Veg box schemes: introduction

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.

History

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.

supermarket-versus-veg-box

Compare veg boxes with supermarket shopping in terms of local, seasonal food, diverting money from corporates to small producers, reducing pesticide use, packaging and food miles, freshness, healthiness and sustainability.

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. However, Riverford is becoming employee-owned (see here), which we wholeheartedly support.

As you’d expect, we advise you to avoid these big players, who need to either own vast areas of land, or to extract money from small farmers to pay their shareholders. More below.

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.

regather-delivery

Regather co-op in Sheffield deliver their veg boxes by tricycle.

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.

veg-box-online

Many schemes (like this one – Sutton Community Farm) allow you to organise your deliveries online, with basic boxes of various sizes, to which you can add specific items of fruit and veg, but also bread, honey, eggs, lemons (from Spain) etc.

What can I do?

Finding a scheme

There are several sites with listings of local veg box schemes, for example here, here or here for specifically organic schemes, or search online for veg box and the name of your town.

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.

courgette-recipes

Glut of a particular veg? You can now get seasonal recipes with your veg box, or find them in books or online. For example, from the top: courgette fritters; courgette & parmesan soup; courgette & goat’s cheese tortilla; fried courgettes; and ‘courgetti’ with tomato sauce.

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.

Packing boxes at one of the many farm-based veg box schemes across the UK

Packing veg boxes on the farm.

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.

See here and here for advice about setting up a veg box scheme.


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