Boxing clever in the fight against food waste

Whether it’s finding a home for misshapen vegetables or disrupting the way people eat, start-ups and supermarkets have been turning to boxes to deliver fresh produce to consumers. This is having a small but growing effect on food waste figures.

Hard to imagine now, but when UK-based Northwood Farm began its organic vegetables box scheme in the early 1990s, it caused such a stir that it was covered by a national television channel. The scheme began partly in response to the issue of food miles but also as a way of ensuring economic viability for smaller producers in what was becoming a highly competitive climate for the organic produce market. Though small-scale produce delivery schemes already existed, this one was the first to really capture the public’s imagination.

Working with supermarkets and higher-volume wholesalers had pushed organic farmers into a system that favoured monoculture and caused waste due to overly stringent cosmetic specifications. But with box deliveries, smaller scale growers found a model that enabled them to survive and thrive in what was a completely new market.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and the picture is quite different. Not only have box deliveries become an everyday (though still relatively small) aspect of modern shopping, the supermarkets are also seeing the benefit in packing and selling fresh produce in boxes. Not only that, ambitious start-ups are challenging the way we think of fresh food and are offering innovative ways of consuming fruit and vegetables that all but eliminate waste from the process.

Local heroes

A stroll around a street market in Portugal and an encounter with delicious but misshapen tomatoes led Deepak Ravindran and his partner Emilie Vanpoperinghe to set up Oddbox, a south London-based box delivery enterprise dedicated to eradicating food waste.
“We were both struck by how amazing that ugly tomato tasted,” said Ravindran. “When we got home, we found perfect-looking tomatoes in supermarkets that were just bland. That was our Eureka moment.”

Ravindran and Vanpoperinghe started talking to wholesalers and large fruit and vegetables suppliers and found that up to 30 per cent of their produce was deemed too ugly for sale. According to Ravindran, the problem starts before it even reaches wholesalers – misshapen produce is ploughed back into the field, left on the tree or goes to landfill.
“This is a huge problem for farmers,” said Ravindran. “They can sell some of the produce to food processing companies or cider makers, for example, but often that barely covers the cost of harvesting. We wanted to provide an outlet for all that misshapen fruit and vegetables that would otherwise have gone to waste, which is why we started Oddbox.”

The company now distributes around eight tonnes of misshapen fruit and vegetables a month to offices and homes in south London. Not only that, around 10 per cent of that total goes to the local food charities City Harvest and The People’s Fridge.
“A lot of what we do is about education and raising awareness,” said Ravindran. “We include information about food waste and how to prevent it in our boxes and visit local schools to talk to pupils about the issue. We’ve seen that, once people are aware of the problem, interest in what we and many others do grows.”

That’s translated into business success too. In the past 10 months, the company has experienced 600 per cent growth – a phenomenal rate.

“We’re obviously delighted with how the business is doing, but our aim is to create something sustainable, so we’re working with suppliers to find a scalable model that we can replicate further afield. First and foremost, we’re a social enterprise that fights food waste – our boxes are one important part of that.”

Just the ingredients people need

Organic vegetable box supplier Riverford has been aiming to reduce the environmental impact of fresh produce delivery since its launch in 1987.
“Reducing food waste was one of our founding principles,” said spokesperson Emily Muddeman. “And as such our guidelines are much less stringent than those of supermarkets – for us, it’s more about the taste than how our fresh produce looks.”

“We can secure the price and the amount we need up front”

- Emily Muddeman, Riverford

Riverford now sends out around 47,000 boxes a week to customers all over the UK, but it’s the ability to forecast demand based on customer orders that really helps the company reduce waste.
“We grow a lot of the produce ourselves, but we also work with other growers,” said Muddeman. “The relationship we have with them means we secure the price and the amount we need from them up front, which ensures there is little to no waste in our supply chain.”

Any surplus from the farm or suppliers is channelled into other areas, such as the farm’s two restaurants, the staff canteen, the Riverford dairy or local food banks. “We’ve also started offering recipe boxes to customers which include just the ingredients people need for meals,” said Muddeman. “These are proving really popular and ensure there’s minimal waste at the customer end too.”

HelloFresh: Fresh thinking

By creating recipe boxes and with an overall aim of changing the way people shop for food, HelloFresh has built an international business that has also created a ‘pull’ supply chain, which sees waste all but eliminated from the process. Founders Thomas Griesel and Dominik Richter started the business to solve the problem they both had of not having the time to buy fresh groceries and cook them due to the demands of their working roles. “We thought there must be a better way,” explained Griesel. “It was our problem, but we thought others must have it as well.”

“We have increased awareness about the issue”

- Thomas Griesel, HelloFresh

They were right. Since launching in November 2011, HelloFresh has become the leading global provider of fresh food at home, operating in nine different countries. According to figures released in September 2017, it served around 1.28 million customers with a whopping 33.7 million meals in the three months from September 2017.

According to Griesel, the big difference their business model makes to reducing food waste is that customers place their orders before HelloFresh contacts its suppliers. “In the standard grocer supply chain, there is a lot of waste,” he said. “Farmers harvest produce in the hope it will be bought. There are lots of middlemen and it can take a lot of time to get from farm to fork. “With our system, there is practically no waste – we work with local suppliers and only order when customers request items, so there is no room for waste in this supply chain model.” Not only that, when designing recipes, HelloFresh looks at what is available locally and seasonally so it can buy at a good price, so forecasting and availability often determine what ends up on the menu.

“I think we have to be modest in the claims we make about how much we are tackling the issue of food waste,” added Griesel. “We are not an appropriate model for around 70 per cent of the population, so the effect we’re having is not huge. But for our customers, we are significantly cutting waste not only in our supply chain but also in their homes. “And one of the knock-on effects of our success is that we have increased awareness about the issue and that is increasing the pressure on the rest of the food industry to look at its processes.”

Retail response

It seems supermarkets are already taking notice. One of the things that inspired Oddbox was a campaign run by French supermarket Intermarché in 2014 that promoted misshapen fruit and vegetables in a fun way. Working in partnership with food surplus pioneers Kromkommer, Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn has been selling boxes of misshapen vegetables since December 2014. And in the UK, a range of supermarkets have now recognised the value they can create by loosening their fresh produce selection criteria.

Asda has sold more than 200,000 ‘wonky’ vegetable boxes since it launched the initiative in 2016, backed by a feature on a national television programme. That’s the equivalent of 1,000 tonnes of misshapen fruit and vegetables that would previously have been deemed unfit for sale and have gone to waste. Each box includes five kilos of fresh produce and costs £3.50 (€3.99), around a third cheaper than standard fruit and vegetable boxes. They have proven immensely popular with customers.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response to our wonky vegetables”

- Ian Harrison, Asda

Asda’s produce quality director Ian Harrison said: “We’ve been overwhelmed by the response to our wonky vegetable box – it shows just how conscious our customers are of food waste.
“We knew from our initial research that customers aren’t phased by the odd knobble here or a bruise there and like the fact that our wonky range is a little bit cheaper, but including this ‘ugly’ veg in a mixed box format has helped customers save even more money and plan meals for the family for the whole week, ensuring nothing is thrown away.”

With other players around the globe such as Tesco’s, WalMart, Giant Eagle and Aldi all reporting success with their ‘wonky’ fresh produce lines, it’s clear retailers are beginning to take food waste seriously. How far initiatives such as ‘wonky veg’ boxes are helping reduce food waste is still unclear – until supermarkets start publishing independently verified figures about how much food they waste at each point in the supply chain, the evidence will remain anecdotal.

But one thing is clear: if the rise in popularity of misshapen fruit and vegetable box schemes is anything to go by, the public has more of an appetite for them than most retailers once thought. And that has to be good news in the fight against food waste.