Fresh fruit and vegetables are thrown away every day because supermarkets won’t take them. One business is doing something about it.
Angus Simms could cry over spilt onions. Summer crops had just been pulled from the ground and left out to dry when Auckland’s recent downpours began. As this ABC news crew found, all those onions quickly floated onto suburban streets around Pukekohe. “When the floodwaters came, onions were the first thing to be picked up and taken away,” Simms sighs.
Thousands of onions rotting in driveways isn’t the only food-related problem arising from floods that have devastated growers across the region. Potato shortages could soon be an issue. Then pumpkins, carrots and garlic. “In a month’s time, you’ll definitely see the effects come through,” says Simms. He believes produce could be scarce for a while. “The pricing of these products will go up in supermarkets.”
Simms doesn’t like seeing food go to waste. He and his partner Katie Jackson started a business to stop this exact thing from happening. Wonky Box is a subscription delivery service that takes “ugly” fruit and vegetables that supermarkets won’t accept, packages them up in curated boxes, then delivers them to customers. Meal ideas are supplied by Jackson.
On the menu when The Spinoff calls are “carrots, potatoes, beetroot, capsicums, avocados, sweetcorn, nectarines, Valencia oranges, basil and cucumber”. Because they’re still on a “start-up salary,” they’ll be taking a box home tonight too. They plan to cook up a “comforting” cheesy leek and potato gratin for dinner. “A box of veges goes a long way,” laughs Jackson.
A gratin is the kind of dish that would hide vegetable blemishes but Simms says customers can barely tell the difference between what Wonky offers and what’s in supermarkets. He believes they supply fresher produce, and because it’s been through fewer hands it probably tastes better too. “We have a rule that we will never put anything in the box that isn’t fresh,” he says. “There’s no difference between taste and nutritional value from a Wonky vege and a non-Wonky vege.”
Impending shortages could soon put their supplies to the test. The pair pride themselves on competitive pricing to help consumers combat the supermarket duopoly and the cost of living crisis. Boxes cost $32 (+shipping) and feed two to three people for a week. Ten different varieties of fruit and vegetables are promised, but sometimes even they don’t know what will end up in their boxes until growers announce their surplus produce. “A lot of the growers have simply grown too much,” says Simms. “We’ll make a deal and go and grab them.”
Simms and Jackson have been through other stresses. They started Wonky Box after returning from the UK where Simms worked in the financial industry and Jackson was a psychiatric nurse for the NHS. During a campervan trip to Nelson, the pair noticed how much produce was being thrown away after a hailstorm. They didn’t like seeing all that food being wasted. “We saw a gap in the market and decided to see if we could make something [happen],” he says. “Before we knew it, we got sucked into doing something completely new.”
Soon enough, they’d removed the back seats of their campervan so they could trek around local Wellington growers to pick up their slightly sullied stock, then deliver their boxes. They grew fast, sometimes struggling to adapt to the pace of their expansion. Two years on, they’re delivering Wonky boxes to Wellington, Waiarapa, Kāpiti, Manawatu and Whanganui. Most recently, the pair moved to Auckland to helm Wonky’s launch there. All up, they say they’re delivering “thousands” of boxes every week, saving tonnes of food from from going to waste.
It’s just one initiative of many gaining steam as the cost of living crisis continues to put holes in consumers’ pockets. Supie, an independent online-only supermarket in Auckland, offers discounts on fruit and vegetables, sometimes removing the cost of GST. Food co-ops, a not-for-profit community-driven initiative, have returned and are gaining popularity. Meanwhile, Grocer.nz is Gaspy but for groceries, helping shoppers track specials, discounts and overall food cost rises. Some are turning to converting backyards into gardens, or even getting chickens to solve the egg crisis.
Simms hopes Wonky’s network of growers will see them through the coming weeks, when shortages might start to bite. He’s seen the effects of the supermarket duopoly, and knows many are forgoing fresh fruit and vegetables because of price rises. “It’s just so expensive,” he says. “It’s kind of sad.” Wonky’s hoping to expand to offer other short-dated products, including coffee, cereal and cheese soon.
In the meantime, they’re focused on saving as much food from being wasted as possible. Ask Simms why shoppers are better off getting their fruit and veges from Wonky, and he rattles off a well-worn list. “If you’re eating in season, not only are you getting better bang for your buck, but you’re supporting more local growers as opposed to eating imported produce,” he says. “You’re getting a lot more nutritional value out of things that are in season, because they’re a lot fresher.” That includes carrots that have an ever-so-slight slight bend in them.