With hundreds of food producers facing ruin in Amsterdam due to the Covid-19 pandemic, worst-maker Sam Levie came up with a new movement to sell directly to consumers while also supporting those most in need.
Isee food as having an incredibly powerful ability to unite people – both through the simple act of coming together at a table to share a meal, and as a cultural celebration.
As a trained chef I have always been interested in how foods are made, and decided to start my own specialist worst (sausage)-making butchery with my mates Jiri and Geert in 2009. Sausages of all kinds are very popular in the Netherlands, with leverworst – a cooked sausage made from the pork liver, tongue and cheek – being particularly popular, as well as rookworst, a smoked sausage eaten with pea soup and zuurkool (sauerkraut). We make these traditional varieties and an Italian-style fermented dry-cured sausage too, all from pigs that live largely outdoors on small Dutch family farms.
The artisan food culture in the Netherlands is very dependent on the restaurant scene – people will eat these more specialist foods when they dine out, but not at home. This means that when the Covid-19 lockdown was instigated on 15 March, I thought I would likely go out of business, and it could really impact the farmers and producers I worked with too. Cheesemakers, bakers, seafood specialists, free-range egg farms and charcuterie makers from across the Netherlands were all facing an enormous threat to their businesses.
I called around and made a plan – we would sell boxes of our products direct to consumers, while also donating hundreds of boxes to the local food banks and a community food organisation called Buurtbuik (which translates as “neighbourhood belly”) who make food for those on the fringes of society. Essentially, the people who bought the boxes helped us to supply the free boxes to those in need. Together with Instock, a social enterprise that battles food waste, we set up a distribution hub and website, and within 48 hours orders were flooding in. Now our Support Your Locals initiative is flourishing nationwide, helping nearly 300 specialist producers to stay in business – making their food and farming their livestock.
Volunteers pack food boxes to sell to more affluent Nederlanders or to give away to charities (Credit: Saskia van Osnabrugge / Food Cabinet)
When the hospital in Amsterdam called and asked if we could make 7,000 boxes of food for their frontline staff we had to step things up. We had 275 volunteers working in shifts and under social-distancing measures in a huge warehouse, dancing along to a DJ as they packed. The volunteers came from all walks of life, and even included a group of out-of-work actors. It was amazing to feel the team spirit and see all of these people working hard and enjoying contributing.
Even if we could not be together, as many people as possible could unite in eating the same soup across the city
I also wanted to use food to unite everyone on our Liberation Day on 5 May, when we mark the end of occupation by Nazi Germany in World War Two. Normally people across Amsterdam would meet in squares and parks to celebrate that we live in a free city, connected to each other. Michelin star chef Joris Bijdendijk and I had been asked to host the biggest ever freedom dinner, but as all events were cancelled we came up with an alternative plan. We crafted a recipe for our Vrijheidsmaaltijdsoep (Freedom Meal Soup), so that even if we could not be together, as many people as possible could be united in eating the same meal across the city. We made huge batches and delivered it to 7,500 homes, and did a live cookalong too for those who wanted to cook it themselves. It turns out 15,000 people downloaded the recipe on the day itself!
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The soup recipe we devised is symbolic – squash and carrot, a traditional Dutch base in the national colour of orange, with spices from all over the world including cumin, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric and cayenne. Historically Amsterdam was the centre of the spice trade, and the dish celebrates the multicultural nature of the city today. I think this was the coolest freedom dinner that we have organised so far. Of course the reason was sad, but the soup showed how food can make a connection between people and also create a moment to reflect on life.
Both of these projects make me proud – we came up with plans that did more than just help ourselves. Ultimately, they have amplified my feeling that we should keep on doing our best to improve our food system through producing, selling and consuming local, artisanal food.
Hopefully the spirit of community that we have fostered here will continue long after normal life returns. I am not sure how we will continue Support Your Locals yet, but I am thankful it helped food producers over these months. No matter what unfolds, I hope consumers see that buying food direct from local producers is actually a good idea, and they will continue to support them by buying boxes like these directly from producers. That is something I always look for in the projects I am involved in – how food and food culture help society to move forward.
This interview with Samuel Levie, founder of Support Your Locals in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, was adapted by Rachel Lovell.
This article is part of Follow the Food , a series investigating how agriculture is responding to environmental challenges. Follow the Food traces emerging answers to these problems – both high-tech and low-tech, local and global – from farmers, growers and researchers across six continents.