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Getting to know: Edinburgh Community Food. A home delivery fruit and veg box that ticks all the boxes.

I’ve been having a bit of a battle with Tesco; my supermarket of choice. I was trying to get them to reduce the amount of packaging they furnish me with at my weekly delivery. I’ve selected the option for ‘no bags’ and I have a special instruction that has said various things over the years, but I was currently settling for ‘please do not use any plastic packaging with my order’. Clear and polite, was what I was aiming for.

For a week or two, it worked. The delivery man looked slightly less than eager to assist with the unloading of a tray full of loose carrots, apples and potatoes, but I was happy. And I’m the customer.

It was unpredictable though. Some weeks it worked, other weeks a lone courgette or an avocado would arrive in its own plastic bag. If I were to claim to be progressing in my eco warrior status, I needed to address the plastic quota of my fruit and veg.

Plastic bags!

I’ve heard of many people using veg boxes; local farms delivering in-season, organic produce straight to your front door. It’s more expensive, but people rave about the quality. My gripe with them is the lack of control you get over the contents. I need the same stuff each week, and a lot of it. I hunted for a veg box that would give me twenty apples and ten bananas each week, and failed. Most companies seemed to provide you with whatever they felt like. Beetroots, Jerusalem artichokes and massive chunks of ginger featured highly.

It is distinctly possible that I need to get a little more ambitious with my catering provision; however I can only manage one project at a time. I need to know that I can get the stuff I need to cook the things my family enjoys. I don’t want to be thrown a curve ball task of vegetable identification during the twenty minute dinner preparation window.

I keep coming back to the phrase ‘it has to work’. These changes we make to improve the environment – if they don’t work, we won’t keep doing them.

I started obsessively Googling veg boxes in the hope of finding one that would allow me the control I was so reluctant to relinquish. And finally, I hit the jackpot.

Edinburgh Community Food (ECF) was established 21 years ago with the aim of making healthy eating accessible and affordable to people throughout the city. They deliver boxes of healthy foods including fruit, nuts, dried fruit and seeds to offices around the city. And they deliver to residential addresses as well. I requested a price list, expecting to be horrified.

I lost an evening or two comparing prices between Tesco and ECF. I weighed apples, carrots, courgettes and potatoes to see how much a ‘large bag’ from Tesco actually consisted of. See the research I do for you guys! They weren’t the most fun packed hours of my life.

I discovered that the prices are pretty favourable. Some are far cheaper, some a fraction more expensive, but overall, I would say my total fruit and veg spend was roughly the same.

I was worried, before I started using the service, that it was going to take me longer than the five minutes my usual weekly shop takes. But once I’d done all the weighing and figured out where all the key stuff was on the form, it took no time at all.

Quite honestly, I thought this might be a short lived affair. I’d done the research and committed to using the service, but expected that after a few deliveries, I’d slowly drift back to just getting the odd thing from Tesco again. They have a minimum order of £15, so if I let too many things slide, I’d end up just ditching the whole thing. I’m lazy at heart, and want to spend as little time on chores as possible, so I had low expectations that I would become a long standing customer.

After a few weeks however, I fell in love with it. Each week I get a cardboard box, pre-used, (I checked!) full of loose apples, pears etc. all locally produced where possible. The ‘dirty’ organic carrots and potatoes arrive in a recyclable bag, while the non-local produce such as grapes and blueberries comes in supermarket style plastic tubs. That seems fair enough.

£15 fruit & veg
A £15 fruit and veg box

They don’t claim to have environmental issues at the top of their agenda, though by anyone’s standards I think they do packaging pretty well.

And it’s not just fruit and veg. I now get my milk and eggs delivered by them as well. There is no difference whatsoever in the packaging, but I imagine the farmers get a larger stake of the profits than the supermarkets can offer, and that’s helping the people of the planet.

The quality is great, and it’s not all sanitised supermarket fodder. I get curvy carrots, and parsnips with misshapen bits hanging off them. It makes them slightly harder to peel, but it had me wondering what happens to produce that doesn’t meet the stringent supermarket standards.

'Dirty carrots'
‘Dirty carrots’!

As a child I remember watching Esther Ranzen and her ‘That’s Life’ team showing off obscure shaped vegetables. It was in the days of four channels – it was slim pickings. But you don’t see that anymore. Carrots are of a uniform shape and size. I’m pretty sure that’s not how nature intended.

I could see from their website that they did far more than deliver fruit and veg boxes around the city, and I was keen to learn a bit more about what they were doing. Karen, the Operations Manager agreed to show me round their offices in Leith. Having worked there for more than fifteen years, she knows every aspect of the project inside out.

She explained that for the past nine years, ECF has been running as a social enterprise. Profits made by supplying offices and home are channelled into their outreach services which currently run in various lower income locations around the city, including Wester Hailes, Gilmerton, Liberton and Leith.

ECF Warehouse
ECF Warehouse

Their aim, according to their website is to ‘get people into healthy food and get healthy food into people’. They go about this by making it accessible to people; both the physical food, and the skills and know how to go with it. They run workshops on cooking and shopping on a budget, showing people that you don’t have to spend a fortune to eat well. I think it’s a common misconception that it’s more expensive to eat healthily. It can be – but it doesn’t have to be.

Caribbean Cooking

Caribbean Cooking Workshop – Edinburgh Community Food

To enable people to take the plunge and start cooking, they offer ‘Take and Make’ packs; a recipe card for a simple, healthy meal and all the ingredients required for four people. Unlike some of its more trendy, profit making competitors, these are sold at cost price so it’s no more expensive to buy a Take and Make pack than it would be to use the ingredients from your cupboard. In fact because ECF can bulk buy items such as tinned tomatoes and lentils, it actually works out cheaper.

Take and Make
Take and Make pack preparation

I decided to give a Take and Make a whirl and chose ‘Caribbean butternut and lentil stew’ which at £3.80 worked out at less than £1 person. The instructions were very clear, it was easy to make and it tasted delicious.

They also run regular stalls in the Edinburgh hospitals. I know from a brief stint in hospital after my first child was born that it is almost impossible to get anything other than fast food from a hospital canteen. Providing fresh food at affordable prices to staff and patients seems like a whole load of common sense.

And since my premise for this blog was all things environmental, how much less packaging and ‘food miles’ is involved in fresh, local food as opposed to highly processed, pre-packaged fayre?

They receive funding from grants, but are reliant on supplying offices and homes to supplement the work they do in the community. They currently provide almost 100 offices with a healthy snack box, some as small as £15, others up to £500. The employers gain a healthier, more motivated and productive workforce as a result. It’s even tax deductible!

£15 fruit box
A £15 fruit box from Edinburgh Community Food

I love this project. From every angle, it works. Less packaging was my first priority, and they do this without even really thinking about it. It comes from local suppliers where possible so there are less ‘food miles’ travelled, and the food looks how it’s supposed to look – covered in earth and all different shapes and sizes.

Although my order each week doesn’t generate a massive profit for them, I know that it’s being used to encourage people to eat well. And that’s something we should all be doing.

So my top tip this week is to check them out. You can read all about them here, and speak to Karen if you have any questions. They rely on word of mouth as their main publicity tool – don’t we all – so if you use them, and like them, then please, tell everyone about them.

If you’re not in Edinburgh, have a hunt around. There is likely to be something local to you. Scotland based people can check out communityfoodandhealth.org.uk to find similar services in your area.

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