I have done a rough comparison between the cost of the fruit and vegetables I receive each week in my organic box and the cost of non-organic items of the same produce from a greengrocer or supermarket. The organic box costs £12. Non-organic produce in similar quantities would cost about £7.50. At the greengrocer, I choose what I buy. In the organic box, I get what I am given. Why then am I a contented organic box subscriber? And why are they so popular that the big supermarkets are running trials for their own box schemes?
The supermarkets are already doing well with organic produce. They enjoyed about £1.2bn-worth of the £1.6bn sales that the Soil Association reported for organics in the UK in 2005. (That was a 30 per cent increase on the 2004 figure.) But, as the market has grown, so has awareness of the values behind organic farming.
Consumers who accept that organics are a good thing might also conclude that supermarkets - which transport products great distances, squeeze small suppliers, and squash local competition - are a bad thing. Sales of organic food through independent shops, farmers' markets and box schemes showed a year-on-year increase of 32 per cent in 2005. These sales will eat into the market share of Tesco and the rest unless they can establish green credentials.
Supermarket box schemes may not alter perceptions: consumers are likely to believe that a box from a small supplier is greener than one from Tesco. That will not necessarily be true. Not all box schemes are exclusively local. Nor are their contents guaranteed to be excellent. A recent survey in the Times, generally in favour of such schemes, found examples of "uninspiring" and "deeply unexciting" produce. Nigel Slater complained in the summer about receiving unseasonal, powdery apples among his weekly supplies.
However, I like my box, which comes from Hackney's Growing Communities. Apples, pears, courgettes, cabbages and beetroots have all been fresh and flavourful. I should not complain about the expense, either. When you do a comparison, with the prices of organic items at the supermarkets, you find that there is little difference. One organic supplier, Leigh Court Farm in Bristol, claims its vegetables are 20 per cent cheaper than the supermarket.
I may even be saving money, because the box encourages me to be less wasteful. The main benefit, though, is what it does to my cooking. Instead of reading a recipe that involves, say, asparagus spears, and then going out to find them even though it is November, I start with the ingredient and work out what to do with it. I value the asparagus (when it is in season) for its own sake, not as a means to producing something a celebrity chef has promoted. The result is that it really does taste better.
Nicholas Clee's food blog is at nicholasclee.blogspot.com