Olivia Sisson performs a cost comparison that might change the way you buy your veges.
The price of food in New Zealand is shocking. So, how to cope? The recommendations are starting to feel like the avo-toast-flat-white trope. Cut those items out and there it is, you’re a homeowner.
Get chickens. Grow your own. Become a homesteader. These suggestions are swirling around conversations on food prices and shortages. All great options. But who has the time, money, land? Not me.
Could a vege box reduce the pinch? Having a parcel of produce delivered to your door is easier than going full-on farmer. But local, let alone organic, produce sounds expensive.
Well… buckle up. We’re doing a cost comparison. Organic vege box versus the supermarket.
The cost breakdown
I recently started getting a weekly medium vege box from Streamside Organics. The veges are certified organic and grown in my region, Canterbury. I’d always assumed produce purchased this way or from farmers markets was pricier than at big box shops. But with recent reports of supermarkets’ faulty scales, fake specials, and other price gouge-y behaviour, I got curious. Was my vege box actually more expensive? Off to Pak’nSave Moorhouse I went.
I undertook this cost comparison with great care. Some items were easy to compare. I got one red cabbage, for example, in my vege box. And one red cabbage at Pak’nSave cost $4.49.
Other items were trickier. I got 85g of basil, but at the shop basil could only be bought in 10g boxes for $3.99. Is anyone buying eight of those? Probably not.
In this case, I took a conservative approach. I factored just one basil box into the supermarket side of the calculation. I also did this, for example, with tomatoes. I got 770g, but Pak’nSave sells 700g bags. In short, I’ve given the supermarket the benefit of the doubt.
My certified organic veg box contained:
- 260g cherry tomatoes
- 770g tomatoes
- 85g basil
- 1kg purple potatoes
- 1 whole red cabbage
- 1 bunch multi-coloured carrots
- 1 cucumber
- Big bag spinach
TOTAL = $35
Same or equivalent items at Pak’nSave Moorhouse:
- Cherry tomatoes = $5.49 for 250g box
- Tomatoes = $7.49 for 700g bag
- Basil = $3.99 for 10g box
- Red potatoes = $2.79 per kg
- Red cabbage = $4.49 each
- Carrots = $3.49 per bunch
- Cucumber = $2.79 each
- Big bag spinach = $3.99
TOTAL = $34.52
On the balance sheet, Pak’nSave won by a miserly 48 cents. Now, let’s go deeper…
A cost comparison is useful, but it only indicates one thing: where you can get more for less. In this case, the cost is much the same. So what about quality?
For starters, all the items in my vege box were certified organic. The Pak’nSave items? Not a single one. It is well documented that large scale, conventionally raised produce is often less nutritious and delicious as a result of intensive agricultural practices that strip soil nutrients. If you want to learn more about that, read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.
Now, let’s talk about taste and enjoyment factors. It is peak summer. The season for juicy, red, acidic tomatoes. To me, the Pak’nSave tomatoes spelt misery. They were pink, hard as tennis balls, and uniform in a freaky way. Meanwhile, the cheerful red morsels I got were tomatoes as I understand them to be. They sparked memories of eating cherry toms straight out of my grandfather’s garden.
On the carrot front, the vege box offered multi-coloured magic. Pretty on the plate, crisp, full of sweetness. The veg box cuke, meanwhile, came naked rather than in one of those creepy plastic condoms. Points for sustainability. Oh, and that’s another thing – everything in the veg box was grown in my region.
Lastly, let’s not forget our friend basil. With 85g I had enough to make fresh pesto – a summery grain of sand to build beautiful meals around. While the veg box lost on cost by 48 cents, it won on quality, flavour, joy, sustainability and even quantity in some cases. Why wouldn’t you get one?
Vege box objections
After chatting with some farmers, it seems there are a few common objections to vege boxes:
Too much mystery. People like knowing what they’re getting and picking it themselves. I’m the same, but appreciate how the veg box gently encourages me to try new things. I’d never made anything memorable with cauliflower. But then I got a whole one which led me to try this whole braised cauliflower recipe. One of the best dishes I’ve made. Ever.
Too much work. Figuring out what to do with new veg can be overwhelming. Many farms include weekly recipes to help you use up the bounty and quite a few give email previews of what’s coming in your next delivery. At best, a vege box can be an exciting opportunity to try something new, like the whole cauli dish. At worst, you can simply chop it up, roast it, and serve it as a slightly less inspired, but still nutritious side.
Tomatoes in May. Veg boxes are seasonal. Meaning you won’t be getting avocados in July. You have to go to the supo for that kind of thing. But eating out of season stings the wallet and the environment anyways. So if you’re looking to cut costs, eating seasonally might be the lowest hanging fruit. No pun intended.
Cost of delivery. The farm I get my vege box from charges an additional $5 for delivery. The time and petrol this service saves me makes it worth it. Many farms offer free pick-up options too.
Isn’t organic produce ugly and poor quality? Just look at those carrots. Organic produce is often beautiful. But it’s not always as perfect as what can be found in-store. Supermarkets have warped our perception of what food actually looks like. Some vege box providers, like Perfectly Imperfect, actually rescue perfectly good but visually blemished kai on its way to landfill to help make good food affordable.
Too much commitment. Don’t want to commit to produce delivered on a weekly basis? Many providers offer flexible subscriptions, week-to-week, one-off orders, and have easy to use online ordering systems.
What does it all mean?
On a base level, this exercise signals that our assumptions around where good value can be gotten aren’t always right. My perception that local, organic produce is more expensive than supermarket produce was, more or less, wrong. This is just one instance, but in 2021, a cost comparison across ten farmers markets in Aotearoa found all ten were cheaper than shopping at the supermarket for fresh veg. Some markets were up to 30% cheaper.
Getting a vege box could provide you with better value, flavour, and nutrition. They’re also a vote towards a more secure, resilient, sustainable food system. As Farmers Market New Zealand reported, Aotearoa had 24,000 growers as of 1986. Now there are around 900. Small, local growers provide an alternative to the powerful supermarket duopoly. When trading outside that system, growers often get a better deal.
A vege box is also a vote against further consolidation of our food system. At the moment a huge amount of our kai is sold through just two corporations, Woolworths and Foodstuffs. Their ability to dictate price, and in some cases supply, during a cost of living crisis is something that should put us all on notice. While things might feel a bit hopeless in the face of these giants, consumers still have a lot of power. Loads of people thought mail order meal boxes would flop. My Food Bag reported $194 million in revenue last year.
Unlike My Food Bag, though, you’re unlikely to get a paid ad from small scale growers who offer vege boxes. They don’t have multi-million dollar marketing budgets or time to find new customers. They’re focused on growing great kai. As consumers we have to seek these legends out. Here’s a list to get you started…
Vege box options near you
There are lots of different vege box providers around the motu. This is not an exhaustive list, but includes a variety of locations and providers. Some are farmers selling directly as I’ve described above, some are food rescuers, others are resellers who buy produce from local farms. This community food organisation directory is also an incredible resource.
(note: many may have been affected by the recent floods)
- Waewae Permaculture
- Oamaru organics (also deliver to Oamaru, Timaru, Queenstown, Wanaka, Hawea, Cromwell, Christchurch)
* Cost comparison undertaken on 26/1/23