Dilemma: Should I feel guilty about the bananas in my fruit & veg box?

Fruit and veg box schemes used to be the preserve of ‘deep-greens’. Now everyone’s in on the act, however, is green shopping becoming greenwashing, asks Matilda Lee

Shopping at Ocado is as green as walking to the supermarket,’ says the leaflet that arrived with my post one morning. These days even the big supermarkets offer their own organic boxes, and muddy-booted boxscheme producers, once patronised by only the deepest of ‘deep-greens’, are trying to appeal to a wider customer base by becoming online supermarkets, selling everything from cleaning products to wine.

There are now approximately 550 box schemes in the UK. While most base their business around good-quality, mainly British, seasonal produce, many – particularly the biggest ones – can supply a range of extras as well. The way these schemes operate, and how they defi ne words like ‘local’, can vary enormously, however.

I started receiving a weekly delivery of organic fruit and vegetables from Abel & Cole when pregnant with my fi rst child and the waddle back from my local London farmers’ market became too much. Four years on, I can’t imagine life without it. Every week I look forward to the seasonal produce that has meant I’ve become a much more creative, self-suffi cient cook, transformed from someone who couldn’t tell a swede from a kohlrabi into someone who can easily whip up a kale pesto or tomato cabbage soup, and turn any number of various vegetables into a dish not only edible, but also (according to my husband) actually tasty.

But! The bananas and oranges are a dead giveaway that it’s not ‘local’. While all of Abel & Cole’s bread, meat and dairy is from the UK, some of its produce is not. ‘What we offer is a way to eat primarily organic British produce – we wouldn’t market what we do as local,’ says Ella Heeks, Abel & Cole’s ethics director.

Abel & Cole isn’t alone. ‘Almost all’ UK box schemes offer non-UK produce at some stages of the year, according to the Soil Association’s Ben Raskin. Given this, how do you actually support your ‘local’ farmers in a big city such as London?

Capital produce

Today, London imports more than 80 per cent of its food. Half a century ago the picture was very different: 50 per cent of produce in London was grown there, mainly through allotments, according to Ben Reynolds, network director of London Food Link. But the livestock stables and orchards that dotted the capital have made way for buildings, parks and housing developments. Four in five people in the UK now live in cities of a size that would be impossible to support without industrial food logistics, according to a report by the Food Ethics Council.

‘It’s barking to suggest that London could be completely self-suffi cient but we do need to build a small sense of resilience,’ says Rosie Boycott, the new chair of London Food, which aims to develop the capital’s food security and improve access to healthy, locally produced and affordable food. However, she adds: ‘We are doing everything we can to localise London. By creating hubs so that small producers can sell surplus locally we want to build up markets to cater for expanding green belts, reservoirs, rooftops, railway banks and even churchyards that can produce something.’

There are some really inspiring examples to point to, such as the Growing Communities project in Hackney (see Ecologist, June), but cities clearly need to maintain strong links with and support rural economies in the UK.

Both farmers’ markets and vegetable boxes that sell organic UK produce are helping to save small British farms, and have a consistently better track record at ensuring stability than supermarkets. According to the Soil Association’s latest fi gures, farmerowned box schemes sourced an average of 86 per cent of their content from the UK, while non-producer-owned schemes (not run by the farmers who grow the produce) sourced an average of 76 per cent.

Nevertheless, the definition of ‘local’ can vary widely according to where you live. In London, for example, the local produce in the farmers’ market can mean produce grown within 100 miles of the M25, whereas in a rural setting it usually comes from no further away than 25 miles.

Owner of Lancashire-based box scheme Growing with Nature, Alan Schofield has organised a loose affiliation of specialist farmers, such as tomato, cucumber and mushrooms-growers, to add to the vegetable box business he started in 1992. ‘For small farmers with three or four acres, this networking is vital, as many would struggle to survive the way the market works today,’ he says. Alan considers his box scheme ‘local’ as 85 per cent of the farmers contributing to it come from within 15-mile radius.

With local producers catering for local customers (within a 25-mile radius), Alan prides himself on the freshness of his boxes. ‘Our salad leaves, spinach and spring onions are picked less than 24 hours before being delivered. My courgettes shine, you can break a leek leaf, whereas most just bend,’ he says.

Yet even Alan has succumbed to the pressures of the market, offering a fruit box that includes bananas and kiwi fruit. Bananas have become a target for food localists, but the fact is that given the short fruit season in the UK, you are looking at cold-store refrigeration for out-of-season UK apples, which means weighing up the production versus transport costs of shipping in, rather than air-freighting, produce. There is no clear winner in terms of which is more sustainable.

Ploughing back the profits

There are clear advantages to taking part in a box scheme with the highest proportion of local and UK produce you can find, however. With locally owned box schemes, profits get channelled back into communities instead of the bank accounts of distant shareholders, as is the case when shopping at most supermarkets. While farmers supplying to supermarkets see a return of as little as 5p in the pound, those supplying box-schemes get 40p in the pound.

As box schemes like Abel & Cole get bigger – it now offers 800 different assorted grocery lines – and Riverford expands its national franchise system, they have become a threat to producers like Alan. ‘They have the finances behind them to be able to advertise and research where the lucrative markets are. Our customers received three glossy leaflets from big box schemes last year,’ he says.

However, Ella Heeks of Abel & Cole insists: ‘There is room for all of us. Seventy to 80 per cent of sales are going through supermarkets. All of us are competing with them. The point is how to grow the industry.’

Indeed. Ensuring the country’s food security means supporting small, organic producers in the UK. In more rural areas, being a true localist means taking advantage of the producers that live and grow their fruit on vegetables on your doorstep. In big cities, you can support sustainable rural economies through box schemes, independent retailers and farmers’ markets.

So do I feel guilty about the bananas in my veg box? The honest answer is no, as long as they are Fairtrade, organic and not air-freighted into the country. Such ‘treats’ comprise a small proportion of my diet, and for me it is a better use of my time and energy to make sure that as much of my money as possible goes to supporting producers in the UK. The Sunday farmers’ market, where my three-year-old happily chats to the bread, fish and meat stallholders, and my fruit and veg box ensure that a large majority of my weekly food budget does precisely this.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

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