A shawarma sandwich, doughnuts, a cold hamburger, white bread with Nutella, pizza from the previous day: These are the things that the green hero of Ghent finds in the lunchboxes of Belgium's schoolchildren. And he's not happy about it.
As self-styled superhero Vitamike, Martin Hoevenaar comes to the rescue of schools and takes the garbage out of lunchboxes. After school hours, he switches his red cape for a hoodie and a set of spray paint cans.
Hoevenaar, a Dutchman who moved to Belgium 11 years ago, works for a local health organization called Wijkgezondheidscentrum De Sleep, transforming into a superhero who ensures that kids are eating healthy. As Vitamike, Hoevenaar visits primary schools with a cart full of brown bread and healthy toppings in tow. Together with the kids, he makes a puzzle of the food pyramid, decorating sandwiches with vegetables and fruit. "A sandwich with kiwi, radishes, olives, egg, and cauliflower? It's sounds like something we usually wouldn't like, but kids fold that thing in half and eat it completely," Hoevenaar tells me. "They're eating better with Vitamike than at home."
Fuck you and your bureaucracy. I'm not doing this for money—I'm doing this because I want to.
Vitamike also gives workshops about healthy food to the parents of the children and he occasionally pays school cafeterias a surprise visit to check on how the children are doing. His role as a food mascot has turned him into some sort of Belgian Superman.
In his superhero origin story, Vitamike lives on a green planet, but becomes stuck on Earth after his rocket runs out of "green" power. If children fill their lunchboxes with healthy food for an entire year, he can get new energy to return to his planet and visit his family.
For every healthy lunchbox, students are rewarded with a sticker or a marble. When they've collected enough, they throw a farewell party for Vitamike at the end of the school year, where all the children wave him goodbye and dance.
Hoevenaar charms everyone with his green six-pack suit. "The kids are crazy about me, but the moms and female teachers love to see Vitamike come, too," says Martin with a wink and a loud laugh. "I have to motivate the parents too, of course."
Children look up to Vitamike because he can fly. When they encounter him on the street, they give him a high five or a fist. When they ask why he's in jeans instead of his superhero suit, he tells them that he's incognito. When they ask him why he's walking instead of flying, he says the mayor of Ghent forbade him, because he's too fast.
The road to Hoevenaar's house is plastered with murals. Children know that Vitamike makes graffiti in his free time, and his mailbox is often crammed with drawings made by his young fans. "It's very cool, the kids' reactions. In the beginning, it was strange and overwhelming, especially when hundreds of children ran toward me at Vitamike's farewell party. I was scared—I'm not used to having so many people around me. I live alone, in seclusion."
As a regular citizen, Hoevenaar is still a food activist—but not on behalf of a community center, and preferably outside of the law. (His house is filled from top to bottom with spray paint cans for graffiti.) He lives with little money and refuses to cash the checks he receives for his work as Vitamike. "I once filled out every working hour very precisely in a document, and later on a letter arrived that said they had paid me 8.20 euros too much," he tells me. "Right then, I thought, Fuck you and your bureaucracy. I'm not doing this for money—I'm doing this because I want to."
The Vitamike project is funded by tax money, but Hoevenaar doesn't think it should be. "I don't think that society has to pay for something that is quite normal: a solid education on healthy eating," he says.
Hoevenaar would rather make money by making art. Finding himself depressed a few years ago, he resolved to mentally flip a switch. "I decided to do two things: help people and paint," he says. "Everything else can drop dead. That's just how I want to live my life."
Hoevenaar's healthy food ideology goes beyond school lunches. During Ghent's 10 Days Off electronic music festival, he secretly sells inexpensive chicken satay and salads from the window of his home. He doesn't make much of a profit, but that's not the point. Opposed to major supermarket chains, Hoevenaar also operates his own guerilla kitchen, traveling to people's houses to cook food with ingredients sourced from small, local stores. With all these things, his goal is to show people that it's possible to cook healthy and good food, even when you have little money.
"It frustrates me that people say that they eat garbage because of poverty. I'm proving every day—by cooking fresh and healthy food myself—that it's not poverty, but laziness," Hoevenaar says.
For his next project, Hoevenaar is currently looking for a space in which he can give cooking lessons to kids from 14 to 18 years old. They're going to school and live alone, and according to him, they don't even know how to cook a frozen pizza.
For that audience, he can probably bring his spray paint cans and leave the superhero suit at home.