This day will be no different; it won’t be long before an end comes to the peace and quiet in the kitchen at the Brightlands campus in Venlo. Soon dozens of children donning chef hats and cheerful aprons will be cooking healthy food with great enthusiasm. Kokkerelli is a positive spin-off of the Floriade held in Venlo in 2012.
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BRIGHT PEOPLE are indispensable for making tomorrow’s world a bit more beautiful, cleaner and better. In this series, we interview a prominent figurehead of the Brightlands Campuses each month. These born innovators talk about their mission and how they want to achieve it.
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The reason this is so important is something Suzanne Bisschops saw first-hand during her time as an elementary school teacher and principal, in Delfshaven and Blerick, for example. She saw children coming to school with slices of pizza or other cold leftovers in their lunch boxes. Or worse: without a lunch box. And even worse than that: they literally keel over from hunger. “I am a strong believer in schools as the ultimate places to work on social equity. One way to do this is to ensure that every child can enjoy a healthy meal.”
This doesn’t just happen automatically, however. “I have a strong aversion to wasting money,” she says from her office in the heart of the Brightlands campus. It’s not just some little project, as previously mentioned. “Projects are good for getting something started, but you have to move towards a model that will still be around in ten years. You have to do that by working with recognized programs that are approved by the RIVM.”
Change the law
Kokkerelli went all out with ten validated educational programs, and set up a Youth, Health and Nutrition chair at the campus as well as an innovation offshoot for the development of healthy products, the goal of which is to launch them on the market, all done together with children. She calls herself a “liaison officer”, bringing government, business, and university and primary school education together to ensure children eat healthier. The question, of course, is why is this so difficult? “Because we often get bogged down in policy,” Bisschops says passionately. “Sometimes I jokingly say that I’m going to become Minister of Education and then I’ll take care of it. Since nutrition education isn’t a part of the curriculum, schools aren’t held accountable for it. Schools can make their own choices if it’s not mandated by law. My response is: change the law.”
Nutrition education isn’t a part of the curriculum, so schools aren’t held accountable for it. If it’s not mandated by law, schools can make their own choices. My response is: change the lawSuzanne Bisschops
Suzanne Bisschops-Pasmans was born in Venlo and worked in several schools around the country, from regular to special education, and became principal of the first elementary school for gifted children. “My heart starts beating faster when I see children who aren’t doing very well. I want to help them.”
The fact that she ended up here was a matter of the right person in the right place at the right time. Jan Klerken, the founding father of Kokkerelli and idealistic owner and ambassador of Scelta Mushrooms, asked her to join him in creating an educational program on the theme of healthy nutrition and children to be set up at the Floriade site. Bisschops has an educational background, not a background in nutrition. “I came from a good home; my grandmother and my mother always cooked fresh food.” During the Floriade event, their educational program reached ten thousand children who prepared food that was cooked in steam ovens. “That was just the start. Even though the children claimed they didn’t like asparagus, they pulled them from the soil, prepared their harvest, and cleaned their plates.” They sought partnerships with businesses, government, universities, and education and founded Kokkerelli. That was ten years ago.
My heart starts beating faster when I see children who aren’t doing very well. I want to help them.Suzanne Bisschops
In these ten years, the gaps between rich and poor have widened rather than narrowed, Bisschops has regrettably observed. “You can see the difference in kids’ lunch boxes. There are some with a divider between vegetables and a cheese sandwich, and then there are the lunch boxes with a frikandel, a minced-meat hot dog. This difference is only growing. You can see major themes like this reflected in what’s in their lunch boxes.” Bisschops strongly advocates for children to eat healthy lunches at school to ensure they get at least one healthy meal (200 grams of vegetables/fruit) a day. “We need to remove the burden from schools. They don’t have the time to monitor this. The proof that it’s possible may be found in Scandinavia, among other places. This is the direction it should take here, too.”
However, merely serving a healthy lunch isn’t enough, Bisschops believes. The Youth, Nutrition and Health program brings together innovation and education. “We want to use behavioral and health research but also apply our teaching programs and the development of new concepts to make young people aware of the importance of healthy nutrition.” This is necessary; after all, the big, bad outside world is trying to tempt us. “There was a time when there was a baker, a butcher, and a greengrocer on the village square, but these days, these businesses have been replaced by snack bars and ice cream parlors.” Bisschops is careful not to play the health guru. She also enjoys a glass of wine and some fried food on occasion. “We all need fat, sugar, and salt; many companies capitalize on this. Food trucks are driving past high schools, selling doner kebabs and other not-so-healthy treats, the cafeterias are full of unhealthy snacks, and the temptation is great. You might be able to resist the temptation five times in a row but still, fail the sixth time. Common sense can help you make good choices, but your body cries out for something else. People on a budget see two burgers for one Euro. This differs from a broccoli dish with smoked chicken that might cost ten Euros. The choice is easily made. So, stop charging sales tax on fruit and vegetables. And introduce stricter rules about marketing unhealthy foods. Supermarkets can also make more of an effort if you ask me. 85 percent of the products they sell are unhealthy! All of them in service of our body’s biology for this need they have created. The products have gotten us addicted.”
There was a time when there was a baker, a butcher, and a greengrocer at the village square, but these days, these have been replaced by snack bars and ice cream parlorsSuzanne Bisschops
Who likes leeks?
Of the roughly ten thousand children in Northern Limburg (grades four through seven), three thousand come to Kokkerelli at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. Bisschops tells us how they participate in a two-week expedition, exploring the fruit and vegetable food chain. It starts with an introduction at school focusing on a product such as blueberries, cauliflower or leeks. The children then go from school to visit the grower, where they see and hear for themselves what a leek’s life is like. Then they take their harvest to Kokkerelli’s kitchen. Bisschops: “When I ask who likes leeks, seven out of the twenty hands go up. But it’s ‘monkey-see, monkey-do’ when it comes to food. The chef teaches them about ingredients and products; then they cook for an hour. They have to do everything themselves: washing, peeling, slicing, and making a dish that they eat together. This is followed by an evaluation and quiz at school. We have seen that children really are intent on eating more vegetables. My goal is for them to be able to participate in this program two or three times a year.”
The question, of course, is how can we help children gain more of an appreciation for healthy nutrition? This is what the chair in Youth, Nutrition and Health, set up by Maastricht University and funded by several companies that have been supporting it for five years, is trying to find the answer to. Special professors Edgar van Mil and Remco Havermans are researching this very topic.
Don’t parents have any responsibility for this? “It’s crucial to include parents; after all, the kids will be back at home again. We see children complaining that they never get sweet peppers at home because their parents don’t like them, or would prefer to just heat up a frozen pizza.” She has two adopted sons (now 8 and 13) from the Philippines. “The oldest was in an orphanage where there was a lot of poverty and not very much food. Now he really likes to eat healthy and hearty food. The youngest was in a home with the nuns that was characterized by excess. His report said that his favorite food was spaghetti carbonara. When I ask him if he would like an apple or pear, he says, no, I want candy. So, the things you’re accustomed to from an early age definitely have an impact.”
Suppose schoolchildren are won over to eating healthy meals. Puberty awaits them next. “And then it all goes completely haywire,” Suzanne Bisschops laughs. “You just have to let it happen. You shouldn’t try to change this as an adult. After all, they don’t let go of what they learn from ages eight to twelve. When they go to live on their own, the learned behavior resurfaces; we see this happening. The government can set rules on this, too, on what may be sold in canteens, for example. Food education is essential. We have to teach children to have a love of food. I once heard a child say, ‘A lot has changed between me and tomatoes, miss.’ So they say they don’t like mushrooms? We have burgers made from mushrooms, and they love these. They make their own ketchup here without sugar; did you know there are 37 lumps of sugar in a single store-bought bottle?”
The major problems with an unhealthy diet are obesity and diabetes, all of which generate sky-high healthcare costs. Professor and doctor Edgar van Mil is affiliated with the obesity department of Jeroen Bosch hospital in Den Bosch. The scientific substantiation helps convince the business world to launch new projects in the provinces of Brabant and Gelderland. Through a new foundation Keukenkanjers (partners: Kokkerelli, Smaakcentrum [flavor center] and Smaaklessen [flavor classes]), the educational programs are being scaled up, and there are ties to the Smaaklessen organization at Wageningen University.
Suzanne Bisschops is confident things will work out. “We have planted lots of seeds and will reap the benefits no matter what.”