Supermarket chains now compete to provide larger and ever more exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables. Yet, although supermarkets continue to dominate or-ganic sales in the UK, accounting for 80 per cent of retail, there continues to be strong growth in sales from the farm direct to the consumer.
In April 2004, there were 3995 registered organic farmers in the UK (Soil Asso-ciation. Organic Food and Farming Report, 2004). As a part of this traditional means of buying produce, box schemes have soared by over 20 per cent, and now account for a tenth of all organic food sold. Customers are turning to more 'natural' means of obtaining organic food-box delivery schemes, farmers' markets and farm shops-under the assumption that these sources are fresher and locally grown and, thus, healthier.
A crate arriving with a pile of vegetables, dirt still clinging to them, gives the undeniable impression that it has just been plucked from the earth. Consumers believe that, when it comes in a box, an organic head of lettuce will have a higher nutritional value than the pillow-packed salad leaves picked 10 days ago, washed in chlorine and kept in an artificial atmosphere of altered oxygen and carbon-dioxide levels.
Most organic consumers accept the idea that an organic diet costs more than intensively farmed foods. Without herbicides, farmers have to weed some crops by hand, increasing labour costs. Also, organic farming is not subsidised in the EU.
Nevertheless, our samples covered a wide price range. Cost comparisons were made by considering each type of fruit or vegetable as one 'item' and dividing the price by the number of items. Some schemes worked out at more than twice
as expensive as others (see box, page 6).
Our formula also reflects the wide disparity we found in the number of items found in each box. Goodness Direct, for example, offered only seven items (with a high pricetag) whereas Organic Delivery offered nearly twice as many.
Another issue that became apparent with box schemes is the lack of choice. With a weekly box scheme, you generally don't choose, but are simply given a sampling of whatever your supplier has to hand. Many of these boxes are bulked out with cheap fillers-such as loads of po-tatoes-with few of the more expensive items such as fruit.
With some local schemes, you may inevitably receive produce that you would never normally buy. Some vegetables that fill out a weekly box-in particular, the root vegetables and squashes-resemble tiny UFOs and are unidentifiable.
Eating seasonally means you may have to be more adventurous in your cooking. As Collins put it: "With box schemes, it really is a case of eating with the seasons." In fact, nutritional experts such as Dr Annemarie Colbin have evidence to show that healthier populations eat locally grown produce in season (Colbin A. Food
and Healing. Ballantine Books, 1986).
Consumers are also put off by the chemicals used in food packaging, such as bisphenol A (BPA), which are potentially carcinogenic. Although not necessarily applicable to humans, researchers at Tufts University in Boston have found that the mammary glands of young female mice were more prone to develop breast cancer when exposed to BPA (Endocrinology, 2005 May 26; e-publication ahead of print).
The Soil Association prefers that packaging be biodegradable, and insists that any packaging materials used should not affect the taste or character of the product-which means that no plastic pack-aging is acceptable.
So, 'organic boxes' are becoming more and more popular for the clued-in consu-mer. Under these schemes, you buy either your choice of organic produce, or take 'pot luck' with whatever is in season. The advantage of these schemes is that the produce is supposedly locally sourced.
But how fresh and locally produced
is the food in these boxes? In our PROOF! panel survey of seven local and national box schemes, we found that a large percentage of produce is still being imported (see box, page 6). In an article in The Sunday Observer (16 January 2005), Keith Abel, co-founder of Abel & Cole, one of the suppliers in our survey, claimed that "70 per cent of produce in the company's boxes is sourced from British growers."
However, on meticulously checking the source of every last bit of its produce, our Abel & Cole box was found to contain only 37.5 per cent UK-grown food.
Although the bulk of the foreign vegetables were flown in from other countries in the EU, many of the boxes had at least one or two fruits or vegetables from more far-flung shores-such as green beans from Morocco, bananas from the Dominican Republic and mangoes from Argentina or the Dominican Republic.
Even though air travel does speed the process of getting foreign-grown produce to your table, some suppliers opt for slower means of transport. When Abel & Cole imports produce from abroad, they make sure that the goods are shipped rather than air-freighted. The company argues that bringing them in by air produces 30 times more carbon emissions, which are dam-aging to the ozone.
While this is certainly an environmental advantage, it also means there's more of a time lag in getting the food to your table.
It could be argued that a supermarket that uses air transport will inevitably deliver fresher goods. However, produce intended for a supermarket chain has to pass through to central depots, where it is packaged and delivered to the local stores-all of which adds days to the age
of the food. Supermarkets are also more likely to use produce from exotic places.
For this reason, the organic fruit and vegetables sold in supermarkets has typically clocked up tens of thousands of food miles. When the ethical farming group Sustain analysed a sample basket of 26 imported organic items, it found they had travelled a distance equal to six times round the equator (150,000 miles) (The Sunday Observer, 16 January 2005).
Although not as far-flung as this, many organic box schemes include produce from outside the UK. Many of the suppliers in our survey were unable to pinpoint the exact age of the fruits and vegetables, or the distance they had travelled.
With most box schemes, items such as carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables (mostly grown in the UK) are usually about a day old at the latest. Fruit such
as oranges have to be imported and are, therefore, a couple of days old.
It is generally accepted that, for every day that food is on the road, its nutritional value declines.
Yet, although the organic market continues to grow, there are no signs of a change in the overall level of imports which, according to Andy Jones, senior researcher for Organic Research Centre in Berkshire, remains at around 56 per cent.
Demand plays a large part in food imports. John Barrow of The Organic Delivery Company claims that it reflects the seasonal 'hungry gap'-the period from April to June the range of UK-grown fruit and vegetables is limited.
Riverford Organic is aware of consu-mers' concerns and state its import rate in the customer newsletter that accompanies the weekly boxes. Of course, it varies with the seasons.
Individual box schemes vary widely in terms of variety. Although some of the schemes (such as Organic Delivery's) offer a huge variety (15 different types of fruits and vegetables), others offered only half
Most organic delivery services tend to be regional to maintain product freshness, although three of the schemes do operate nationally. Delivery charges vary and some include them in the box price. Some use the Royal Mail, and delivery times can vary from every day to once a week.
The best way to ensure really fresh and locally grown produce is to go direct to
the grower. To that end, the Soil Associa-tion runs Local Food Works, a partnership between the Soil Association and the CountrySide Agency, to promote sustainable local food systems and networks.
To help you find a suitable box scheme, see www.whyorganic.org. Also, Green Books offers The Organic Directory 2006 (lb8.95; edited by Clive Litchfield; see http: //greenbooks.co.uk), listing box schemes by area. Before you take up any scheme, these are the questions you should ask:
o How is the food produced?
o Where does it come from?
o How far has it travelled?
o When was it harvested?
o Who benefits from the money?
We asked our PROOF! panellists to assess a selection of organic boxes and to rate the produce according to:
- price: was it good value for money in terms of both quantity and quality?
- freshness: how fresh did it look and feel, and how did it taste when eaten raw and when cooked?
- origin of produce: were most of the items home-grown or foreign?
- packaging: did it use biodegradable materials?
- variety and quantity: was there a good selection of vegetables and fruit?
In addition, we also asked:
- If the panellists normally bought organic, how did their usual purchases compare with the boxes?
- If they didn't usually buy organic, did the quality of the boxes convince them to change their minds?
- Would they use a box scheme in future, and why?
Our samplers generally agreed that some of the foods tasted good, but that the prices varied too wildly. Another concern was that, as most companies deliver dur-ing the day before 6 pm, it poses a prob-lem for those working outside the home. And with larger producers, there really is no guarantee for delivery times.
Riverford Organic Vegetables *****
This box was voted the best in terms of presentation and quality of produce. All packaging was of recyclable materials and the items was neatly packaged.
There was a great selection of vege-tables, including an excellent bag of green beans and robust-looking spring onions that were four times the size of the usual supermarket variety. The tomatoes were firm, but juicy.
We calculated that each item in this scheme cost lb1.06, our third least-expensive box, and nearly two-thirds of the produce was grown in the UK.
This scheme was certainly among the best quality of the boxes in our sample.
A small fruit box from Riverford might include (depending on the season) Gala apples, apricots, bananas, cherries and a galia melon.
The Organic Delivery Company ****
Price: lb11.95 (lb2.95 delivery charge; free for orders over lb14.90)
In this box, each item came in a small cardboard box suitable for the food. Our main concern was that the spinach came in a sealed plastic pack-clearly not befitting for an organic box scheme. This was, however, a good-value-for-money box with a great selection and quantity of vegetables-from a bunch of radishes (still dusted with soil) to giant-size Spanish onions. So, although the pricetag was on the high side, the select-ion more than made up for this.
Our panellists all agreed that the company had delivered an attractive, colour-ful selection of vegetables. The mushrooms were regarded as flavoursome-whether raw or cooked. Despite more than half coming from abroad, the produce seemed fresh, but not overly ripe, and retained its freshness for three days.
We calculated the cost of each item at lb1.15, making this the fourth cheapest of our box schemes, with a great selection of high-quality vegetables to boot. A small fruit box might include (depending on the season) bananas, Granny Smith apples, grapefruit, oranges and kiwi fruit.
Waterland Organics ****
With this box scheme, our panellists commented especially on how tasty the broad beans were, as was the spinach, though the potatoes were thought lacking in flavour. At lb0.93 per item, this was the least expensive of our sample, but the variety was not as diverse as some of the others. However, the produce was 100-per-cent UK-grown. So, if price and local source are your main criteria, this is, vegetable for vegetable, the best value for money. A small fruit box might include (de-pending on the season) apples, pears, bananas, apricots, oranges and strawberries.
UK5 Organics ***
Price: lb10 (lb1.25 delivery charge)
This box offered the standard range of vegetables plus a mango and bananas. The packaging worked well and was made of recyclable card. One panellist roasted the courgettes and said they tasted very good, but there was a difference of opinion over the tomatoes-one panellist claimed they tasted fantastic,while another considered them bland. The carrots were described as "crunchy with a slight spicy taste". Despite the company's name, less than a third of the produce was grown in the UK. We calculated each item to cost lb1.13, placing this squarely in the middle of our cost range. Most of our panellists agreed that there were enough vegetables for the price of the box.
A small fruit box might include (de-pending on the season) apples, bananas, pears, oranges, grapes, plums and apricots.
Abel & Cole ***
The packaging of this box was attractive and worked well, although we were not pleased to see the plastic sheet covering the whole lot. The price is reasonable-working out to lb1.23 per item-and the quantity of vegetables reflected this.
Our testers were impressed by the strawberries and beetroot, both of which were sweet and full of flavour. The mango was firm and fresh, with a great taste.
The panellists all agreed that, even though this was the third most expensive box, the quality and variety was worth it. However, nearly two-thirds of the produce were sent from foreign shores.
A small fruit box might include (de-pending on the season) Royal Gala apples, bananas, kiwi fruit, Valencia late oranges and strawberries.
Swaddles Green Farm ***
Price: lb17 (lb35 minimum; lb5.50 delivery charge)
This long-standing national organic meat supplier has now expanded to provide weekly fruit and vegetable deliveries. This company's box was among the few in our sampling to provide more fruits than vegetables.
Indeed, the quality of the items offered was among the best in our survey-all were ripe, firm and and deliciously juicy. Swaddles has a fleet of delivery trucks-at least to London-thus assuring a speedy delivery, and maximising on freshness. The vegetables came in cardboard, with only the spinach packaged in plastic. The main issue here was the price. This box cost us lb17, and Swaddles imposes a lb35 minimum on deliveries, so you'll need to order something more. However, despite working out to a substantial lb2.13 per item in this case, it was not the most expensive box of the lot. Of course, 75% of that exotic produce hailed from sunnier climes than can be found in the UK (see box above). If quality is what you're after, then this offering can't be beat-but be prepared to pay for it.
Goodness Direct **
Price: lb13 (plus lb6 p&p; lb15 minimum order)
This was the most expensive box of the seven in our test-and provided the least value for money. The quantity wasn't bad, but mostly comprised cheaper vegetables. We were also concerned about the packaging-it was very large and had vegetables rolling around on the bottom. It was, however, made of recycled card. The potatoes roasted well, but the parsnips, when roasted, were deemed 'stringy'. One panellist thought the cu-cumber was crunchy, but no tastier than the supermarket versions. Our panellists all agreed that the vegetables didn't seem particularly fresh-for example, the potatoes felt soft to the touch. Considering the whopping lb2.38 per item, we were unimpressed with the uninspiring selection on offer, three-quarters of which was grown outside
of the UK. A small fruit box would include a variety of seven fruits. These would be (depending on the season) apples, bananas, kiwi fruit, oranges, peaches, dates and lemons.