Amsterdam Community Work

Amsterdam municipality is in constant conversation with their communities. This is how they know whether the programmes and interventions are effective and how they are received. The conversation also allows learning by doing and adjusting interventions to fit the communities. How this conversation happens was one of the questions we were hoping to get an answer to during our visit to Amsterdam.

In the afternoon of our visit, we met Joanna. She works for the Amsterdam municipality as a community health promotor, and is a link between the communities and the local government. Her job is to promote healthy behaviours in the community and among her colleagues in the Municipality of Amsterdam. This is especially important for professionals who do not deal with health issues directly, for example those involved in poverty or empowerment issues. Joanna works to keep healthy lifestyle a part of their mind set and show them with the enthusiasm for healthy lifestyle that exists in the community.

At the moment Joanna focuses on Amsterdam East. She usually spends at least 2 days a week outside the office speaking to people and for the rest of the time she stays in conversation with the community through social media. When we met her, she told us about her work and took us on a bike tour of the neighbourhood showing community projects and introducing us to people.

In the community she usually works with who she calls ‘key figures’ – pro-active individuals who organise community events and initiatives. Joanna is in constant conversation with them about how to incorporate healthy lifestyle into these initiatives and offers support. She shared with us a recent success story. This summer, she posted on her Facebook page an idea to replace unhealthy but very popular in Amsterdam chips with mayonnaise snack: the replacement were sticks of fresh mango fruit served with yogurt. Volunteers organising a free summer city camp for children were inspired by this idea and spoke to Joanna. The next day, 100 children were eating healthy mango ‘fries’ and drinking water! They tagged Joanna on Facebook with pictures of these children. Good news spreads. The volunteers got so enthusiastic, that on the second camp day they made spinach and red beetroot pancakes for all children! This was in stark contrast with the previous year when children were served chips and sweet drinks most of the time.

As a community health promotor, Joanna also organises ‘inspirational workshops’. She speaks with parents about ways to encourage children to eat more vegetables, how to eat healthily, be more active or about how much sugar is in popular products. She constantly reaches new groups. Recently she worked with women that follow Dutch classes at a free neighbourhood language centre.

Joanna told us about other healthy initiatives in the community. As in some Amsterdam families fathers play an important role in food education, the local government in Amsterdam East gave an assignment to an organisation that links with men communities for whom Dutch is not first language. The organisation set up an awareness programme where food entrepreneurs and male citizens could talk about healthy lifestyle. We met representatives of this organisation in a Moroccan fish shop and restaurant in Amsterdam East.

In cooperation with this organisation, the fish restaurant organised dialogue evenings for men from the neighbourhood to learn from each other and talk about ‘hot healthy lifestyle topics’ such as sugar consumption. During these evenings dietitian lead the discussion focusing on healthy lifestyle and the restaurant served only healthy meals. Thanks to these meetings the owner became very conscious of healthy eating, serves wholemeal bread with his food, cooks dishes low in salt, and talks to his clients about healthy lifestyle. While we listened to them talking about this work, we were served a Moroccan tea with no sugar (traditionally Moroccans add about 25 sugar cubes into one teapot!), fish soup with lemon juice (the ‘smart’ improvement, as lemon juice replaced salt), and fresh wholemeal bread.

Joanna is the one with the fish over her head!

Just about to be served Moroccan fish soup.

Joanna then took us to visit ‘Jeugdland’, a big play area for children also called ‘play and do-it-yourself ground’. It is a large outdoor space with ponds, fruit trees, an impressively long slide, football pitch, a place where children can build things from wood, a community centre and an outdoor kitchen. Yes. An outdoor kitchen!

Community garden ‘Jeugdland’ in Amsterdam.

Working in the kitchen and surrounded by a group of lively children and a few volunteer mums, were two women. The first one, a former teacher, told us about her work. In co-creation with the local government of Amsterdam East, she developed a civic engagement programme to train enthusiastic citizens who have the potential to become healthy lifestyle ambassadors. This programme empowers volunteers (mostly women) to start making changes in their own family and encourage others to follow the same path. Hundreds of individuals were trained and are now active in communities of Amsterdam East. 

The other woman was one of the citizens that followed the programme and who is now promoting healthy lifestyle in her neighbourhood. Using gestures, smiles and simple English, she explained to us her input. She is a full-time mum of Turkish origin. Encouraged and supported by the training provided by the Amsterdam municipality, she started running free pesto-making classes for children playing in the community garden. The interest is great. 

She showed us her work. The table in the garden kitchen was covered with bowls, pestles and mortars and pesto ingredients. While we spoke to her, a lively group of children worked on making pesto, ran around, and seemed to have a great time. Out of simple ingredients, such as nuts, fresh basil, nettle leaves, garlic, cheese and olive oil, a delicious pesto was created. Each child got their portion on a slide of fresh wholegrain bread. We were lucky to try it too. It was delicious! What an excellent way to teach kids about healthy eating.

Learning in the outdoor kitchen from the active citizen.

Pesto making class. Fresh pesto on wholemeal bread – deliciousness!

Since our visit, we started following Joanna on Facebook. She regularly posts photos and recipes of healthy food prepared by people in the community and ‘’I am proud of’’ stories of citizens who improved their lifestyle. She praises volunteers, informs of healthy lifestyle initiatives and events, inspires the neighbourhood to walk (for example by sharing her walking meetings’ feet pictures), but most of all she inspires people to lead healthier lifestyles. You can see her Facebook profile here: