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What is the relationship between food and the city? Over the past three weeks, students in the new UvA Summer School programme ‘The Urban Food Experience’ have explored this question from a variety of different perspectives.

Photo by Teska Overbeeke

The students in this summer programme rented bikes for the duration of their stay in Amsterdam and they certainly put them to good use: apart from lectures, the programme consisted of a variety of field trips around the city, ranging from visits to food markets and shops to the Rijksmuseum. One of these trips took them to Amsterdam Noord to see an urban agriculture initiative in action.

Urban farming

Urban agriculture is an important research subject for Beatriz Pineda Revilla, lecturer in the summer programme. According to Pineda Revilla, this particular garden project is a great case study for the students because it focuses not only on community-building, which is often an important aim of communal urban gardens in Western cities, but also on producing considerable volumes of food for the local community.

The Voedseltuin IJplein was created in 2014 on the former site of a dock, now filled in with sand and a top layer of black earth soil. It is surrounded by the water of the IJ, a small restaurant, a primary school and apartment blocks.  As volunteer Günther explains, the garden is closely tied into its surroundings through various projects. 

The project, which received funding from the council for a period of three years, has two main aims: producing vegetables and promoting social cohesion. The garden produces around 150 crates of vegetables a year, and the crop is divided three ways: a third goes to the local food bank, a third to the volunteers and a third to Resto VanHarte, the restaurant next door, which provides healthy and affordable meals and functions as a meeting place for locals. One patch of the garden is reserved for the neighbouring school, and volunteers also run a kids’ group for local children.

Photo: Teska Overbeeke

Getting kids involved

As the Urban Food Experience students explore the Voedseltuin garden, director of the summer programme Freek Janssens explains that involving children is an important aspect of these projects in terms of tackling health and lifestyle issues. ‘As Jaap Seidell explained in one of our other lectures, another important function of these gardens is giving children first-hand experience of growing vegetables. This can play an important role in changing unhealthy eating patterns and lifestyles. When you have kids who don’t like vegetables, actually seeing and tasting produce grown in their own neighbourhood works much better than just hearing about the health benefits.’

For Bryan Kwok , a pharmacy student from Singapore, this field trip is his first live experience of urban agriculture.  What attracted him to the Summer School was his interest in food: ‘In Singapore we have a very diverse food culture, and I have been a food enthusiast from an early age. What we don’t have though is a culture of urban farming, because it is such a completely urbanised environment. So that’s something I was interested in seeing here, to understand and see where it is coming from. It's something I couldn’t get in Singapore. It’s my first time in Europe anyway so it’s an eye-opening experience all round.’

Interdisciplinary approach

The students who took part in the summer school are from a wide range of fields: chemistry, life sciences, planning, nutrition and even literary studies. Some, like Marissa Gery from New York, are involved in urban gardening initiatives back home: ‘I work at New Roots, a community farm in the South Bronx, where recently arrived refugees  come to grow food alongside Bronx community members.’

Although the core focus of the programme is on the social sciences, the lectures also covered a varied range of topics, from planning and health to activism and art. According to Janssens, there is a practical and growing demand for research in this field: ‘What people are always aiming for is an interdisciplinary approach that addresses the health agenda and the spatial planning agenda and all these other policy agendas. But the fact is that we don’t really know how to actually go about doing this in practice. That is why we need to ground this type of research in real cases.’