When I was teenager and I used to tell people that my Ma had her vegetables delivered to us every week by a local organic farmer, they would look at me funny. I'm not sure if it was because Ma bought into the organic movement before most people even understood the concept, or because she opted not to go to the supermarket—perhaps it was both—but now if you tell people that you subscribe to an organic vegetable box scheme you're more likely to be thought of as a trendy middle class type, rather than an out-and-out kook.
So that must make me a trendy middle class type. Hmm.
Yes, I subscribe to an organic vegetable box scheme.
It's a pretty simple theory: I pay about £16 a week and every Tuesday a guy called George deposits a box of fruit and vegetables by my front door. The contents are always organic, seasonal, and predominantly locally grown. I don't have to worry about chemicals, about foodmiles, about making it to the greengrocers before closing time, and I don't have to fight my way around the supermarket every week. All of this makes for a very happy DEB.
The box I have on order is sufficient for two or three people; it contains eight types of vegetable—which always includes potatoes and onions—four types of fruit, and a guarantee that fennel will never cross my threshold. If I had a smaller or larger household, or didn't want fruit, I could adjust the size, content, and cost of my box accordingly. But that's the extent of control I have over the box because I can't choose what I'll receive.
Before you have an apoplectic fit, that I can't choose what will land in my vegetable rack and fruit bowl is one of the major benefits of the box scheme, as far as I am concerned. It forces me to be inventive, it prevents me from succumbing to the supermarket-induced vegetable rut, it ensures that I don't miss out on produce with an eyewateringly short season, and occasionally it even provides me with something that I've never cooked before. For me, this is all types of win.
There are, quite literally, hundreds of schemes that operate all over the UK. Perhaps the two most well-known schemes are run by Abel and Cole, and Riverford. They have both been going since the mid-to-late eighties and whilst they started out as very small local-based affairs, they have managed to grow their business across the country by linking up with sister farms and syndication. Some of their produce is imported—for example citrus fruit and bananas—but the aim is for 80% British produce, they never air-freight, and it is all fairly traded. In addition to vegetables and fruit, you can also order a whole host of other goods through these companies, including meat and dairy produce.
If you look around your area, though, you are likely to find smaller, community-based schemes that include produce grown on local allotments and market gardens, for example Growing Communities in Hackney and Leigh Court Farm in Bristol. Chances are, though, they will still include some imported produce, especially in spring. April and early May are known as the 'lean months', or the 'hungry gap': the British climate isn't conducive to year-round abundance. These guys normally don't deliver, instead you collect from a nearby community centre or cafe, but the idea is that it is close enough to be able to walk.
No, it isn't a perfect system. Right now I have beetroot coming out of my ears that I need to turn into relish before it takes over the house. I ate at home only twice last week and was away over the weekend; as a consequence I've more food than I would normally expect on a Monday, but nothing will go unused. And sometimes you really don't want to have to think of another recipe involving courgettes. However, the positives far surpass the negatives, particularly with respect to convenience, economy, and environmental impact. Maybe I'm a kook, but it's something that makes my life a little bit better.
Or maybe I'm a middle class trendy type.
Thanks to karma debt, an American friend of mine with whom I had a drink last night, and ascorbic, I'm now aware that the rough equivalent in the US is CSA: Community Supported Agriculture. It's not exactly the same, but likely as close as you'll get.