'A robot can easily and quickly make what you like'

Maartje Nelissen

Partner of The Food Line-up

My name is Maartje Nelissen and I joined The Food Line-up as partner in 2013 after working in the hospitality industry for several years i.e. at de Librije*** and de Bijenkorf. I am the Chief of Flavour: responsible for the unique story, concepts, menus and community of chefs and suppliers.

The Food Line-up is a creative and innovative catering agency. It’s their mission to let you discover better food. And millions along with you. Every single year, again and again. We’re hungry for change.

In 2012 we started by catering big music festivals up to 25,000 visitors per day. Their mission was a leading part for food on events: literally putting food on the line-up. Instead of 1 traditional catering company that offered mainly frozen meals, The Food Line-up would build a food line-up of 20 to 40 chefs and food trucks. This way they could produce more than 70,000 fresh cooked, sustainable meals a day. That’s how they competed and became a big player within no time.

1. What are the main challenges in the food system change?

We started out in 2012 and noticed that a lot of people thought sustainability and sustainable food was difficult and complicated, not sexy or a costly thing. Luckily times have changed drastically but then we also needed a different approach. So it needed to be more fun, colourful and visually very attractive to start this movement for change

Our greatest challenge is that we eat heavily above our means. With the world’s population continuing to increase, we will need to produce even more food and figure out ways to reduce our impact on the earth.

By 2050, there will be 10 or 11 billion of us living on the planet, 80% of all those people in large cities, and some 216 million people will have already been forced to move elsewhere in their country by the effects of climate change. And because our earth will be 1.5 degrees warmer, we face extreme heat, cold, drought and precipitation. This and so much more has a huge impact on our food system.

I think the biggest challenge, and quite understandably, is that as humans we think and experience that we are ‘entitled’ to things. Entitled to go on vacation by plane, far away, after working hard. Entitled to have it just as good as our neighbours, and to enjoy a good piece of meat. Just as it is logical that with increasing prosperity in countries like India and China, people will first buy a refrigerator or a car, or eat more meat once that prosperity increases, which in turn has significant effects.

We face the problem that technology has turned the logic of evolution upside down. In the course of evolution, we as humans have stopped adapting ourselves to the environment and instead are increasingly adapting the environment to our needs. We deplete our resources and we often forget that we ourselves are an essential part of nature.

I expect cooking to become a hobby instead of, as it is now for many families, a daily activity.

2. What will the future of food look like in 25 years, what will we eat?

How great would it be to know exactly that. I think it could go many ways, but there are a few things I envision. First of all, in large parts of the world, it will become more common for plant-based food to be a very large % of our daily diet. I hope not, but I’m afraid we’re going to be a little further away from our food due to increasing urbanisation. This means that city and countryside are connected in other ways. In addition, I expect cooking to become a hobby instead of, as it is now for many families, a daily activity. The ease with which food can be purchased and prepared is becoming even more extreme. With the home robots that almost every household has, a robot can easily and quickly make what you like, exactly to your own recipe.

3. What is the way forward, what can we do today for a better tomorrow?

So much, here I could name all kinds of things but I think what we ultimately have the most to gain from is always staying critical of what choices you make for what is on your plate. For me, plant-based is not the only truth, but essential is that we take many more and faster steps in the protein transition. And just like circularity, biodiversity or technological solutions like cultured meat, the combination of factors can make a big difference.

The most important way forward is to combine the forces of consumers, business and government in order to make a big difference together. What I do strongly hope for is that in the coming years, the government will take more responsibility to make tighter regulations and thus make an important contribution to making systems more sustainable.

4. What role can branding and brand design play in driving the change?

Branding and design can entice, surprise and appeal to people’s feelings and emotions. All things you want when it comes to food! For The Food line-up, everything starts with delicious, which is about the food and what is on your plate, but also how it’s presented and told. Our goal is always to light a fire, be it very small or large, which will make people look at things just a little differently and hopefully appreciate food more.

5. Can you name a role model who is making the right future steps in your eyes?

Not necessarily on branding and design, but I think Rutger Bregman is a great role model who exposes challenges in systems in a critical but also understandable and contagious way.

6. With whom would you like to discuss this subject over dinner?

With Michael Pollan, an American journalist and author. Pollan is best known for his books that explore the sociocultural impacts of food.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about trying to be sustainable or innovative is wanting to tell the whole story.

7. What do you think is the most progressive / sustainable packaging solution so far?

Anything that can be reused and has minimal impact. Still a great example I think is the marking of fruits and vegetables with a Bio stamp, so that no additional sticker or packaging needs to be on or around them.

8. Which characteristics are crucial for people and companies to be able to keep up with the future and the associated innovations?

Always thinking about making it accessible and attractive, and of course tailored to the target audience. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about trying to be sustainable or innovative is wanting to tell the whole story. Sometimes you can also just ‘do’ it. You go to Ikea to pick out a nice new sofa that you will enjoy for years, and you go to The Food line-up because you want to organise an unforgettable event. So it starts with that nice sofa that will last for years and matches your interior, and delicious food and drinks to pamper your visitors. For some people, sustainability is an afterthought, then you can also just do it instead of always talking about it.

9. How do you contribute?

How The Food Line-up contributes starts with our business model. We deliberately choose not to do everything ourselves and celebrate expertise and craftsmanship. We created a refined 2030 vision with our own 10-year anniversary approaching this April. For example, one of our pillars is that of all the dishes we serve in 2022, 70% will be plant based, and 80% in 2023. Moreover, we want to minimise our impact – after all, events are, by definition, not sustainable.

I myself contribute by always thinking in terms of how to fit our propositions in commercially. I believe in the importance of bringing creativity, mission and commerce together for optimal success and to actually make a difference with volume as well.

10. What is your biggest desire or ambition?

‘Half the world is starving, the other half is trying to lose weight’ is a great quote from Caroline Steel. It would be great if we could find a way to shape fairer food systems around the world. Where food is distributed differently, there is little to no waste, and people have a healthy relationship with food and thus with themselves and nature.

Finally, of course, I also wish you a fantastic anniversary and hope you will be able to make a wonderful difference in your field as well over the next 25 years.

Maartje Nelissen

Maartje Nelissen

Partner of The Food Line-up