An increasing number of people have a hunger for fresh organic produce. According to the Rough Guide to Food more than 400,000 people have an organic vegetable box delivered each week to their door. There are now over 550 box schemes, compared to a handful in 1991. Sales have grown steadily, now exceeding over £150 million a year, and are holding firm even in our credit-crunched times, according to the latest Soil Association market report.
The great thing about veg boxes is they encourage you to eat seasonally. It’s the way we are supposed to eat: roots in winter, salad in summer. Seasonal food carries more nutritional value and taste because of its freshness, and treads lighter on the planet, especially if you chose a scheme as close to where you live as possible.
Some of the bigger veg box schemes do import out-of-season organic produce such as organic bananas from the Caribbean or tomatoes from warmer parts of Europe, usually shipped rather than air-freighted. However, the majority of veg boxes comes direct from UK farmers – that means eating what this country produces.
It also means bypassing the supermarket system. The veg avoid life in a chilled long-distance lorry, while price-wise they are good value because there is no middleperson to pay. Every month Riverford Organic Vegetables compares its box prices against those from three leading supermarkets – its veg boxes are consistently cheaper.
I put this price research to the test, keeping a beady eye out for quality and variety. The six delivered to my Bristol home in the last weeks of March included small local grower Wrington Greens, and nationwide supplier Abel & Cole. For each box, I weighed each veg and compared it with the online prices of its organic equivalent in Tesco that week, where relevant. If it wasn’t available, I compared the non-organic variety of the same vegetable. Where none was available, I checked against online organic prices at Sainsbury’s or Waitrose.
The award-winning organic supermarket in inner-city St. Werburgh’s in Bristol is a local food champion, growing Soil Association-certified organic produce a few miles south of the city. I ordered the £12 Gert British box which contained salad leaves, spring greens, a cauliflower, purple sprouting broccoli, mushrooms, turnips, red and white onions, baking potatoes and carrots, sourced from local organic farmers including its own fields. I got a newsletter with seasonal recipes and a mystery vegetable which turned out to be a huge Chioggia beetroot. Even though a number of Tesco organic groceries were on special offer that week (some reduced by between 20 and 50%), the same items would have cost £15.26. Add Tesco’s delivery charge of £4.49 and it’s clear an organic veg box is cheaper than buying organic veg at the supermarket.
0117 935 1725 www.betterfood.co.uk
The London-based company Abel & Cole scored points for telephoning the day before delivery to give me an idea of when it would deliver, and confirm where to leave the veg should I be out. The £11.95 Medium Basics box arrived in a sturdy box, tied with a length of wool and full of fresh veg: a cabbage, a cauliflower, kohlrabi, celery, a bunch of radishes, carrots, onions and potatoes. (I later discovered that I could have asked for specific veggies to be banished: bye bye celery!) The box came with a newsletter, recipe, receipt and a sheet of information for new customers, but it also came with a 99p delivery charge. A quick comparison found that, weight for weight, Tesco could have provided the same veg for £8.49, except that it does not stock organic radishes or kohlrabi (neither do Waitrose or Sainsbury’s). Even allowing for this, my Abel & Cole box worked out more expensive than Tesco. Abel & Cole sources organic and free-range produce from small UK organic or farmers (and also imports Fairtrade bananas, coffee and chocolate).
0845 262 6364 www.abelandcole.co.uk
Devon-based Riverford is one of the best-known names in the home delivery business. The recent winner of two awards, the Observer’s Best Ethical Restaurant (chef Jane Baxter’s recipes are included with a delivery), and the Natural & Organic Award for Best Organic Retailer. Its South-Devon based co-operative of 12 farmers produce Soil Association-certified crops which are delivered through a franchise of local van drivers in southern England including Bristol. Its weekly winter box, called Roots + Greens box, at £11.95, offers seven types of vegetables for a family of four. My box (red Russian kale, spring greens, potatoes, carrots, onions, Chioggia beetroot and a large cauliflower – all UK apart from the Dutch onions) would have cost £14.77 from Tesco, although I had to substitute regular kale for the red Russian variety when comparing prices. Riverford also supply organic meat and dairy from local farmers, as well as organic European wines and local cider.
0845 600 2311 www.riverford.co.uk
Nick McCordall of Slipstream Organics has been providing organic fruit and veg to the Cheltenham, Gloucester and Stroud area for the last 15 years. The contents of the £12 veg box (containing potatoes, carrots, onions, a cauliflower, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, purple sprouting, a cucumber, brown mushrooms and a bunch of parsley) would have cost £14.43 from Tesco, excluding Jerusalem artichokes which Tesco did not stock (Waitrose had non-organic ones, adding £1.13 to the bill). You can add eggs, fruit and award-winning Hobbs House organic bread to your order. Even with a £1 delivery charge, it’s less than the supermarkets. Everything, apart from the onions, was UK-grown, including from Ledbury, Worcester and Dursley.
01242 227273 www.slipstream-organics.co.uk
This Glastonbury-based business offers produce from local non-organic and organic farms, while its website tells you which farm or producer has provided which goodies. Box scheme prices starts from a fiver, while its £7 box contained tomatoes (from Holland), parsnips, purple sprouting broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spring greens and kale. The majority came from Portbridge Farm in Chew Magna, which operates a minimum-spraying policy. Some of the veg in the box comes from farms in organic conversion awaiting Soil Association certification. The box was 25% cheaper than Tesco’s equivalent veg at £8.88. There is a £3 delivery charge, but adding meat, cheese and fish to your order saves on overall costs.
01458 830801 www.localfooddirect.co.uk
The Soil Association-certified farm in Wrington, north Somerset, won the 2008 Countryside Alliance award for Best Local Food Retailer in the South West, and its Walled Garden is open every day to the public. Its box scheme delivers to Bristol and North Somerset, or save £3 on each box by collecting it yourself from the farm shop, which sells homemade apple juice and cider, free-range eggs, jams and pickles, Herbert’s organic bread, as well as organic milk, cream and cheeses. Its small box was a revelation: wild garlic, organic parsley, sprouted seeds, leeks, spring onions and celeriac alongside the potatoes, carrots, red onions, red Russian kale, salad leaves, purple sprouting and cucumber, with most grown on Wrington’s own land and the remainder coming from Flaxdreyton and Yeovil. The only box with a farm-by-farm breakdown, its contents were generous and inventive. The same items would have cost £15.39 from Tesco, although the supermarket stocked no organic purple-sprouting broccoli, celeriac or parsley; nor (surprise, surprise) did it sell wild garlic or sprouted seeds (price compared to Aconbury organic sprouts). I used the price for regular kale as opposed to the Red Russian.
01934 863636 www.wringtongreens.co.uk
Wrington Greens came out top for quality, variety and price. Better Food Company came a close second for value for money. Outside of that it was close run, with five of the veg box schemes offering substantial savings on supermarket prices.
Overall quality and freshness was excellent but Abel and Cole came last: more expensive than Tesco and – despite my request – no word yet on which vegetables were grown in the UK.
The best time to start getting a veg box is now so you may benefit from the huge variety of summer and autumn crops. Try one today – and enjoy.
Its walled garden on Pill Road two miles outside Bristol has seven drop-off points in the city. Supplying fresh weekly Soil Association-certified vegetable boxes at £9 and £17, its produce is locally sourced wherever possible from organic or in-conversion land. Also has training and volunteering opportunities.
01275 375756 www.leighcourtfarm.org.uk
Organic veg growers since 1988, they now farm 70 acres. They offer Soil Association-certified seasonal produce in three box sizes boxes from £6. Home delivery to local villages or distribution points in Taunton, Clevedon, Weston-super-Mare and south Bristol.
01823 432488 www.stoneage-organics.co.uk
The 80-acre Soil Association-certified organic farm outside Over Stowey, Somerset, grows more than 100 different types of vegetables, herbs and soft fruit for its award-winning local box scheme. Its small (7-8 items) box is £7.90, delivered from the Quantock Hills to Bridgwater and Taunton.
01278 734580 www.plowrightorganicproduce.co.uk
Serving a 10-mile radius of the Prince of Wales’ Soil Association-certified Home Farm at Tetbury, there are five sizes to choose from and local collection points (£1 for home delivery).
01666 503507 www.duchyoriginals.com
• We like this site for all things to do with organic veg boxes:
Riverside Garden Centre is the South West’s leading co-operatively owned and run independent garden centre – has the largest selection of plants in Bristol, sourced wherever possible from local growers and suppliers. Its great vegetarian café is the perfect place for breakfast, or just a coffee and cake!
Learn to grow and get a share of harvest at Valley Organics Community Supported Agriculture, a six-acre organic market-garden outside Stroud. A volunteer group works the land most Friday mornings.
0845 458 0814 www.stroudcommunityagriculture.org
For vegetable seeds that are open-pollinated and non-hybrid (you can save your own seeds from your best plants year on year), check out Real Seeds, a not-for-profit garden kitchen catalogue.
Also see www.gardenorganic.org.uk
First published issue 57 (Summer 2009)
Written by Darryl Bullock
Disclaimer – details correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.
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