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Boosting Produce Consumption:
Can Cucumber Time Move Things Forward?

This past summer Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott came to the Netherlands to check things out as a chance to gain context for The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference. She learned she was there for “Cucumber Time” and that the name was being used as an excuse for a  promotion and that it was all designed to help boost consumption. We asked Mira to find out more:

Dutch Parliament is back in session. Getting government buy-in to promote and bolster fresh produce consumption amid conflicting political forces and competing industry interests presents challenges, according to Wilma van den Oever, communications manager at GroentenFruit Huis/Fresh Produce Centre, which represents Holland’s fresh fruit and vegetable sector, headquartered in Zoetermeer, The Netherlands. 

“That is why it was a salient event this summer when Martijn van Dam, our State Secretary of Economic Affairs and Netherland’s Minister of Agriculture in Brussels and abroad, surprised his constituents by giving away bushels of fresh cucumbers and other vegetable snacks outside the Parliament building in the Netherland’s preeminent government square, het Plein in the Hague.  

The event ironically foreshadowed “Action Time” proposals in the works this fall to increase produce consumption, while kicking off Komkommertijd, which in other countries is called Silly Season. In other words, it was “Cucumber Time” or the dog days of summer when Parliament recesses with no meetings for six to eight weeks and there is little news to report because politicians and many others are on holiday. Yet cucumbers are harvested in the summer, and in the produce world, there is plenty of action with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables hitting their prime.

“F.A. Stoett defines the cucumber time as a slack time in the summer months when few things are done, and the market in general is not very lively, but there are lots of cucumbers!” says van den Oever, noting, the origins of Cucumber Time are not definitive but are rich in British and German allegories.

Left to right: Gert Mulder, Martijn van Dam, Jos van Mil

Intent to capitalize on this produce double entendre, GroentenFruit Huis teamed up with the Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, a department of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and several GroentenFruit Huis pro-active produce supplier members.  

Left to right: Martijn van Dam, Rob Baan, Gert Mulder, Gerda Feunekes, Silvia Janssen-Voorbij

Participants included Gert Mulder, CEO, Fresh Produce Centre/GroentenFruit Huis; Jos van Mil, marketing and sales director at Greenco Packing BV; Rob Baan, director at Koppert Cress; Gerda Feunekes, executive director at Voedingscentrum, The Netherlands Nutrition Centre; and Silvia Janssen-Voorbij, manager GMO & finance, Cooperation Kompany U.A., a leading cooperative of cucumber growers.

Martijn van Dam, a strong proponent of increasing produce consumption, was the brainchild behind the collaborative Cucumber Time event, according to van den Oever. Van Dam joined industry executives to promulgate the benefits of fresh produce at the makeshift produce market stands set up in the big government square, passing out cucumbers, snack tomatoes and little sweet peppers outside het Binnenhof, the official name for the building for the House of Representatives of the Netherlands. [The Dutch Parliament, called the States General, consists of two chambers, The Senate and the House of Representatives.]  

In the spirit of Komkommertijd in the Netherlands, I ventured on a train from Amsterdam to Zoetermeer, via the Hague, to catch Wilma van den Oever, communications manager at the GroentenFruit Huis/ Fresh Produce Centre, right before she was heading out for her holiday break. It would not be long before she would return to a packed agenda covering a range of sector issues — “It’s not only about opening new markets, but dealing with the problems of markets closing… and strategizing innovative ways to help our members increase produce consumption.”

“About our history,” she explains, “two years ago, the Dutch Produce Association and Frugi Venta looked to form this organization Fresh Produce Centre (FPC) or GroentenFruit Huis. On January 1, 2016, we officially merged the two organizations to speak with one voice on behalf of the fruit and vegetable sector. We were slowly growing. We now have 400 members.” Those members include importers, exporters, wholesalers and producer organizations, but not retailers or foodservice providers. 

“The Dutch Produce Association still has a part with subsidies from Brussels.  EU member states pay in to Brussels, and it is only possible to receive money if recognized by the EU Growers Organization,” she says, adding, “An independent grower cannot go there.”

GroentenFruit Huis is steadfast in building alliances and intersecting causes with a broad range of government and private entities from healthcare to NGOs, to education, science, and retail to address sector challenges and to partner on various projects. “We are working together with many organizations, including those in the health field and restaurants to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.”  

“Last year, we were focusing on getting more organizations around the table. We all have the same goal to increase produce consumption for different reasons. There is the business aspect and the health aspect…,” she continues. “We also want to get supermarkets involved. The fresh produce department is the biggest moneymaker. Together we can have an impact.”

Produce consumption remains an issue in The Netherlands, as it does in the U.S. and many other countries. “Here in the Netherlands, the guidelines for produce consumption are 250 grams of vegetables a day and two pieces of fruit,” says van den Oever. However, “only two percent of adults in the Netherlands eat this amount. [See report, We Eat Less Vegetables Than We Think].  

The guidelines in the Netherlands for vegetables used to be 200 grams based on World Health Organization recommendations, but in the Netherlands, the recommendation increased to 250 grams directed by Voedingscentrum, the Netherlands organization paid by the government to inform consumers about good food, according to van den Oever. There has been consumer research that shows people do not know how much that is; they are unable to assess or measure what 250 grams equals, she explains.

Produce is traditionally not a mainstay in the Dutch diet, according to van den Oeover. “People in the Netherlands are used to eating three times a day and snack on yogurt and sweets. Only in the evening, we eat vegetables for dinner.   In this scenario, we will never reach the recommended guidelines,” she laments.

“In many restaurants in the Netherlands, you choose meat or fish, a side of potato or French fries, and something green for decoration.  We see a lot more chefs taking vegetables into a leading role on the plate — the 80 percent/20 percent shift, where vegetables are the majority of the dish,” she says, adding, but this is not typical.

There are many initiatives focused on the platform of healthy eating for kids up to 4 years old. Organizations such as Wageningen University, and hospitals in Rotterdam play a part. The City of Rotterdam is also involved.

“We organize a Vegetable Congress, connecting our members with people from healthcare and other areas, to figure out what we can do to help increase consumption at home, in schools, through childcare, etc., and how to make the right products, and make them more attractive.”

Giving out free cucumbers and vegetable snacks outside of Parliament to announce Cucumber Time resets an otherwise slow news cycle and tells a story of how vegetables are good for lunch or a snack instead of chocolate, and educates and encourage people to eat more produce, according to van den Oever. The goal now is to build on that news angle with initiatives that are more sustainable.

“We as an organization are in contact with our Ministry and getting closer to a solution, which involves the start of a special project to increase produce consumption,” she previews. “An action plan is in development, which will include government money and matching funds from sector companies,” she says, adding, “We are also working on bringing in retailers.”  

The pace of change can sometimes be slower than desired, despite Cucumber Time’s seasonal duration.  “We hoped to have things rolling more quickly after the holidays in September, but it always takes more time to get programs like this implemented,” she says, excited by the prospects.

“Hopefully, we’ll have more to share on that front at The Amsterdam Produce Show in November,” says van den Oever, adding, “I think the Netherlands deserves The Amsterdam Produce Show.  It will be the first time for such an event, and a good outlet to help increase produce consumption.“

Strides have been made in plans to boost consumption. In fact we have a panel, at the show, specifically focused on that, you can read about the panel here

The key factor is that it can’t all be on the producers of fruits and vegetables. Many of the benefits of increased produce consumption, such as healthier people and lower medical costs, are benefits that do not rebound to farmers. So we need to find a way to support these efforts that won’t burden farmers.

This means it is especially important to undertake efforts that we can confirm achieve things. We have to conduct programs in such a way that the results are verifiable and persuasive to people who don’t care about selling more produce. This means control groups, explorations into health outcomes and much more.

Come to the Amsterdam Produce show and Conference and join the exploration of these issues. You can register online or at the door.

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