What’s the deal with organic vegetable boxes?

First came the news of Abel & Cole being sold to the makers of Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire puddings, William Jackson Food Group, and then last winter saw the launch of none other than Tesco’s very own organic vegetable box scheme, ‘Soil & Seed’. Self-satisfied veg box devotees across the nation have had their cages rattled, myself included. The line between ‘evil’ food corporations and sanctified independent organic traders has never been more blurred.

We can all breathe a sigh of relief on hearing that Abel and Cole will continue to be run by founder Keith Abel. The partnership has only come as a financial necessity after near bankruptcy at the height of the economic crisis. Likewise Soil and Seed is cosily marketed as a group of organic farmers merely making use of Tesco’s enviable online delivery network. Nonetheless we may have some qualms about the integrity of organic producers and companies who proclaim their responsible and sustainable farming values before crawling into bed with the national retailers whose demands for cheap food have resulted in just the opposite. Example!

It comes as little surprise that Britain’s largest supermarket group wants to muscle in on the action. Since the very first veg box scheme set up by a farming couple in Devon in the early 1990s, there are now more than 300 box schemes with total retail sales of £78-95 million. And there’s no sign of a decline. A 2011 report by the Soil Association states that some 400,000 households regularly receive an organic veg box, and despite the recession these sales are set to grow. Tesco has finally woken up to the benefits that veg box scheme customers are enjoying; namely fresh, traceable, varied and seasonal produce with all the countless benefits of organic agriculture to the environment.

Still, well established co-operatives such as Riverford Organic and Abel & Cole are unperturbed by Tesco’s emergence on the scene. If anything it could be seen as a positive step for the organics market, increasing awareness and overall sales of organic food. Guy Watson, founding director of Riverford, maintains that the difference between them and Tesco boils down to ethics: ‘For Riverford, being organic is much more than gaining an official stamp; it is about a set of business values that course through the veins of every part of the organization’.  By shopping with independent veg-box schemes such as these it would seem that we are buying much more than just organic food. So for the well-meaning but perplexed shoppers among us what exactly are these ethical benefits?

Economically the veg box scheme provides an alternative route to market for small and medium sized farms. As The Ecologist puts it they provide ‘a lifeline for small community growers who lack capital to hire premises of their own and who don’t want to be taken for a ride by the supermarkets’. Farmers are paid a fair price for their produce promoting higher agricultural standards, and buying locally develops buoyant local economies.

A source from Tesco’s Soil and Seed points out that ‘the selling point of [its service] is that you can have this seven days a week’ from a centralised depot in Cambridgeshire– great for busy mums but what about the environment? More parochial box schemes usually limit delivery within a 5 mile radius or boxes can be collected from a central collection point. Equally, larger co-operatives produce comes from farmers’ collectives around the country who supply the consumers in their local area on designated days.  This means less food miles, no air freighting and therefore fewer carbon emissions. Oh, and most schemes will collect and recycle any used boxes and food packaging too.

Beyond this, community-led projects such as ‘Growing Communities’- an enterprise run by residents of Hackney in East London- illustrate that the humble veg box can have far-reaching social benefits. It’s a non-profit company attempting to find a sustainable alternative to feeding urban populations and pioneering a deeper connection between the consumer and the origins of their food. Rosie Boycott is amongst its admirers : ‘It’s a fantastic enterprise: in addition to providing fresh, seasonal vegetables, Growing Communities is also a neighbourhood focal point: cookery demos, the farmers’ market, lessons in how to grow veg and the community spirit generated by belonging to the scheme are just some of its benefits.’

As more diverse veg box schemes and companies enter the booming organics market we need to remain astute about their individual merits and ethics, just as we are with our supermarkets.