“Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle.” – Michael Pollan
What are veg box schemes?
Veg box schemes are a way of getting local farm produce delivered to your home or a local pick-up point – usually weekly or sometimes fortnightly. It’s not just about vegetables, however. Boxes can also contain fruit, herbs, eggs, dairy produce, meat, honey or anything else you stipulate that you’d like from your local scheme, if available. And it may come in a bag by the way, as well as a box.
In the 1980s, a couple of organic growers in Devon, Tim and Jane Deane, found that their veg travelled 50 miles to their regional organic co-op, then a further 200 miles to a supermarket depot, then back to a supermarket 10 miles away, to be sold at 4 times the price that they’d sold them to the regional co-op. They decided to have a go at selling boxes of seasonal, fresh fruit and veg directly to local customers, to reduce food miles and to see if they could keep more of the retail price. It worked, and after 2 years, they had 200 local customers.
They appeared on TV in 1991, after which the idea caught on. Now there are around 600 veg box schemes in the UK. However, a familiar story has started to play out. Although there are plenty of small, local producers, the market has come to be dominated by two large producers, Abel & Cole and Riverford, with even bigger corporate players set to join the game.
More about Riverford: it’s now 74% employee-owned, which we support. However, we believe that small (and local) is beautiful (human scale, and the food has to travel shorter distances). Riverford has a revenue of £110 million, and a national network of customers, which goes against this principle, and also means that they’ll be taking customers from many local schemes. And as the founder still owns 26% of the company, this means that Riverford is still not a democratic business (‘some people are more equal than others’) and concentrates wealth, which is ultimately what prevents real democracy.
So as you’d expect, we advise you to support a local scheme if you have one, rather than the big boys.
What are the benefits of veg box schemes?
The benefits are similar to those of farmers‘ markets and community-supported agriculture. From an environmental perspective, food needs to be transported less; box schemes are mostly organic, so fewer pesticides are used; and there’s less waste, as vegetables don’t need to be perfectly shaped, as they do for supermarkets.
Fresh, seasonal food is tastier and better for you. Fruit and veg start to lose flavour and nutritional value from the moment they’re picked. Produce is harvested in the previous week, not 6 weeks, like most supermarket fruit and veg. This means that it will keep for longer, without the chemicals that supermarkets use to increase shelf-life.
Some may see seasonal produce as a problem, because of the reduced range at some times of year. It’s a familiar problem for allotment holders / gardeners too, who are used to dealing with gluts (courgettes spring to mind) at certain times. Some can be preserved, but it’s good, in terms of health and environment, to eat as much food that’s local and in season as possible. It connects us to nature’s cycles, and encourages us to experiment with recipes that we might not try if we just rely on food that’s been shipped around the world. The trick is to build recipes from your ingredients, rather than searching for food, in season or not, for a particular recipe. To help people to cook seasonal food, a lot of veg box schemes include recipe ideas for different times of the year.
However, some schemes do add some imported food when local food is scarce (especially in the ‘hungry gap’ in May, or just to add to the variety. They tend to be shipped from Europe though, rather than air-freighted from further afield.
A major benefit of veg box schemes is that they help support small farmers and decentralise our food supply – i.e. to take it out of the hands of just a few corporate suppliers (who extract profits from farmers to pay for large advertising budgets, head offices, land purchases, higher food miles, executive salaries and shareholder payments). This doesn’t apply to Abel & Cole, who are, of course, doing the exact opposite; they have been owned in the past by a private equity firm and Lloyds Banking Group, and they’re now owned by a corporate food group with other operations headquartered in tax havens. Their priority is and has to be making money for shareholders, not local food.
What can I do?
Finding a scheme
Why not go the direct route, and give your money to the people who grow food, instead of contributing to the profits of a giant company with ambitions to get bigger still? It could get much worse. Asda now have a veg box, and Amazon are poised to join the market too. Don’t give them your money if you’re interested in supporting local growers and reducing food miles. There are plenty of small providers, or if you don’t have a local scheme, maybe you have a farmers’ market, farm shop, pick-your-own scheme, community-supported agriculture – or you could grow your own.
Not all veg boxes are organic, so if you want to reduce pesticide use too, check when you sign up.
Snapshot of a scheme delivering veg boxes around Grimsby.
Joining a scheme
Think about what you want and the questions you need to ask. Are you just after fruit and veg? Can you cancel your order when you go on holiday? Can you opt out of any specific foods (see below)? Do you have somewhere to leave your delivery, or is there a local pick-up point?
Organise your delivery. If you’re in on delivery day, fine, but if you’re out, there needs to be a dry, shady place to leave your delivery. If you don’t have a place like that, then usually you can arrange for your box to be delivered to a local drop-off point, where you can collect it in the evening. There are different sized boxes, depending on the size of your household, or you could even share a box with a neighbour, and you can have weekly or fortnightly deliveries.
Don’t be scared to complain if some of the contents of your box is poor quality – your scheme will want to know. Don’t just abandon them at the first appearance of something not quite right.
Using a scheme
If there’s a type of food that your local scheme produces that no-one in your household will eat, you can ask them to leave it out of your box. But this is a difficult topic. Veg boxes are not like farmers’ markets, for example, in that you can’t choose what you’re getting – you just get a selection of local food that’s in season. So it’s not good for growers to have customers that are too fussy. Fussy eating, as was pointed out by one organic grower, is a ‘first world problem’ – a luxury. She also, hilariously, advocated lying to your children if necessary – for example, ‘you had this before, and you loved it’, if they turn their nose up at unfamiliar food. She says it works. Actually, this isn’t a trivial problem, because if your kids are really fussy eaters, they might be missing out on essential nutrients and vitamins. Tailoring boxes for specific customers is a logistical problem for growers, and can you really not eat fresh, local, seasonal food because your taste buds are too refined? Use some of the recipes provided, change your habits a bit, but also question whether your tastes have been manipulated by the modern food industry, which has made us more tolerant of a diet heavy in meat, sugar and fats, to the detriment of our health and the environment. Maybe it will take a bit of training – but stick with it a bit to see if you can rehabilitate your taste buds. But, if none of that works, most schemes will allow you to opt out of 2 specific food items.
Even if you’re not a fussy eater, when a particular fruit or veg is in season, you might get a lot of it for a few weeks. That’s where recipe sites come in handy – you can serve the same veg in different ways, for variety. It might be a good idea to plan your weekly menu when you get your box, and plan to use the things that don’t last as long first, so you don’t end up having to throw anything away.
Make sure you have a composting system to take all the peelings, carrot tops, wilted leaves etc. that your box will generate.
Setting up a scheme
For farmers & smallholders: one hectare typically provides for around 60 veg boxes, but you won’t be producing one or two crops – more like 50 is the norm. At some times of year, you could use polytunnels, get food in from elsewhere, or close down for a couple of months. Do your sums and see if the amount of land you have can cover your costs. Remember that you’ll be spending time and fuel on deliveries, but if you can build a customer base, you’ll have a guaranteed market without the price squeezes, cancelled contracts and food waste that you get when dealing with supermarkets.
However, many growers are not up for the marketing side of things, and so they produce food for an existing local scheme, or form a co-operative with other local growers. Sometimes, groups of local people set up schemes, and collect produce from local growers.
The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.
Alice Brown is from Sutton Community Farm, a small, not-for-profit, vegetable farm in South London. They grow over 100 varieties of vegetables which are sold directly to South London residents via their VegBox scheme, and to restaurants.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Amanda James March 31st, 2018
Riverford becomes 74% employee owned on the 8th June 2018 (Guy Singh-Watson will own the other 26%). I support this move and I support Guy’s ethos generally (at least what comes across in the newsletter). I have bought Riverford’s boxes for about 10 years now and am very happy with what I get. I did try a smaller supplier before, but found there were too many rotten veg and I didn’t have the time to keep chasing this up. Will Riverford get a more positive review by Low Impact now?
2Amanda James March 31st, 2018
Here is the link I forgot to add..
3Dave Darby April 6th, 2018
It will indeed. I’ve changed the intro to reflect this.
4Amanda James April 7th, 2018
More information on the employee ownership. Thanks Dave.
5Dave Darby April 7th, 2018
I’ve changed the link in the article – that’s a better one, thanks.
6Jen Potter November 1st, 2020
Hi Dave, thanks for an interesting article. FYI the link to Riverford’s employee ownership scheme is broken. Are you able to update with the correct links? Thanks
7Dave Darby November 1st, 2020
Jen – done, thanks for pointing it out.
8catchycourt November 10th, 2021
There are so many benefits of veg. Veg Meat. It’s no surprise that Meatless Mondays, vegan restaurants, and green beverages have all risen in popularity. In addition to helping you lose weight, vegetables also protect you from chronic diseases. However, if you’re like most Indians, you still don’t consume enough of them. Adding more vegetables to your diet can be hard, but here are four surprising reasons to do so:
They fight bloat:- Even though you may think vegetables cause bloating, most of them actually help reduce it. Constipation can be prevented by consuming vegetables as they contain fiber that is beneficial for flushing out waste and irritants from the gastrointestinal tract. As a result, vegetables can make you look leaner by combating the bloat caused by salt. Most Americans consume nearly twice the recommended daily amount of sodium. Bacon and egg biscuits, typical restaurant meals, or instant soup contain nearly a day’s worth of sodium. Veggies are high in calcium and potassium, which flush excess sodium from the body while restoring body fluid balance. For a full stomach, eat fennel, cucumbers, summer squash, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, or tomatoes. Choosing steamed vegetables instead of raw vegetables can ease gas symptoms when you start adding more fiber and vegetables to your diet. The As your body adjusts to consuming fiber, heat from cooking breakdowns some of it and helps keep gastric distress to a minimum.
9Sally B February 22nd, 2023
I’m declaring an interest here – I work for Riverford at the moment. I can however say as an insider that it’s a truly ethical company. They think hard about everything they do and are constantly working to make sure that they produce and sell food which is delicious, sustainable and ethical. They’re not perfect, but they’re pretty much as good as it gets. If you have a small, local veg box scheme nearby and it works for you, do support it. If not, you can’t go wrong with Riverford.
So please don’t ask people to “avoid the big players”, including Riverford. We grow a lot of the produce we sell ourselves, and if we don’t grow it ourselves we have close, supportive, transparent relationships with the farmers who are growing it. We don’t have shareholders – Riverford is employee-owned.
I’m moving on from Riverford to a new job soon, but I’ll always be a customer. The veg are amazing and it’s a trustworthy company.
10Dave Darby February 23rd, 2023
We’ll always advise people to “avoid the big players”, in every sector of the economy.
Riverford isn’t ‘as good as it gets’. It’s not as good as Sutton Community Farm, for example, where our advisor works. Or the many other small, local veg box schemes around the country.
But I’ve made the text in the article a bit more nuanced:
Now there are around 600 veg box schemes in the UK. However, a familiar story has started to play out. Although there are plenty of small, local producers, the market has come to be dominated by two large producers, Abel & Cole and Riverford, with even bigger corporate players set to join the game.
More about Riverford: it’s now 74% employee-owned, which we support. However, we believe that small (and local) is beautiful (human scale, and the food has to travel shorter distances) – https://www.lowimpact.org/categories/small. Riverford has a revenue of £110 million, and a national network of customers, which goes against both of those principles. This also means that they’ll be taking customers from many local schemes. And as the founder still owns 26% of the company, this means that Riverford is still not a democratic business (‘some people are more equal than others’) and concentrates wealth, which is ultimately what prevents real democracy – https://www.lowimpact.org/categories/the-democracy-problem.
So as you’d expect, we advise you to support a local scheme if you have one, rather than the big boys.
11Dave Darby February 23rd, 2023
But as you say ‘If you have a small, local veg box scheme nearby and it works for you, do support it.’ – completely agree.