One of the few good news stories to emerge from the pandemic is that large numbers of people have been turning to veg box schemes to help them put food on the table and, crucially, avoid having to join the endless supermarket queues.
A survey carried out by the Food Foundation which campaigns for a sustainable food supply found that this spring at the height of the pandemic, veg box sales more than doubled.
Unfortunately, this rocketing demand in turn resulted in more than 80% of the 101 box schemes surveyed being forced to close their schemes to new customers.
Knockfarrel Produce and Manchester Veg People
Typical of the small, independent veg box schemes which have been inundated by the coronavirus-fuelled demand is Knockfarrel Produce, which produces organic food for its box scheme from its croft in the Scottish Highlands.
“In the first couple of weeks of lockdown, people came to us because there was almost no fresh food on the supermarket shelves,” says Jo Hunt from Knockfarrel Produce.
“Normally we have about 100 customers every week but now that’s now grown to 150. We’ve had to close the website for new sign-ups as being a small farm we can’t take on any more business as we want to serve our existing customers.”
It’s a similar story for Manchester Veg People which runs an organic veg box scheme across Manchester.
Chris Walsh from Veg People says:
“We’ve seen the business grow by around 25% since lockdown… This increased demand has meant that, unfortunately, we’ve had to turn away new customers and currently we’ve got around 250 people on the waiting list.”
What the future holds
Whilst business is clearly booming for veg box schemes, an emerging problem is how many customers will stay once the pandemic is finally over.
“It’s hard to predict future revenues when there are so many unknowns, which makes it really difficult to make business decisions,” admits Walsh.
“Everyone’s in the same boat and we’re all just running to stay still, doing our best to accommodate new customers. I don’t think anyone’s planning beyond this, as it’s so out of our control.”
Increasing the supply
However, with the pandemic clearly demonstrating the vulnerability of our current food supply to major shocks, there’s now a growing call for a rethink in how we produce our food.
Organic farmer Adrian Steele is one of the authors of a recent Soil Association report into the benefits of reduced food supply chains.
“Coronavirus has highlighted the fragility of our supply chains and has allowed us to see that shorter, more direct food networks can be more resilient,”
“We haven’t invested in our horticultural industry compared to countries such as the Netherlands which now have greenhouses heated by renewable energy,” says Walsh.
In a bid to increase the supply of locally grown organic veg, the Kindling Trust which runs the Veg People box scheme is now planning on buying and running its own organic farm close to its Manchester base.
“We want to build a sustainable food economy in the North West by operating a community-owned farm growing exclusively what our customers want,” says Walsh.
“The aim is to produce enough food to supply 1000 families with our veg boxes and for the farm to be an inspirational showcase demonstrating that a sustainable food system is possible.”