By Alicia Miller and originally published on 29 June, 2014 on Sustainable Food Trust website here. I have just started to get a veg box, and am (mostly) enjoying cooking and eating the new and different veggies in the box.
“Running a vegetable box scheme tells you a lot about people’s eating habits and their relationship with food. People love the idea of getting a fresh, local vegetable box every week. When they find our farm, they say ‘it’s so fantastic you’re here!’ But when it comes down to the reality of getting a box of vegetables that they have to negotiate each week, for a lot of people their vegetable romance suddenly becomes troubled.
We always give people two opt outs in our boxes – they can tell us two vegetables that they don’t like and don’t want. I can always tell whether a new box scheme customer is going to make it through the first month when I ask them about what they don’t like. If they hesitate about their opt outs, it’s usually because there is more than two vegetables they don’t like, then that’s a bad sign. Some people ask to eliminate whole families of vegetables – ‘I don’t like greens,’ is a favourite. That means no kale, no chard, no spinach, no sorrel, no brussels sprout tops or turnip greens. It doesn’t go down well when I say, well, you can choose two of those.
And it goes on from there; after a month, about a quarter of our new customers cancel. My favourite recent story is a woman who rang up when she discovered us and was so excited to get a box. After her first one, she wrote us a lovely note about how beautiful our veg was and how she’d been telling all her neighbours about it. She didn’t opt out of anything. But then a couple of weeks in, she said that she didn’t like beetroot. Shortly after that she went to a bi-weekly box. Then she rang and said, could she not have onions as well, as she didn’t cook with them. Finally, she wrote an apologetic note, about six weeks in, cancelling her box, writing that the greens, which are almost always in our boxes, didn’t go with her ‘baked-fish diet’ and she couldn’t get any of her family to eat anything from the box. I despaired!
The question I have about all this, is how did we get to this extraordinary place where people don’t like much of the extraordinary array of vegetables that are grown in the UK? To even consider joining a vegetable box scheme, you have to, at least think that you like a lot of vegetables; so what’s going on with people who would never dream of joining a box scheme? Are they eating any vegetables at all, let alone local and seasonal vegetables? When you stand in line at the supermarket and look at what other people are buying, more often than not, fresh vegetables are a rarity.
Now I am a vegetable zealot, which you would expect, as my partner and I run an organic veg farm. I apologise for being unsympathetic to those not as enamoured as I with this staple food category, and I apologise also if what I’m about to say sounds self-righteous. Not liking your food is a luxury of the developed world. We have so much abundant choice of what to eat, that we can dislike and choose not to eat a lot of what is produced in this country. That’s a form of waste. We don’t think of it as wasteful, but it is. If we’re choosing not to eat our regional produce, than we’re probably eating someone’s else’s regional produce, which begs the question, what are they then eating?
One of my best friends is a picky eater. Pretty much the only vegetables that she and her daughters eat are green beans and salad. There is a theory about picky eaters – that their taste buds are underdeveloped and thus more sensitive to flavours and textures. But even picky eaters learn to eat new things. It’s a process of trying out new foods and building a taste for them, rather than just rejecting foods outright. We say ‘I don’t like that,’ because we can. If it were one of only a handful of things to eat, trust me, we’d develop a taste for it.
Chef Dan Barber did a great piece on how a delicious array of edible crops are wasted because they’re not thought of as food – these are the green manures that many farmers grow to nourish their soils. There is ‘a whole class of humbler crops,’ that are overlooked as a food source, including cowpeas and many mustards, which in fact could be eaten.
So how do we rectify this situation and why should we? We should because waste is a huge issue in how we eat, evidenced by the often cited statistic that a third of the world goes hungry, while the rest of the world throws away a third of their food. We have a moral obligation to waste less or their hunger is on our shoulders. But we should also learn to eat more widely because climate change is going to transform the range and availability of our food supply as we move deeper into the century, so better start now to learn to like a whole lot more than we do.
For starters, we need to make a commitment to our regional produce. Try a celeriac; try it again. Experiment with it – make a mash out of it, try it in soup, bake it with cream, cheese and beets (ooo, that’s going out on limb!) And when your child says, ‘I don’t like that,’ say ‘Yes, you do. You loved it the last time I gave it to you. Try it.’ (In my book, lying is acceptable in this situation.) When I tried this with my young daughter, she tasted it and said, ‘Yummy!’ You won’t always get a win, but persevere and I bet you’ll have a pay-off. When we all learn to eat more widely, there will more to go around for all of us and we’ll be healthier for it.”