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14 December 2022

Interview with Miranda Vroom (Ministry of VWS)

By the end of 2021, eight municipalities, three ministries and several knowledge institutions signed the City Agreement Healthy and Sustainable Food Environment. Together, they join forces to make the Dutch’s eating habits healthier and more sustainable. This is a follow-up to an earlier city agreement, Food on the urban agenda. Platform31 spoke with Miranda Vroom, MT member of the Directorate for Nutrition, Health Protection and Prevention in the Ministry of VWS. She talks about the prevention agreement and the letter that was recently sent to the House of Representatives. In this, State Secretary Van Ooijen argues for a new legal framework. The current laws and regulations are insufficient for the municipalities to realize a healthy food environment.

Control instruments are missing

Fifty percent of the population in the Netherlands is obese. If we let things go, it will be around sixty percent of all Dutch people in 2040. “An important reason is the way our food environment is set up. Research in Rotterdam shows, for example, that the number of fast food providers is increasing much faster than the total number of food providers,” explains Vroom. The municipalities state that they have too few resources to manage a healthy and sustainable food environment. They lack instruments. “Currently, it is difficult for the municipalities to influence who settles in their municipality on the basis of health reasons. It is only possible for municipalities to exclude companies on the basis of, for example, odor and noise nuisance,” says Vroom. Therefore, the Ministry is for VWS with an exploration of the legal instruments that municipalities can use to create a healthy and sustainable food environment.

The letter to the House of Representatives contains the above conclusion plus the request to provide legal framework. “State Secretary Van Ooijen has informed the House of Representatives that he wants to create powers for municipalities to set rules that prevent the establishment of new unhealthy food suppliers, for example in the immediate vicinity of a school,” says Vroom. Subsequently, there are still many implementation issues for which the ministry VWS will have to answer such as: what is healthy and unhealthy food? When can municipalities reject a food entrepreneur? And who will oversee it?

Unhealthy temptations

From the Ministry of VWS the focus is on reducing obesity in the Netherlands. “Unfortunately, the overweight figures have not decreased in recent years. It has become increasingly clear from various studies that obesity is not only an individual cause, but that it is largely due to the temptations that individuals are exposed to, the so-called food environment,” explains Vroom. In the prevention agreement that the Ministry for VWS signed in 2018, it has therefore been indicated that a healthy food environment is very important. It is important that the municipalities can focus on a healthy food environment, because in recent years we have seen an increase in the number of providers of unhealthy food, and their advertising messages about unhealthy food tempt them to make unhealthy choices. “If the municipalities can ensure that the supply becomes healthier, it will hopefully also lead to a healthier society with less obesity,” argues Vroom.

Healthy vs. unhealthy

When it comes to the necessary laws and regulations for municipalities to refuse certain food entrepreneurs, it is important to have clear assessment frameworks for healthy and unhealthy food. “It seems very simple, but if you start thinking about it, it is not immediately clear which entrepreneurs sell healthy/unhealthy food. Almost all food entrepreneurs sell both healthy and unhealthy products. But the relationship is different. A clear definition or assessment framework is essential for future legislation,” explains Vroom. There are also few examples of this at international level. Another obstacle that Vroom refers to is the necessary change in society’s way of thinking. After all, the government is going to interfere in the food supply. “It can feel condescending. The average Dutchman wants the freedom to choose what he/she eats. However, the question is whether the choice is really that free, because we are steered towards unhealthy choices due to the large supply and via marketing and advertising. This applies to both adults and children,” explains Vroom.

Principles of the prevention agreement

The agreement has been concluded for the prevention and reduction of obesity in the Netherlands. More exercise and a healthier diet are the two important pillars in this. “It’s important that the environment encourages healthy behavior,” says Vroom. The food supply in the catering industry and supermarkets has a major influence on the Dutch’s consumption. “That is why we are in dialogue with the supermarkets, i.a. We advocate that they make unhealthy products less attractive and make healthy products more attractive to buy. Good steps are being taken in this direction. The product composition is also improved due to less sugar, salt and fat and by offering a wider range that falls within the five-point group. Supermarkets and the food industry are now taking voluntary steps in this regard,” says Vroom. Van Ooijen has also announced that it will regulate marketing aimed at children up to 18 years of age. The Ministry of Finance also finances VWSinitiatives such as Young people with a healthy weight (JOG), Den Sunde Skole and the Nutrition Centre. These initiatives contribute to a healthier Netherlands.

A successful city agreement

The first step was to put the theme on the agenda and show what municipalities are up against. “As a ministry, we need input from the municipalities to find out what they are up against. As a result, we recently sent a letter to the House of Representatives stating the need for legislation and regulations,” says Vroom. Eight municipalities have now joined the City Deal and are experimenting within the current legal options. “It is important that their experiences and examples are communicated to other municipalities so that they can also use them. Fortunately, more and more municipalities are becoming aware of how important it is to have a healthy and sustainable living environment,” continues Vroom. “For us, the City Deal is a success if the theme is on the agenda in several municipalities and if we succeed in implementing laws and regulations or the prospect of it.”

City Deal Healthy and sustainable food environment

Participating parties in the City Deal Healthy and sustainable food environment: the municipalities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Almere, Ede, Utrecht, Haarlem, The Hague and Wageningen, the ministries of LNV, VWS and BZK and Nutrition Centre, Short Chain Taskforce, JOGG, Flevo Campus and platform31.

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