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19 October 2018

The best veg boxes: from wonky carrots to local organics

Seasonal, local and pesticide free: how the NS office was converted to fruit and vegetables. 

By New Statesman

Autumn is here, and the New Statesman office has embraced the harvest spirit with a crop of veg box reviews. Backpacks bursting with crimson berries and green kale were taken home for taste-testing, with largely joyous effects: Anoosh Chakelian still has the sound of “apples plopping to earth” ringing in her ears. 

Veg box sales have soared in recent years, bringing farmers market-style produce straight to shoppers’ front doors. The proliferation of schemes now on offer is great news for vegans and vegetarians, as well as those simply looking to reduce their meat consumption or increase their intake of healthy fruit and veg.

The phenomenon has also been good news for organic farming, helping push up sales of organic food and drink by 4 per cent over the last year alone. Plus it may encourage consumers to favour seasonal, British produce at a time when farmers are nervous about the impacts of Brexit and the increasingly extreme weather.

So if this sounds like something for you, there are plenty of options to choose between – from original trend-setters, such as Riverford Organics, to smaller, regional players like Liverpool Organic Direct. We loved each for different reasons, but they all encouraged us to get cooking and eat a lot more veg.

For best results, look up options that are grown locally to you (the Soil Association has a handy tool for this), find a suitable size-match, check that air-miles and plastic have been kept to a minimum, and seek out produce that is as seasonal, local and pesticide-free as can be.

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Riverford Organics
Seasonal organic veg box – large, £19.45
Available around most of the UK

As someone who has lived my entire life in cities and is still excited to see a cow in person, my expectations were high for this veg box all the way from rural Devon (or one of Riverford’s partner farms). And it delivered. The large box was indeed very large. The produce was fresh and delicious: no anaemic supermarket carrots that taste like they’ve been grown on the M25 hard shoulder. The recipe card for roasted cherry tomato pasta was easy to make (just roast cherry tomatoes and onion and mix with pasta, basically) and produced a great weeknight dinner.

I learned that carrots come out of the ground with a lot of green stuff attached – and about the very existence of rainbow chard. I also got to use my flat’s “garden waste” bin for the first time for some of the offcuts (I do not have a garden).

The packaging was very minimalist, and therefore environmentally friendly – although the chard (there was so much chard) came in plastic “to preserve the moisture”. But Riverford will be switching to 100 per cent compostable plastic by 2020, and one look at their website makes it clear they have given a lot of thought to their environmental impact and packaging. Let’s just say that if you like detail, the green credentials FAQ section of Riverford’s website is your dream come true. Overall, 72 per cent of their veg is British-grown, but they do offer a 100 per cent British box as an option. Lizzie Palmer

Standard Vegetable Bag, £14.25 / Standard Fruit Bag, £10.45
Available in London (plus Farmaroundnorth serves the north of England)

To say the produce from Farmaround is “fresh” would be an understatement, and I am ashamed to admit that when I discovered a small, hairy caterpillar nestled in one of the stems of broccoli, I squirmed. Yet the friends I had invited round for dinner were overjoyed to meet the wriggling creature: hailing it a triumph of organic farming over pesticides, and swiftly making it the toast of the meal (pasta with grilled peppers and courgettes).

In addition, the produce arrived with a box of Hen Nation eggs (£2.65), which are laid by hens the mainstream egg industry deems too old to keep alive. These lucky rescue cases spend their retirement in a hay meadow in North Yorkshire, producing truly high-welfare eggs.

The result was a heart-warming feeling of fluttering goodness. It is certainly something I’d hope to order again for a future feast – which their online site allows you to do as a one-off, as an alternative to an ongoing subscription. You can see exactly what this week’s boxes would contain here. India Bourke

Chegworth Valley
Medium mixed fruit and veg box, £20
Available nationwide (except Highlands and Islands)

I’ve never been to Chegworth Valley but four weeks after receiving its veg box, I still feel like I’m there, lying lazily in the hay with the cheeping of birds and apples plopping to earth ringing in my ears. Over a month afterwards, I still had a bag of tomatoes left from what was an enormous haul – thanks to Chegworth Valley’s excellent decision to include some unripened veg to last you.

Mine was the “medium” box, apparently (though I struggled to carry it home on the Tube it was so generous – or I was weak and hitherto veg-deprived). The official line is that it’s “roughly enough for two-three people for a week” but I found it lasted the two people in my household far longer than that. All for £20. At a normal mini supermarket you could spend that on, like, three ready-to-eat avocadoes in all their layers of plastic finery.

The produce was great quality, long-lasting and very practical for an unimaginative cook like me. It was a relief to have a fully-stocked fridge and fruit bowl without acres of packaging to show for it for once – and no need to do pricey after-work, last-minute food shops for a good few weeks. Cheggy til I die. Anoosh Chakelian

Large fruit and veg homebox, £17.25
Available in London

When the Oddbox arrived in the office, my colleagues and I marvelled at its size. Surely there couldn’t be that much food in one order? My boyfriend was visiting that week, so we turned what would have usually been my veg for a week into a massive feast!

Oddbox doesn’t detail all of the veggies’ origin (although the spinach and tomato came from Kent), but provides welcome information about why each product has ended in the box instead of a supermarket. All the produce in my box had been judged a bit “wonky”: the courgettes were deemed “oversized”, the limes “spotty on the side” and the oranges, “not the prettiest”. You thought our society held unattainable high standards for women’s look? Try being a vegetable!

Jokes aside, it all tasted amazing in our big veggie curry, with the added flavour of having helped fight food waste. (Bonus points because we also salvaged the curry sauce from an Abokado branch, which was about to throw away their waste products). We also made virgin mojitos with the lime (adding some ginger beer and mint from the garden), a spinach, lettuce and tomato salad, and freshly pressed orange juice on a lazy Sunday morning. “Wonky”, maybe, but very tasty, too! Pauline Bock

Liverpool Organic Direct
Medium size box fruit and vegetable box, £15
Available in Liverpool

The veg box that was delivered to my house was almost overflowing with produce. When I unpacked it, I found a bottom layer of root vegetables like potatoes, onions and carrots loose in the box, then a series of brown paper bags containing smaller things like mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, corn cobs and apples (both eating and cooking varieties). On the top were great sprouting bunches of kale and pak choi. Each item had more details about its type and grower written on the bag or a label — much of it came from the same two farms, and nothing had travelled further than about 25 miles to be in my kitchen. The packaging was minimal, which I appreciated, and all of it was easily recyclable.

The quality of the fruit and veg in the box was excellent (I don’t even really like kale, but when steamed this turned a brilliant green colour and tasted lovely, not bitter at all) and having such variety delivered to the door pushed us to cook slightly more inventively than we usually do. The box was probably a bit large for a household of two adults, as we struggled to get through it all in a week, but there are other sizes on offer. It’s definitely an excellent option for those interested in the food miles of their produce and supporting growers in the region where they live. Caroline Crampton

Medium Seasonal Fruit and Veg Box, £11.95
Available in London

When Farmdirect’s box of succulent organic matter arrived at my desk, the song “The apples are ripe, the plums are red,” sprang to mind. The plums inside looked both ripe and red, and a handy label on the outside of the box told me they were grown at Ripple Farm Organics.

This small farm in Kent is nestled at the foot of the North Downs (their website informs me), and is one of a number of regional producers who supply the company. Their selection of potatoes, rhubarb, spring onions, fennel, carrots and leeks made for a great roast dinner – and was all the more delicious for leaving me able to picture exactly where they had all been grown.

I did, however, also discover that broad-beans really do sleep in “blankety beds”, when I tried cooking them with the inner shells still intact. My lesson here is that veg boxes are great for pushing me out of my culinary comfort zones! India Bourke

Wonky veg
Medium Wonky Veg Box, £9.99
Available in Leicester, North Warwickshire and Tamworth and most places in between.

I am notoriously prudish when it comes to blackened bananas, bruised apples and other fruit that has had a tumble, so I opened my wonky veg box with some trepidation. To my surprise, none of the veg looked at all bruised, despite being carted around on the back of my bicycle, and it wasn’t even wonky.

The aubergine, tomatoes and onions quickly disappeared into a pasta sauce, and I used the carrots and potatoes for a more hearty British roast. My only concern was the celery. I received a full, distinctly unwonky, bunch, but it’s hard to find recipes that use more than one or two stalks at a time.

This veg box was extremely good value for money, with a varied selection of vegetables. They also donate 10 per cent of their produce to charities and food banks around Leicester, and are committed to creating a more efficient food system – not just restoring the reputation of odd-looking food. Julia Rampen

Local Greens
Standard, no potatoes bag, £13.30
Available in South London

In a cliché that wouldn’t escape the online “didn’t happen” brigade, receiving my vegetable box resulted in the first and only time that my flatmates and I have cooked and eaten a meal together. (It did happen).

Excited by the arrival of the Local Greens veggie box – which turned out to be a more eco-friendly reusable veggie bag – I artistically displayed its contents on my living room floor. Having extensively commented on how everything looked better than that of a supermarket shelf (it’s from organic or spray-free farms), the benefits of local produce (it’s grown within 100 miles of London, where I live), and the size of the aubergine (it was huge), we got down to cooking a curry.

We still had quite a lot of the produce left over after, and what the bag may have lacked in tomatoes, it made up for in absolutely masses of beans. All the veg in the Local Greens bag is seasonal, which I suppose means that one week you might end up with loads of one thing, and not much of another.

All in all, although I’m not sure Local Greens offers the best value veggie box, it isn’t a bad price. Its produce is bigger and better looking than anything you can buy in Tesco, and it is nice to know your food is grown locally. Since I stay several nights a week at my boyfriend’s house, my current lifestyle wouldn’t suit a weekly bag, I’d be forever carrying a broccoli around on a bus around south London, but it’s definitely something I’d reconsider in a few years’ time. Indra Warnes

Northern Harvest
Set Box, fruit and vegetable, £10
Available in the North West of England delivered within a 50 mile radius of their farm by dedicated drivers (note: they kindly delivered this box down to London via Royal Mail, and warned the produce may suffer in the process).

I have always wanted, and will likely spend the rest of my life aspiring to be, at least some form of a competent baker. But typically, my baking is limited to appearing in high stress periods one night every three years. The Northern Harvest box I received changed my world, turning me not just into the baker I dreamed I could be but into a true domestic goddess. Over the course of a weekend, I was able to make several cakes, a couple of meal sides (the accompaniment to some form of protein), and have snacks for the week that both saved me stupidly expensive trips to Pret as well as give me actually good whole foods to eat.

However, although this box got me baking two cakes in one day, barbecuing corn, and roasting carrots and potatoes, the produce itself was somewhat disappointing. While the fruit predominantly tasted good, the apples were mealy and the vegetables, on the whole, were largely tasteless. To be fair to Northern Harvest, I got my veg box a day late due to a shipping error, but this could really only account for a small part of quite a few problems. The value for money was good, however, and it did let me live my domestic dream. Sarah Manavis

Organic Pantry
Medium mixed box, £16
Available in the north of England

The Organic Pantry’s mixed box contained plenty of staple veg, fresh from the farm and complete with soil, as well as some special guests – purple green beans and deliciously sweet cherries. The recipe for squash, tofu, bean and cashew stir fry was vegan-friendly and super satisfying, although did require a few other things, which weren’t necessarily store cupboard ingredients. Some of the veg is more time consuming to prepare than what you might buy from the supermarket (muddy potatoes, leafy carrots), but the absence of plastic packaging was a complete joy and I enjoyed the additional information about the family-run farm in Yorkshire, where the produce is grown. The Organic Pantry offers a flexible one-off or repeat order facility, and with a minimum order value of £12, is not off-putting to couples or people cooking just for themselves. Nadia Youssef