The treats and troubles of veg boxes

Foods that are seasonal, produced on a smaller scale, with organic or agroecological methods and traded in shorter supply chains have a less negative (more likely positive) impact on the environment. The most recent report from the Soil Association tells us that the UK market for organic produce has been growing steadily and 2019-2020 saw the highest year-on-year increase over the last 15 years (by 12.6%). During Covid, this increase in demand was especially focused on home-delivered fresh organic fruit and veg boxes from local suppliers. However, we also know that this is still a very niche market reserved largely for households on higher- and middle incomes. So, some argue that in order to get this type of food to a wider range of people and facilitate uptake from lower-income households, we would need to look at ways in which we can absorb some of the extra costs associated with buying this food (e.g. Sustain Food Power Festival, 17-20th May 2021).

There are examples of schemes that promote boxes to lower-income households e.g. by subsidising the cost for some eligible customers. Here we put the spotlight on a small pilot project that Nourish Scotland recently carried out in the Central Belt in Scotland designed to learn more about the challenges lower-income households experienced, once we removed the costs for the boxes altogether. The learnings could then inform how wider uptake of these foods could be facilitated by others, including for example, producers and retailers of this type of food.

We arranged for local suppliers to deliver organic foods (fruit & veg and additional store cupboard items) for free to 28 low-income households for ten weeks working with two different partner organisations in two locations. We asked the recipient households to complete surveys and participate in a series of online activities that were also designed to support the households in making the most of their food deliveries.

The households were generally very positive about the project. Some commented on how good the foods tasted (they felt treated). Some said they had valued the project particularly because they had managed to cook a wider variety of ‘healthy foods’ and had incorporated ‘new healthy foods’ into their routines. A handful asked for the contact details of the suppliers so that they could continue ordering some particular fruit & veg items they had enjoyed on their own after the end of the project. Some said they had managed to get other members of their household actively involved in food and cooking. The households got to know each other, were very supportive of each other, and said they had really enjoyed sharing their experiences and being part of the group. Some shared batches of cooked foods from their boxes (soups, curries) with neighbours and around community groups.

However, we also observed that the households experienced multiple and wide-ranging challenges around making the most of the foods in their boxes. Many had little or no previous experience with a lot of the foods that were delivered to them. They did not recognise some of the veg, and they asked a lot of questions about the basics of handling it (e.g. how to store it, wash it, tell when it goes off, how and what to peel off) and cooking it (e.g. how much oil to use, when to add flavourings, how long things cook for and how to tell when it is ready to eat). A good part of the online conversations was focused on practical cooking skills, exchange of recipes and other hints and tips. There were challenges around familiarising themselves and their households with new tastes and the different look of this food, and some found it hard to persuade other members of their households to come on board (‘fussy’ eaters, ‘disengaged’ teenagers). Not all were able to find enjoyable ways of consuming the same winter veg (cabbage, beetroot, kale) delivered to them in consecutive weeks.

In line with the great majority of UK households, the households reported that their food normally comes from supermarkets and that much or all of what they get is processed and frozen, or in the form of prepared or semi-prepared meals and takeaways. The foods they normally get are clean, packaged and labelled, often with cooking instructions and ‘Sell By’ and ’Best Before’ dates. By contrast, the foods we delivered to them consisted mainly of unpackaged raw ingredients that need cooking from scratch and handling in different ways, using cooking experience and skills, recipes and creativity, plus time and energy to make the most of them. It became clear that by delivering this food box to them, we were asking households to radically change their diets and the ways in which they managed their food, and spend a significant amount of time and energy doing so.

Further challenges they reported included competing pressures from caring commitments, not surprisingly since there were single parent households with dependants, including very young kids. A number also had technical challenges around accessing the online support we offered (and online support was all we could offer as the project took place during the second Covid lockdown). Other households said they lacked the right equipment (an oven, a freezer, a blender, a sharp chopping knife, space in their kitchen). Some were also not coping well generally and already running on depleted energies as a result of other challenges such as living with mental ill-health, recent trauma and experiencing deep social isolation and extreme poverty as a result of these. Many of the households did not have the time and energy, and in some cases, interest nor resources to commit to this project for ten weeks to make the most of it.

We observed that many of these challenges are familiar and experienced by households across all sectors of society. For example, as project organisers, we reflected that the lack of choice at what comes in the box, too much cabbage and kale in the winter months, and the time and energy needed to make a meal from it is an every-day challenge for us too!

As a method for making local organic seasonal food available to a wider range of households, our project raised many questions around how this is best done, given the magnitude and range of the challenges experienced. The following questions jump out:

How can we lower the thresholds that stand in the way for these households? Perhaps at a minimum we need to identify all the challenges that are experienced and recognise that all of them need to be tackled by putting in place lots of accessible, long term and reliable support. For the households we worked with, this might need to include things like producers supplying lists of box contents with ways to handle and cook each item in minimum time (and in ways that make it attractive to toddlers and teenagers); and perhaps local authority readily providing grants for things like adequate freezers, fridges and kitchen equipment.

For sure, there are also questions about how people make their own choices about what foods, and the pace at which, they try them. Perhaps we could offer a limited number of seasonal local food items (some that are already part of their normal diets like peas, apples and potatoes?) and offer more sustainable local seasonal versions in their place, depending on participants’ choices and timeframes? (It was quite telling that our households suggested in their feedback that we supply them with a small box every fortnight shared with two or three other households instead of a weekly full family-sized box for every household.)

But putting in place additional support of the kind mentioned above plus allowing households more choice is unlikely to bring seasonal local food to a wider range of people at scale. We cannot rely on households to make the additional efforts. We have to make it easy for them. The question becomes: How can we promote these foods as convenience foods (perhaps via local convenience stores)?

There is quite a lot of work that could be done to make the content of these boxes more attractive and manageable to people with limited time and resources. We may need to make our seasonal foods available in more familiar and convenient forms. Producers might need (better) washing facilities and offer veg in more manageable portions. To persuade most of our households, at least some of these foods might need to be processed into at least partially ready-prepared and/or frozen meals.

The project raises more questions than answers but for sure, they show that we have a long way to go in mainstreaming seasonal local foods. Also, in the end, the project learnings reminded us of what we know already (but breezed over, due to the short-term funding and the rush to get it all started before deadlines) – that doing things with, not to, people always goes further.