Growing Ideas: Social dining combats loneliness

Resto VanHarte brings people together

Cooking and eating together to eradicate loneliness: that’s the thinking behind Resto VanHarte. Targeting the elderly and low-income families in particular, the low-cost restaurant chain organized more than 3,000 dinners for 17,000 people last year.

Resto VanHarte was started in the Netherlands in 2004. Today, it serves three-course dinners at below cost price at 53 locations across the country every week. “We can spot the places with the highest risk of loneliness,” says Director Rob Kars. “We’re primarily located in low-income neighborhoods or in areas with a high percentage of elderly people.”

What is Resto VanHarte?

“Resto VanHarte was founded 14 years ago by Fred Beekers, who also co-founded the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders. He noticed that there was a high level of social isolation in the Netherlands. Resto du Coeur, an organization which provides meals for the disadvantaged in France, inspired Beekers to establish Resto VanHarte.

“We deliberately serve three courses at our restaurants to ensure that guests stay for longer and talk to each other. We also ask people to come in to let guests know about activities in the neighborhood, or we might have a speaker on a theme like health services or safety. And we encourage our guests to help out in their Resto as well, all to stimulate social interaction.

“Guests pay just EUR 7 for a three-course dinner, or even less if they are very hard up, and children often eat for free. We deliberately charge less than the cost price so that the money isn't a deterrent for people. It does mean that we have to keep the number of paid employees as low as possible. We now have about 70 employees and nearly 4,800 volunteers. Fortunately, we receive funds from the government, local investment funds, and sponsors.”

“Elderly people eat better if meals are shared”

- Rob Kars, Resto VanHarte

What problem does your organization address?

“These days, elderly people live in their own homes for longer, but are they leading healthy, fulfilling lives? Information about diets is easy to find, but many elderly people living alone don’t eat as well as they might if meals are shared. Resto provides people with a social context, which means they eat better.

“We now have Kids’ Restos at 33 of our locations as well. Research shows that disadvantaged children are more likely to develop obesity or diabetes. Their poorer health and lower social-economic status often generate problems for these children at school and later on. At Resto, we teach them where food comes from and how to prepare it. They learn to work together, they discover their talents, and they make something they can be proud of: healthy food for themselves and their families.

“This week we’re planning to offer some 10,000 breakfast workshops because many children go to school on an empty stomach. We teach them to prepare their own breakfast and we give them a goody bag to take home so that they can make breakfast for their brothers and sisters as well.”

“We can reach more people by facilitating other organizations”

- Rob Kars, Resto VanHarte

What’s next for Resto VanHarte?

“As many as 3 million people in the Netherlands describe themselves as lonely and that number keeps rising. Whenever we open a new branch, the seats fill up in no time. But the more people we serve, the more money we need. We want to reach 100,000 people, but we can’t do it on our own.

“Fortunately, many other social dining initiatives have popped up in the 14 years since we started. Our goal is not just to grow ourselves, but to facilitate these other organizations. Together, we can reach even more people. That’s why we share our know-how through a training program. We’re also making Resto’s online reservations system available to them so that people can see at a glance all the different places they can go to share a meal.”

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of agrifood and offer a platform for innovative ventures within the sector. It is a translation of an article that was previously published on RTL Z, the website of a Dutch business and financial news channel.