genetically modified or produced with genetically modified are placed before the name of the ingredient. However, few genetically modified products are marketed in The Netherlands.

Meanwhile, labels aren’t required on products containing milk, meat, or eggs of animals that have eaten genetically modified feed.  Likewise, if cotton from genetically modified cotton plants no longer contains viable seed, this need not be indicated on the label.

“There is still a strong political debate on this topic,” says Miriam van Bree, manager of innovation at Bionext, an organic food organization in The Netherlands. ”The organic sector wants to stay GMO-free. There is a strong movement (for being non-GMO free) from NGOs (non-government organizations). Others say GMOs are a necessary part of a sustainable future.”

So How’s All This Working?

The Dutch don’t spend all of their time munching on veggies. They love french fries and high-fat foods just like everyone else. They do exercise a lot, as bikes are everywhere. But one factor separating them from other countries battling bulging bellies is the government’s willingness to attack health risks at multiple levels, particularly in schools and in low-income areas.

It likely is one reason why Ede was recently honored with being the happiest city in The Netherlands, says Meijer.  “I think it is due to our food policy,” he adds.

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