Debit card for healthy food: ‘Better than a food bank’

One hundred low-income households in Rotterdam were given an extra budget for 12 weeks to buy healthy food. Participants find it more comfortable to spend money in a regular store than to go to the food bank. For the municipality, it provides opportunities to reach out to residents who do not normally turn to the municipality for help.


Living in poverty can have a major impact on health. It has been known for some time that people with low income and level of education on average seven years shorter life. The purpose of the Better Food trial in the Rotterdam districts of Bospolder and Tussendijken is therefore to encourage economically vulnerable residents to eat healthier. One hundred households receive a weekly budget to buy healthy food. Healthy food is often more expensive than unhealthy food.

‘The pilot was successful in reaching the people of Rotterdam’

Michael Grauss

Debit card

The hundred participating households will be given a payment card with which they can go to a number of local shops. An amount of 20 euros (for a single) to 50 euros (for two parents with children) is deposited on the passport each week. After the purchase, the receipts are checked: healthy food is approved, other products, such as cigarettes, dishwashing liquid or plastic bags, are not refundable.


The preliminary results of a study from Wageningen University show that participants see a number of benefits of the Beter Eten debit card compared to other forms of food aid, such as the food bank. Because the payment card can be used in a regular store, the participants are not recognizable as seeking help. The inhabitants of Rotterdam therefore experience less shame. They also have greater freedom of choice as to where, when and what purchases they shop. ‘Better than a food bank’, sums up one of the participants.


In addition, residents feel positively encouraged to eat healthier. The grocery budget also reduces the stress that the people of Rotterdam experience. The extra money increases food security, but also provides more financial leeway. For example, one of the participants states that, thanks to the food budget, she has money left over to pay off debts.

In the district

‘The pilot was successful in reaching the people of Rotterdam’, says former councilor Michiel Grauss (he has been a councilor since the new council took office in Rotterdam). People who are not normally in the picture of the municipality participate in the pilot. According to the ChristenUnie councilor, this is because the pilot is carried out by organizations in the neighborhood, not by municipal officials. ‘If we asked the participants to come to our office, we would lose three quarters of an hour immediately.’

‘It can be smarter, it can be less bureaucratic’

Michael Grauss

Other problems

Grauss wants to use the project as a way to get in touch with vulnerable residents. ‘We offer people relief with this. But I also want to see what else happens to these people. If this program can reduce stress, it will help work on other issues. ‘ The participant who uses the money to pay off debts is an example of this. Although Grauss would rather see that she signed up for the municipal debt counseling, because then a large part of the debt may be forgiven.


On the other hand, it also seems that the people of Rotterdam find it stressful to use the payment card and hand in the receipts. For example, participants are afraid of losing receipts. In addition, there is a great fear that the aid may lead to the recovery of social assistance or allowances – even if this is not the case. ‘It can be made smarter, it can be less bureaucratic,’ Grauss admits. “But you need those receipts to substantiate that. And the stress of living in poverty is many times greater.”

income policy

This raises the question of whether it would not be more efficient simply to give the residents the money without the conditions that cause stress and extra work in the implementation. Grauss: ‘The most important condition for a healthy lifestyle is adequate income, that’s right. But income policy is a task for the state. Until then, we will do what we can ».

earmarked money

The Better Food project is an example of using ‘earmarked money’ for a social cause. Buyproxy, the provider of the payment card used for this trial period, sees even more potential uses for earmarked money. Think of living expenses for refugees, vouchers for insulating houses or help with budget management.

For example, people who are in debt restructuring, or who for some other reason have a tight budget, can use a debit card with different jars for different types of expenses. That way, people protect themselves from over-consumption and money problems can be prevented, says Richard Meijer, director of buyproxy. ‘With the abandonment of cash, people are losing track of what they need. If you really want to keep track of your expenses, make no mistake. ” But it is not a miracle oil, Meijer emphasizes. “It works best with other help.”

At the moment, the receipts of the participants in the Beter Eten program still have to be checked manually, but it can be automated in the future, says Meijer. One of the options is to use optical character recognition (OCR): a computer program that can read receipts. Another possibility is that the payment card is automatically limited to certain products. Currently, the payment card can be turned on and off for certain stores, but the card does not yet differentiate at the product level. ‘Within five years, I see applications emerging that make it possible,’ Meijer expects.

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