"Children are my Achilles' heel."

Interview with the Rotterdam breadfather

More and more children go to school without food. Johan 'De Boterhammenman' or 'The Breadman' Muurlink has been making sandwiches for years for children who do not get breakfast or lunch to take to school due to poverty.

16 February 2023
By Lisanne Van Beurden

Because this is so important, Manhave Vastgoed decided not to give Christmas gifts to relations in 2022, but to make a donation to Johan's Stichting Niet Graag een Lege Maag (Foundation Please Not An Empty Stomach). In the new year we visited his kitchen for an interview.

On a Monday afternoon at half past one we walk into the kitchen of an old school, where Johan was just wiping the door of the fridge with a cloth. "I'm still tidying up and cleaning," he says. After he is done he points to a cart with bread. "That's left over from today and we'll use it again tomorrow. It's still fresh."

He takes a seat and talks openly about himself. It soon emerges that Johan has not had an easy life. Nevertheless, after the loss of his fiancée and three of his own children, and after years of living on benefits, he has given a positive spin to his life with Stichting Niet Graag een Lege Maag. Johan explains: "Children are my Achilles' heel. They are completely innocent and have not asked for rich or poor parents. You don't have a say in that."

Read the entire interview with Johan below.

"Children are my Achilles' heel. They are completely innocent and have not asked for rich or poor parents. You don't have a say in that."

Johan ‘De Boterhammenman’ Muurlink

How did Stichting Niet Graag een Lege Maag come about?

Johan: "During a visit to my son's school, I saw how he shared his sandwich with a classmate. When he saw me, he felt caught. Immediately he came out of the classroom and said sorry. Of course I told him how proud I was of him!"

"The situation was gnawing at me and I went to investigate. The director of the school said that a large group of children come to school without food. After two days I decided to do something about this issue. That week I brought 80 bags with sandwiches to my son's school. I used my own savings for this. Money that I had actually saved for a trip around the world with my youngest son. Fortunately, he agreed that I should use the money for the sandwiches. Still so young, but already aware of what is really important. Really my son "Johan says proudly.

"I soon ran out of money. So I asked for help and my friends advised me to share the project on Facebook. That's what I did. That's how things got going, neighbours brought by peanut butter and other food. I became bolder and bolder and eventually even emailed about a thousand companies for help. In the end only one company responded, but that is of course better than nothing."

Is the project running smoothly now?

Johan: "Yes and no. There are currently seven schools that I can't help. I don't have enough volunteers for them. Just like this morning, when only one person showed up. While I'm physically broken myself. I've had a bad year: my mother had cancer and I had stomach cancer myself. Nevertheless, I decided to continue, because you do it for those children. But the website, for example, is old and I don't keep up with Facebook as well. I understand that people want to follow along, but my mother and my own health are more important."

"But the foundation is financially healthy. I make sure that the foundation has a large buffer. We only help a school if the costs for a year are on the account at least twice. This way we ensure that if suddenly there are no sponsors , we can still help. So my goal is to let the buffer grow, so that I can help more schools."

What is the status of the goal of the foundation to provide all Rotterdam children with bread? Is this an achievable goal?

Johan: "Yes, I think it is an achievable goal. Now I may sound arrogant, but I am the pioneer who set it all in motion. At the moment there are many similar initiatives, both commercial and non-commercial. Municipalities are getting involved more and the government is aware of the problem. I have taken the blinders off on people and showed them that this problem exists."

"That is of course positive, because if more people get started and work together, the problem can also be tackled. I also helped a few people in other cities to set up similar projects to mine."

I have taken the blinders off on people and showed them that this problem exists.

Johan ‘De Boterhammenman’ Muurlink

What does your workday look like?

Johan: "I'm in the kitchen at a quarter to 7 to get everything ready. I have a list per school with how many sandwiches are needed. Then I prepare the packages together with volunteers. Once they're done we drive it to the schools. At two schools I put everything in the fridge and then the students can take it themselves. But at most schools it is handed out in the classroom by the teachers."

"So today I only had one volunteer. So I had to work really hard to get all the sandwiches done. Luckily I was on time at all my schools. I arrived exactly at 10:30 AM at the last one. Today I made 1200 sandwiches. "

The van in which the sandwiches are delivered.

How many sandwiches do you prepare in a day? Do you make sandwiches every (school)day?

Johan: "Currently I do this for 17 schools. We make between 800 and 2500 sandwiches a day. I work on it seven days a week. I do the shopping myself. I keep an eye on all the brochures for good deals. For instance, there are two schools that want packs of drinks, but they are quite expensive. About 20 to 30 euro cents per pack. I would like to have these for ten cents per pack and then I will look very hard for it. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't work out."

What do you notice about the price increases?

John sighs. "Everything has become a lot more expensive. Last year I already had to pay 30 to 40 euros more per day. Now I am at 100 euros more per day. It just keeps increasing."

Johan stands up and shows his supply of butter in the fridge. "I always buy this butter and until two weeks ago it was still €1.09 per package. The day before yesterday I looked at the price, it had suddenly risen to €1.29. It's shocking. Cheese has become ridiculously expensive. You think that there will be a turnaround, but that will take a while I'm afraid."

He pauses for a moment and then continues: "There are also more applications from the schools that I already help. I started at one school with three children. We are now six children. If you think about it, that is 100% more. Some schools have as many as 20 children who don't get food to school from home."

Manhave's (Christmas) flyer about the sandwich man.
The kitchen where Johan prepares his sandwiches.

How can people help?

Johan: "By donating or helping as a volunteer. As I said, I really have a shortage of volunteers. They remain volunteers and sometimes they just don't show up. So it's very nice to find reliable people who can help regularly. "

"If you can't donate or don't have time, you can still help by giving Stichting Niet Graag een Lege Maag attention. Talk about it, name us, advertise and so on. That also helps."

Thank you for your time, John. And good luck with all your work!

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