Effects of high-tech urban agriculture on healing environments in Dutch nursing homes

It feels a bit odd to post about research results while the Corona virus is keeping us all occupied. However, last week Paulien van de Vlasakker defended her MSc thesis, and the results are nice to share. Moreover, so many of my colleagues are working very hard to keep education going – why not report on some of the nice things that are being done here at Wageningen University. For all those currently involved in cursory education: keep up the good work, you are heroes!

The text below is written by Paulien and describes the findings of her thesis. The thesis was preceded by an internship on the same topic, on which she reported earlier.

“In recent years, an increasing number of urban agriculture initiatives have been initiated to offer locally produced and fresh food products. One newer form of urban agriculture is high-tech urban agriculture. Advanced technologies, such as led lightening and hydroponic cultivation methods, allow the production of fresh vegetables and herbs inside the built-up environment. High-tech indoor gardens are a form of high-tech urban agriculture, combining food production with greening, and can offer advantages such as all-year-round production of leafy greens, improved air quality of the indoor space and enhancing the aesthetics of the location. The multifunctionality of high-tech indoor gardens can be of value for places where people live who are in need of improved well-being. In the Netherlands, welfare, housing, daily care and treatment for vulnerable elderly people come together in nursing homes.

I studied how high-tech indoor gardens can contribute to the well-being of elderly living in Dutch nursing homes. In care settings, the term ‘healing environment’ is often used to describe aspects of the environment that have health-improving benefits. The purpose of this study was to identify how and to what extent high-tech indoor gardens can contribute to the healing environment of nursing homes. High-tech indoor gardens have two distinct aspects: 1) the appearance of the garden itself, and 2) the production of food. I hypothesized that the appearance of the garden influences the perceived ambiance, enhancing mental and social well-being, and that the production of fresh vegetables and herbs contributes to the vegetable intake, improving physical well-being.

This case study research was inspired by social practice theory and looked at the emergence and transformation of existing practices in four different nursing homes, located in Velp (Province of Gelderland). I looked at how different leisure practices among elderly residents evolved around the indoor garden, and how the cooking practices performed by the caretakers were affected by the use of the freshly harvested products. For my data collection, I conducted interviews with elderly residents and decision makers. In addition, I used surveys to collect information from caretakers and performed observations at all four nursing homes. For the qualitative data analysis I used NVivo and for the quantitative data analysis I used SPSS.

The thesis concludes that high-tech indoor gardens are effective in the creation of  healing environments because they create more livable environments by improving the ambiance and influencing residents’ vegetable intake. I showed that vegetables produced by indoor gardens can influence vegetable intake by changing the meal experience. Residents explained that they could clearly distinguish the difference between a meal prepared with the vegetables from the indoor gardens and a dish without fresh vegetables. Most residents find it very important to eat fresh foods. They enjoy the taste of the different products from the garden and appreciate that they are locally and freshly produced. Many residents were used to growing vegetables in their own vegetable gardens and expressed feelings of familiarity and recognition towards the garden and its products. Especially typical Dutch herbs and vegetables, such as parsley, chives and butterhead lettuce are popular among the elderly residents.

Whether or not the harvest was used in cooking practices by caretakers was influenced by several factors: 1) Caretakers who have gardening experience and enjoy cooking, are more likely to integrate the harvested fresh vegetables and herbs in existing cooking practices than caretakers with no gardening experience and who do not enjoy the task of cooking; 2) In nursing homes in which mostly non-fresh ingredients are used for the preparation of meals (frozen meals), caretakers are more motivated to use the fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden, and 3) For optimal use of the indoor garden, it is important that it is placed close to the kitchen and close to the living area of the residents. Caretakers can more easily integrate harvesting practices with cooking and other practices when the garden is located at a place that they often pass by. When the garden is placed close to the living area of the elderly residents, the residents can enjoy the aesthetic aspects of the garden.”


Young people with practical education and sustainable food

Carlijn de Kok, student International Development Studies, wrote her MSc thesis on young people studying cooking, baking or food studies and their engagement with sustainable food. I ask her to share some of her findings.

Why did you choose this topic?

“The literature tends to argue that it is mainly highly educated people who buy sustainable food. It remains unclear, however, to what extent people with a practical education are interested in sustainable food (as well) and if and to what extent they consume sustainable food. Following Karl Marx and his thoughts about the alienation of labour, it can be assumed that people who are engaged with food in their daily lives are more likely to be critical regarding food – and thus to consume sustainably. This is why I decided to focus on people studying cooking, baking or food studies: I expected that their engagement with food in general would lead to more interest in sustainable food.”

What was your theoretical starting point?

“Studies on consumption often use rationalist approaches whereby the individual is taken as a starting point to understand consumption. However, we also know that there is a difference between caring for the environment and changing consumption: this is explained by the ‘attitude-behaviour gap’. This is why I wanted to take a more contextual approach, using Social Practice Theory. This theory puts everyday social practices at the centre of analysis, and considers consumption in terms of its practical, contextual and everyday nature, leaving room for both agency and structure.”

So what practices did you study?

“I defined the general practice of food consumption as a range of sub-practices, including acquisition practices (buying and growing food) and use(r) practices (food preparation-, eating-, and disposal practices), following the work of Sargant (2014). I also made a distinction between how respondents view sustainable food (their cognitive engagement), what they are doing in practice (their practical engagement), and the underlying motivations and reasons for participating in these practices (I called this the narrative behind their engagement).”

Ok, that sounds interesting. But how did you study this?

“In order to understand students’ cognitive engagement with sustainable food and the narrative behind their engagement, I used interviews, a focus group and questionnaires. I interviewed fifteen students following a practical education: five bakery students, five cooking students and five students of food studies. Fifteen cooking students participated in the focus group, and seventy-five students filled out the questionnaire. In order to better understand people’s actual engagement with sustainable food I complemented these methods with food diaries: six of the students interviewed recorded for one to three days what they bought and consumed, where they bought that, and whether there were any sustainability labels on those products.”

And? What did you find?

“There were a few interesting findings. First of all, my respondents are in fact rather knowledgeable about sustainability, the issues in the food system and sustainable food, and they see urgency in acting sustainably. Especially animal welfare, environmental friendliness, a fair price for farmers and naturalness are considered important. All respondents participate in at least some sustainable forms of food consumption. Second, part of the respondents is rather interested in and knowledgeable about sustainable food. This group often performs sustainable food acquisition practices, mostly out of sustainability motivations (for respondents who only occasionally buy sustainable produce, sustainability is less often a motivation). Students of food studies are most often interested in sustainability, followed by the cooking students – for whom sustainability mostly relates to quality.

Thirdly, the extent to which respondents perform food consumption practices sustainably differs per locale. In general, respondents more often act sustainably when they are grocery shopping. They much less do so while eating out, on-the-go or at school or work. In these places sustainable food is less accessible and available, and students feel that their choices have less impact. Finally, I found that respondents’ cognitive and practical engagement with sustainable food does not always align. While some respondents stated to act more sustainably than their food diaries showed, in some cases it was the other way around. These students did not connect much to the concept of sustainability, but they were motivated by certain elements of sustainability such as animal welfare, and so they did make sustainable choices.”

Taking all of these findings into account, what is your main conclusion?

“Young adults who are following a practical educational programme related to food are to a certain extent interested and engaged in sustainable food. Sustainable food plays a role in their daily lives: respondents perform certain food consumption practices sustainably, mostly out of sustainability motivations. The extent to which respondents manage to do so, however, depends on the locale.”

Honourable Distinction for RSO PhD candidate Lucie Sovová

On Tuesday the 29th of October, Lucie Sovová, PhD student at the Rural Sociology Group, won an honourable distinction from the Storm-van der Chijs Fund. The objective of this fund is to encourage and support Wageningen University female PhD students to pursue their study and career in science. 

The RSO chair group nominated Lucie, and soon found out that she was awarded the honourable distinction. As head of the jury Prof dr ir Arnold Bregt stated that Lucie bridges urban gardening and alternative food networks. In her work on Central and Eastern Europe, she questions framing informal food economies as remnants of the socialist era. She shows how they are not necessarily “inferior” to, but merely coexisting and interacting with their market-based counterparts. Next to her academic work she is in many ways involved and contributing to NGOs in this field.” 

The honourable distinction comes with 500 euros, which Lucie plans on spending by visiting a conference in Manchester.

Click here and here for more information. IMG-20191029-WA0000 (002)

Onderwijs op de boerderij: samenwerking met scholen en gemeenten (scriptie of stage mogelijkheid)

Binnen het wetenschapswinkelproject ‘Leerarrangementen in het Groen’ is plek voor een stagiair of MSc thesis student. Doel van het wetenschapswinkelproject is te komen tot een sterke, geaccepteerde en professionele sector van boerderijen die onderwijs bieden aan leerlingen die om verschillende redenen tijdelijk niet passen op een reguliere school.

Voor een deel van de leerlingen in het primair en voortgezet onderwijs werkt een schoolse omgeving soms contraproductief. Deze kinderen hebben het moeilijk met zichzelf en hun omgeving en willen, kunnen, mogen, of durven daarom tijdelijk niet naar een reguliere school. Deze leerlingen komen vaak noodgedwongen thuis te zitten, wat kan leiden tot moeilijk gedrag, een negatief zelfbeeld en een toekomst zonder perspectief. Verschillende zorgboeren bieden deze leerlingen onderwijs op de boerderij. Een groep van ongeveer 20 van deze boeren heeft een netwerk gevormd om ervaringen en knelpunten te delen. Problemen zijn bijvoorbeeld knellende regelgeving en de kloof tussen zorgboerderijen en scholen. Klik hier voor meer informatie.

Verschillende studenten hebben al een rol gehad binnen ons project, zowel voor hun stage, als voor hun scriptie, als binnen vakken. Zo krijgen wij steeds een completer beeld van het onderwijs op de boerderij en hoe boerderijen dat vormgeven. Waar we echter nog geen zicht op hebben, is de visie van gemeenten en scholen: hoe kijken zij aan tegen de samenwerking met boerderijen, wat spreekt ze aan als het gaat om de boerderij als leeromgeving, wat zijn volgens hen de knelpunten in de vormgeving of uitvoering van onderwijs op de boerderij, en hoe zou de samenwerking tussen scholen en gemeenten enerzijds en boerderijen anderzijds verbeterd kunnen worden?

Een specifieke opdracht op basis van deze vragen kan samen met de student worden opgesteld. Studenten zullen onderdeel worden van het wetenschapswinkelproject (stages worden begeleid door Jan Hassink van Wageningen Plant Research). Voor meer informatie: esther.veen@wur.nl



Prosumerism in Almere

With colleagues from Wageningen Plant Research and Wageningen Economic Research I have been involved in the research project ‘prosumerism’ (commissioned by AMS and Flevo Campus Almere) in which we studied the extent to which Almere citizens engage in their own food production – for example by growing it in their gardens or picking it in the wild. We used semi-structured interviews with people who can be considered ‘prosumers’ (hence: people who are involved in their food production) and conducted a questionnaire, to which we got 835 respondents.

An important finding is that most prosumers we spoke to are motivated mainly by the enjoyment they get from growing and processing something themselves – making their own wine or fruit juices, for instance. Health and sustainability are less important to most of them. Another important finding is that while a relatively large part of the questionnaire respondents (two thirds) engage in prosumption in some way, for most people these activities are very small-scale.

Jan Eelco Jansma, the project leader, wrote a blog about our work. Our report can be downloaded here. Both are in Dutch.  Klein kader Archetype 3


Thesis opportunity: the gentrifying foodscape part II

The urban foodscape is in constant transition, among others due to gentrification. This has effect on options and choices of both newcomers and people who have been living in the neighborhood for longer.

Sophie Visser, MSc student Health and Nutrition, studied the gentrifying Amsterdam neighborhood ‘Van der Pekbuurt’ (see Sophie’s blog on her results) by mapping its food establishments, interviewing both older and newer inhabitants and making observations. She found that due to gentrification the number of establishments in the neighborhood increased immensely. While this has positive aspects – the increased offer leads to an increased choice – not all inhabitants feel comfortable in all these new establishments.

We are looking for a student to continue Sophie’s work on gentrification and foodscapes. Preferably the student would follow up on the previous thesis by updating the mapping of the foodscape, and executing more interviews with a broader group of people. Alternatively, the student chooses another neighborhood (in Amsterdam or elsewhere) in a further state of gentrification, in order to get a broader view on how gentrification can affect foodscapes.

Pre-requisites: completed at least two social sciences courses (preferably with RSO); keen interest in foodscapes; able to conduct qualitative research, preferably but not necessarily in Dutch

Supervisor: Esther Veen (RSO): esther.veen@wur.nl

Questions? Please get in touch!

Gentrification and the Van der Pek foodscape

Written by Sophie Visser

‘Gentrification’ transforms cities all over the world. Neighbourhoods are upgraded and there is an influx of new, affluent inhabitants. This often has a negative effect on the longstanding inhabitants of that neighbourhood, as they can no longer afford the housing and no longer feel welcome due to the neighbourhood’s changed cultural and social atmosphere. Gentrification influences the foodscape as well. While there may be an increase in food availability, food accessibility for longstanding inhabitants often decreases due to an increase in price and because longstanding inhabitants do no longer feel welcome in the facilities in their neighbourhood.

With this thesis I aimed to investigate the effects of gentrification on the foodscape, the food choice and food accessibility for the inhabitants of the gentrifying Van der Pek neighbourhood, located in the North of Amsterdam. I used semi-structured interviews, observations, informal conversations and food mapping to collect data.

I conclude that the Van der Pek neighbourhood is at an early stage of gentrification. There is an influx of new inhabitants and a slow decrease in the number of longstanding inhabitants, who are aging and passing away. Over the past years, the number of establishments in the Van der Pek neighbourhood increased immensely. This appears to be positive at first sight because the increased offer leads to an increased choice for the inhabitants. However, not all inhabitants feel comfortable at every establishment. The new establishments are often more expensive, which is unsuitable for longstanding inhabitants: they base their food choice on price and often have lower incomes. Additionally, while some new establishments try to target both new and longstanding inhabitants, mostly new inhabitants are attracted to these establishments. Hence, even though the number of establishments has increased, as the gentrification process furthers, access to food might increase for new inhabitants but decrease for longstanding inhabitants.  

voorblad Sophie

As this thesis provides an in-depth analysis of the foodscape and food choices of inhabitants of the gentrifying neighbourhood, it can provide valuable information to the municipality of Amsterdam – who wants to prevent a division between the two groups of inhabitants in gentrifying neighbourhoods. Besides that it can lead to further research on other gentrifying neighbourhoods to provide a better overview of the influence of gentrification on foodscapes and food choice.


Indoor gardens for nursing homes

By Paulien van de Vlasakker

Advanced technology and alternative food-production methods, such as vertical farming and hydroponic cultivation, are part of an upward trend of initiatives for the support of the transition of conventional food-production methods to more decentralized and local production systems. The development of high-tech urban agriculture is one strategy for more sustainable and resilient urban food systems being explored by cities worldwide to feed their increasing populations.

To contribute to the development of urban high-tech agriculture, I established Vegger in October 2016. Vegger is a start-up located on the Wageningen University & Research campus. During the first few years, my colleague and I designed and developed high-tech indoor gardens for the cultivation of vegetables and herbs inside people’s working and living environment. The indoor gardens that we created are cultivation systems equipped with horticultural led lightening, soilless cultivation methods and a controlled environment system. Vegger is part of StartLife, the business facilitator of Wageningen University. We rent our office/working space in StartHub, located in the Atlas Building.


For my internship, as part of my MSc Organic Agriculture, I conducted a pilot project with high-tech indoor gardens in two nursing homes of Stichting Innoforte located in Velp, Gelderland. Growing vegetables inside nursing homes can be a response to the need for an increased intake of fresh and local vegetables by elderly people. In addition to increasing vegetable intake among the elderly, this pilot project also focused on contributing to the creation of a healing environment in the nursing homes. A healing environment is a (physical) environment that aims to promote the well-being of patients, their family and the employees, and to reduce their stress. This way people may heal faster (or the (physical) environment does not worsen their situation). The goal of my internship was to explore how high-tech indoor gardens can contribute to: 1. the consumption of fresh vegetables and herbs among the residents, and 2. the healing environment of the location.

I placed the indoor gardens in two locations. One of the locations was specialized for elderly people with far stage dementia. The other location offered housing for elderly people that do not need (intensive) care. It is important to mention that the locations make use of a different food delivery system. In the location for demented elderly, the staff cooks with fresh foods and matching recipes delivered by their food supplier. The meals for the ‘healthy’ elderly from the other location are ready-to-eat frozen meals. These meals do not contain any fresh ingredients.

During my internship I supported the indoor gardens by delivering gardening services. These services consisted of the maintenance of the indoor garden, including the cultivation of plants. The staff was responsible for harvesting the fresh vegetables and herbs. A food expert was appointed by the health care organisation to assist with the contact between me and the end users (staff and residents of both locations). As research methods I used informal conversations with staff, elderly and friends and family of the elderly, observations of the use of the gardens (including harvesting, engaging with the garden, and talking with others over the garden), and measuring the number of plants harvested by staff.

The results of the study were different between both locations. In the nursing home where the demented elderly live, the indoor garden was especially useful to enhance the healing environment. The residents of the home liked to sit next to the indoor garden; the aesthetic aspect of the indoor garden contributed to an improved living and relaxing environment. The vegetables and herbs growing in the indoor garden, however, were not used to their full potential. This was due to the fact that the home for demented elderly was already being supplied with fresh ingredients by their food supplier. In the other home, where ‘healthy’ elderly people live, on the other hand, full usage was made of the vegetables and herbs from the indoor garden. This was because previously no fresh ingredients were used in the meals. Staff used the fresh vegetables and herbs to prepare side dishes such as soup or salad.

The difference between the use of the high-tech indoor gardens did not only relate to the difference in food supplier, but also to the mental health of the elderly. Elderly with dementia experience on average higher stress levels than mentally healthy elderly. Optimizing a healing environment with indoor gardens can therefore have a greater impact on providing a quiet and relaxed environment for the residents. In addition, the elderly who live in the home for ‘healthy’ elderly people were more aware of the meals that were served. The residents of the home indicated that the fresh vegetables and herbs not only made the meal taste better, but also contributed to the experience of the meal because there were ingredients used from their own garden.

Call for contributions

Cultivating hope while getting into trouble with Community Food Initiatives (CFIs)

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, London, August 28th-30th 2019

Session sponsored by: Food Geographies Working Group

Community food initiatives (CFIs), such as community gardens or food waste initiatives, are often framed as hopeful solutions to our troubled food system. Yet the actual interrelations of hope and trouble are rarely interrogated in locally specific contexts. Hope and trouble are often employed in partial and limiting ways. CFIs are critiqued for being too hopeful, reproducing existing troubles (e.g. racism, power, privilege, and exclusion). Other readings strategically avoid the dominance of trouble, to leave space for hope and possibility. Neither approach is sufficient. Moreover, binary affects of hope and trouble can create methodological tensions that effect our own abilities to engage in action research that is both critical and reparative, hopeful and troubling.

The aim of this session is to develop new methodological, theoretical, and practice-based approaches for interrogating CFIs as sites of hope and trouble. Exploring diverse organizational forms, actors, benefits, and impacts, enables an understanding of their hopes, best intentions, and generative capacities as well as their troubles, failures, and limitations. We are interested in new stories and tools for helping researchers and community food initiatives “get into trouble” in our food system.

We welcome empirically, methodologically, and/or theoretically driven papers and discussions that engage with the hope and trouble of community food initiatives, such as:

  • Food waste initiatives
  • Food banks
  • Community gardens
  • Alternative food networks
  • Solidarity purchasing groups
  • Food Cooperatives
  • Social enterprises
  • Food advocacy organizations

We propose a format of two successive sessions. The first session follows the general structure of paper presentations followed by time for questions and short discussions. We use the second session for more thorough in-depth discussion. The first hour will be used for a world cafe setting to discuss recurrent themes in groups. We will use the last forty minutes for a ‘talk show’: we ask a representative from each table to come forward. We will then discuss the findings of each group by way of a talk show format: one interviewer asks questions to the representatives, potentially leading to discussions or an exchange of ideas. With this set-up we hope to elicit lively discussions on the topic, from various viewpoints and entry points.

Please contact the convenors to indicate whether you would like to present a paper and/or whether you would like to participate in the world cafe. Paper abstracts due by February 1st.

Session Convenors: Esther Veen (esther.veen@wur.nl), Oona Morrow (oona.morrow@wur.nl), Stefan Wahlen (stefan.wahlen@wur.nl), Anke de Vrieze (anke.devrieze@wur.nl)


Onderwijsboerderij scriptiemogelijkheid

Voor een deel van de leerlingen in het primair en voortgezet onderwijs werkt een schoolse omgeving soms (tijdelijk) contraproductief. Het gaat vooral om leerlingen voor wie de structuur en aanpak van een school te ingewikkeld is, kinderen die moeite hebben met sociale relaties en het in stand houden van vriendschappen, kinderen met hechtingsproblemen, kinderen die door een beperking niet uren achtereen op een stoel kunnen zitten. Kinderen dus die het moeilijk hebben met zichzelf en hun omgeving en daarom op een gegeven ogenblik niet meer naar school willen, kunnen, mogen, of durven. Voor deze groep is vaak geen passend onderwijs in de regio beschikbaar, en deze leerlingen komen vaak noodgedwongen thuis te zitten. Dit kan leiden tot moeilijk gedrag, een negatief zelfbeeld en een toekomst zonder perspectief.

Verschillende zorgboeren bieden deze leerlingen onderwijs op de boerderij. Een groep van ongeveer 20 van deze zorgboeren heeft een netwerk gevormd om ervaringen en knelpunten te delen. Problemen zijn bijvoorbeeld gebrek aan uitwisseling en onderbouwing van kennis, knellende regelgeving en de kloof tussen zorgboerderijen en scholen. Bovendien is geen goed zicht op het aantal leerlingen die onderwijs volgen op de boerderij (en hun specifieke problemen), en de ervaringen van boeren, leerlingen, ouders en scholen.

Om deze vragen te beantwoorden en uiteindelijk te komen tot een sterke, geaccepteerde en professionele onderwijssector, is de wetenschapswinkel van Wageningen UR een onderzoeksproject gestart. Binnen dit project zijn wij op zoek naar één of meerdere MSc studenten die voor een scriptie of stage onderzoek willen doen op verschillende gebieden zoals:

  • Het in kaart brengen van de huidige situatie (omvang en inhoud van onderwijs op de boerderij, type leerling, samenwerkingsvormen tussen boerderij en school, financieringsvormen), alsmede ervaringen van boeren, leerlingen, ouders en onderwijspartners;
  • Advies geven over mogelijke strategieën voor het versterken van de sector (belangrijkste knelpunten voor onderwijsboeren in kaart brengen, best practices beschrijven);
  • Literatuuronderzoek naar de voor- en nadelen van de boerderij als onderwijslocatie.

Een specifieke opdracht kan samen met de student worden opgesteld. Studenten zullen onderdeel worden van het wetenschapswinkelproject (stages worden begeleid door Jan Hassink van Wageningen Plant Research). Voor meer informatie: esther.veen@wur.nl