One meal at a time: finding opportunity in food waste
A conversation with Freke van Nimwegen of Instock
Making an impact on the world can start with something as simple as changing how we think about the food on our table, or rather, the food that never makes it to our table. That’s the approach that Freke van Nimwegen and many other entrepreneurs have been taking in recent years as the issue of food waste gains steam. Freke founded Instock, a restaurant that cooks with unsold and surplus food, with her partners Bart Roetert and Selma Seddik back in 2014 when they won a company sustainability competition at Ahold. Growing from a pop-up restaurant to an organization with almost 100 employees, three stores and a growing wholesale market, Instock is out to make an impact through the most ubiquitous starting point: what we eat.
We founded Instock because we noticed that there was a big problem with food waste, and we saw that there wasn’t really a solution for it yet. Of course, there isn’t just one solution for food waste — we need many — but in our case, we worked in a supermarket and saw firsthand all of the unsold food that was wasted at the end of each day. We called the food banks, but they couldn’t take everything. That’s when we started brainstorming and came up with the concept of a restaurant that would use this kind of food. The idea got off the ground because there was an innovation competition at Ahold, which we ended up winning. When we won the competition, that made it real, and we said; “Ok, we really want to do this.” That’s the beginning of the startup Instock.
You started as a foundation but are now a B.V. corporation. How did you decide to make that switch?
We were a foundation in the beginning because we didn’t expect that Instock was going to be such a success. It started as a pop-up restaurant, and it was more like a project. When it started to take off, we realized that we wanted to make things more permanent, and at that point, the foundation had its limits. The whole structure was meant for a project, so it was time we acted like a real startup, which meant we had to find a structure for the organization. We were also supported by Albert Heijn (a subsidiary of Ahold) for almost five years. That was really helpful in the starting phase, but after a while, it was time to branch out on our own.
Do you still work closely with Albert Heijn?
We still work mainly with the suppliers of Albert Heijn, but not as much with the stores anymore because it’s much harder to collect food from the stores.
Why is that?
Because, as you can imagine, there’s a little bit of food waste in every store, and it’s a huge logistical challenge to pass by each one. We tried collecting it at a central point, but that still took a lot of time and effort. Then we decided to focus on where the largest amount of food waste is coming from — the beginning of the food supply chain. At the beginning of the food chain, there’s suppliers, producers and farmers that have a much higher percentage of waste than the supermarkets, so it made more sense to focus our efforts there.
A big component of your work seems to be around raising awareness and getting larger companies and the government to rethink the current linear system in favor of a circular economy. You’ve said that the restaurants are in some ways a “means” and not an end in themselves. Why’s that important?
It’s important because if we reach a point where there’s no more food waste, then there’s no reason for our existence or for the restaurants anymore, and then we would stop. It’s not that we dreamt of having a food restaurant chain or having a restaurant at all. We just saw a problem and we acted on it. If we manage to make it normal to cook like Instock does, then I think we will have reached our goal and won’t need the restaurants anymore. Another way to look at it is that we are constantly thinking about how we can make more impact on our mission. That applies to how we can reduce more waste on our own, but also to how we can activate others. If we constantly have that as an end goal, then our strategic steps will be based on that instead of how to make the restaurants better. We could open up 10 more restaurants, but it’s still difficult to make a large impact with things that only involve ourselves. That’s why now we’re focusing on our wholesale company called Instockmarket.nl. It’s an online platform where we post all of the food we rescue each day and chefs from all kinds of restaurants and catering companies can order it to use in their kitchens. That’s what we see as the future: more and more chefs who are aware of their own possibilities of reducing food waste and also reducing their own footprint by choosing wisely. Coming back to your question, that’s why the restaurants are not the end goal. We’re constantly innovating to see how we can create more impact with all the other stuff that goes into this issue.
“It’s not that we dreamt of having a food restaurant chain or having a restaurant at all. We just saw a problem and we acted on it.”
How do you measure impact at Instock?
We count every crate of food that comes in and that adds up to a number of kilos of food saved. This is our most important impact measure.
You said that food waste is sort of a “low hanging fruit”. Do you see this issue as a gateway to other impact issues?
Definitely. If we think about our own individual impact on the environment, then a lot of us think about flying or driving less, etc. While those things can make a big impact, one-third of our own personal impact is from what we eat and drink. Within that, there are two huge areas you can focus on: eating less meat and wasting less food. Most people aren’t very aware of their food waste, but it’s not like they’re thinking; “Oh okay, I’ll throw this food away.” So that’s what I mean by “low hanging fruit”, everyone can agree that we need to deal with food waste and the people who don’t really care about it are at least not against it. While if you talk about meat — and I think we should still move forward on a more plant-based diet — it’s more difficult to convince some people.
At Instock, you’re engaging with the issue of food waste from many sides. You’re addressing consumers, producers and distributors, while also advocating for governmental changes. Do you see one player as more important than another for making an impact?
No, I see it happening as a process. When we started, there were basically no initiatives around food waste. Newspapers weren’t really talking about it. The government wasn’t really talking about it. Now, six years later, there are around more than 30 entrepreneurs working on this topic in the Netherlands alone and the government is finding it increasingly important. Even though they haven’t really acted on it yet, they do show that they’re more conscious of the problem and that they are willing to help out where they think they can. So, I think that if you look at it as a process, then you start with the frontrunners; the pioneers that see a problem and act. The next step is for entrepreneurs to come together to form a sort of coalition, and eventually, the large corporations will also get involved. Then I think the last party that will join is the government, because if they see that it’s a thing — a topic for a lot of people, companies and consumers — then they realize that they need to regulate it as well.
What are the main things that need to change for the issue of food waste to be addressed?
Well, at the root cause, you can say that maybe there’s just too much food. We have to look at the production side instead of just the waste products. However, it’s really hard to regulate the production side, because, of course, all of the people at the beginning of the food chain don’t have such an easy job at the moment. We’re talking about the farmers and producers. Their margins are pretty slim, so if you tell them they should produce less, then they think; “Okay, really? So you want me to make even less money?”. So I think the whole system is flawed. Essentially, we should value food more. I think that’s the core. We should see that food is worth a lot more than what we pay for it sometimes, because of all the work that goes into it. If we valued it more, perhaps we’d pay a little bit more for our food and then we wouldn’t waste it as easily.
You said that one of the greatest successes of Instock is that people find initiatives with a story or message increasingly important. Why is storytelling so important in this push or fight?
It helps to take people along in your story. For us, storytelling was simply about saying that we saw a problem we were frustrated by and flipped it into an opportunity. That resonated with people because they could imagine it, rather than if we had just said that one-third of all food is wasted and they should care. Telling a story involves people in the problem, so it’s more visible and tangible for them. It’s a human thing to be more sensitive to stories, and they’re not just important for social enterprises, but in general, for every company.
How do you think about telling your story or mission?
It came really naturally to us. I took some marketing courses at university, but if you just tell your company story and it’s coming from a good place, then it’s not a marketing story — it’s real. That’s when storytelling comes naturally and is not some kind of tactic.
How do you ensure you’re staying mission-driven in everything you do at Instock?
During our organizational meetings, we go back to the core and think about how much food we want to rescue during the year and how many people we want to reach. Then we look at the milestones we need to hit in order to reach those goals. I think if you have the why of your company really clear, then it becomes much easier to do the how and the what.
“It’s a human thing to be more sensitive to stories, and they’re not just important for social enterprises, but in general, for every company.”
What’s next for Instock?
Instockmarket.nl is what we’re working hard on right now. We currently have about 12 suppliers and about 50 clients or chefs that use our food. There’s so much more potential there because we’ve noticed that a lot of producers are becoming aware of the cost of their waste, especially since the government is making it more expensive to waste food. So now it’s becoming not only a social responsibility consideration but also a business cost. As a result, there’s more and more producers and farmers open to working with us, since not only do we take away that cost, but we also provide a destination for their unused food.
What does impact mean to you and Instock?
It’s the basis. Without it, we wouldn’t have a reason to exist. If we aren’t making an impact anymore, we will just stop Instock, because hopefully what we’re doing has become the norm.
> Learn more about this project at moments-of-impact.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.