Nijmegen embraces Meat Free Monday

The Netherlands’ oldest city introduces 80% plant-based food on Mondays and a new ‘default vegetarian’ council policy

Nijmegen Station and people involved in Meat Free Monday in the city

Left image © Saskia Elemans: Louis Panken / Right image © Saskia Elemans: Paul van Gent, Michelle van Doorn

Today Nijmegen’s Goffert Park would have been the location for an event that many people had been looking forward to; Paul McCartney would have played one of his European shows in Nijmegen. Meat Free Monday volunteers were ready to hand out flyers and raise awareness of the campaign but the event, like most social gatherings worldwide, was cancelled due to coronavirus. Instead the volunteers, Paul Smit and Saskia Elemans, headed over to Nijmegen to find out more about the city’s support for Meat Free Monday and a new council policy where people can opt in for meat at council-catered events, rather than the other way round.

It is quiet in the streets of Nijmegen. The oldest city in The Netherlands is popular for its hospitality, but Covid-19 has caused restaurants and bars to close, and only a few shops remain open for daily necessities.

We met Louis Panken, a chef and food pioneer for Vitam, the company that runs the catering at Nijmegen’s Town Hall among several other institutes and companies. He tells us that their mission is; “by providing tasty food and drinks we entice people to choose a healthy and responsible lifestyle” and that, in order to achieve this, Vitam has a long term goal of all its food being 80% plant based. Louis says: “We introduced a concept like Meat Free Monday some time ago as part of our company strategy. We are not there yet, but we are making progress. You can’t force people to choose plant based. A number of people will just refuse to try it. And besides, we know some people were put off by some of the early meat substitutes which did not have any taste at all”. It is clear that Louis is not someone that embraces just any plant-based food. He explains that he is not a fan of the quality of most vegetarian and vegan meat substitutes offered in the shops: “Too much salt, too many additives and too little taste” he says. Louis is passionate about real food and he offers us an experimental dish – a ‘Steak Tartare’ made from carrots. The taste is absolutely wonderful. “As all our restaurants are currently closed I have time to try out new recipes.”

Nijmegen’s City Council also recently adopted a new regulation that makes catering for all meetings and gatherings vegetarian unless an attendee informs the caterer, prior to the meeting, that he or she would prefer animal products. Michelle van Doorn, leader of the Party for the Animals in Nijmegen, explains: “Nijmegen is currently the ‘green capital’ of The Netherlands. The City Council has set high goals regarding sustainability and enviromental issues. This ‘Carnivoor; geef het door’ (‘Carnivore; let us know’) policy fits right in. There have been very few complaints and even members of very traditional parties seem to enjoy the vegan options.” Michelle makes it clear, however, that there should always be a choice: “Our party is a liberal party and we would not want to force people into eating plant based. That just would not work.” She agrees with Louis when he says: “It is our job to tempt people, to give them a healthy and tasty alternative”.

Nijmegen is home to the Radboud University. Paul van Gent studies at Radboud and is a member of the Vegan Student Association in Nijmegen, an organisation which offers lectures and organises outreach events which are open to all. He explains: “In 2018 me and a couple of other vegan students were concerned about the availability of vegan food at the university restaurants. We wanted to have some input in that and so we got organised. It’s good to have a group of people that share your food choices and ideas about animals, and the enviroment, but we always encourage others to join us.” 

Nijmegen is definitely a city where plant-based food is becoming an important matter in the minds and hearts of the people living, working and studying here. The city that celebrated its 2000 year anniversary in 2005 still rocks!