“The best thing about veg box schemes is that they tend to be transparent with regard to their values, partnerships and ethics”

The Community Farm are currently selling about 1,100 veg boxes a week – almost double the sales before the COVID-19 crisis. Bristol Food Network volunteer Isobel Cox looks at the rise in interest in veg boxes and the value of local supply chains.

The importance of having a resilient, local food system has become more apparent than ever in recent weeks, with large, national supermarkets no longer able to provide their USP of a quick and convenient shopping experience. Many people are turning to local alternatives, with one of the most viable and popular options being veg box schemes. Bristol is spoilt for choice when it comes to local veg box providers, and there is an extensive list of options with coronavirus services listed on the Bristol Food Network website. But what is it that makes veg box schemes especially important right now? I spoke to Ian Weatherseed from The Community Farm and Dan Broadbent from Tobacco Factory Community Kitchen to find out. 

“The best thing about veg box schemes is that they tend to be transparent with regard to their values, partnerships and ethics. This allows customers to choose their veg box scheme based on the issues that they care about” said Ian. Schemes can focus on a variety of issues, such as supporting and enabling local growers by giving them a guaranteed and equitable route to market; others might concentrate on customer convenience or encourage the use of ‘wonky’ veg that might otherwise get discarded.

Veg boxes also give customers a significant connection with the land; local, seasonal food; and a sustainable way of eating. As Dan said: “We try and keep stuff really seasonal, which keeps people’s diets reflective of the environment”, fitting with the Going for Gold action of buying local. The Bristol Going for Gold bid has been paused for now, but the Going for Gold team’s #BristolFoodKind social media campaign focusses on acts of kindness that can support good food in the city – this includes buying from local, independent food providers who are under increased pressure because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Community Farm are currently selling about 1,100 veg boxes a week, which is almost double what they were selling prior to the pandemic. Ian identifies their role in food security right now: “veg boxes are so important because they allow people safe and convenient access to fresh fruit and vegetables when traditional outlets have struggled to meet demand. For a person classified as ‘vulnerable’, a visit to a supermarket could have dire consequences, and, when said supermarkets aren’t able to offer delivery slots until the following month, such people are turning to local veg box schemes as a viable alternative to their regular channels of consumption. Even for regular customers, simply being able to receive their box as they would any other week is a wonderful stroke of normality when the world feels as though it has been turned upon its head; the influx of notes of thanks and gifts our drivers have received is testament to this.”

Dan agrees that “the convenience of the scheme is amazing – particularly for elderly and vulnerable people who are unable to get out of the house.” These are the people the farm are receiving contact from the most, and the team are trying to keep costs as low as possible for customers. They want to treat the scheme as a service for the community, rather than simply a business opportunity.

However, coronavirus restrictions are providing unique challenges – shortages of supply, increased demand, staff absences due to potential exposure to the virus, logistical changes in terms of delivery routing and capacity, and increased customer service demands due to all of the above. Ian said: “the lockdown and the subsequent suspension of all volunteering, educational and therapeutic programs and events have left a heart-shaped gap in the body of the farm. Yet we know that this period of limbo will come to an end, and we will hopefully soon be able to share the farm with others, once again!”

In the meantime, both schemes are enforcing strict rules on-site to reduce the incursion and spread of infection, while taking on as many new customers as possible without sacrificing quality for their existing customers. To help with this Tobacco Factory is building a website alongside other local businesses, that will allow customers to view and order products online, it will be called weareBS3.com. Ian concludes that “more so than anything, we have worked harder and longer than we ever have before, which is made somewhat easier by the fact that we work with an amazing bunch of people.”

Short film about Bristol’s Leigh Court Farm by Jason Taylor

Isobel Cox is a volunteer for Bristol Food Network. She lives in Bristol and is studying towards a Food Studies MA at the University of Exeter. Her academic and personal interest is about how to develop food systems that are sustainable for all.