Veg box schemes vs Community Supported Agriculture in Covid-19: Who’s more resilient, and does it even matter?

Consumer demand for local vegetable box schemes has more than doubled since the Covid-19 pandemic began. This unprecedented rise points towards the importance of local food systems in a globalised market. It also brings to the fore differences between these local systems, and questions where resilience lies.

Some weeks ago, towards the beginning of Britain’s lockdown, a group of sustainable, local-food focused organisations came together to assess the impact of Covid-19 on small-scale producers. Surveys and interviews of 101 small-scale producers were carried out by the Food Foundation, Better Food Traders and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network UK. The full report can be found here. As a board member of the CSA Network and as a researcher, I took part in interviewing some of our members.

The report highlights the dramatic increase in demand for local veg box schemes, which between the end of February and mid-April rose by 111%. It also highlighted their limits: 82% of box schemes have waiting lists and are closed to new orders, with an average of 160 citizens on these lists.

What has not yet been assessed is why and how citizens have turned to these schemes, despite their previous availability. What was it that attracted them, and how did they know about them? The future is also uncertain: after the lockdown lifts, will these new local food citizens switch back to their former sources of food? An interesting development with the supermarket Morrisons is the production and advertising of food boxes – has this been in response to the demand for schemes like veg boxes and / or due to the need for publics to get all their food supplies quickly and easily? Will this encourage people away from the more sustainable, localised veg box schemes? Morrisons advertising includes that its box schemes are cheaper than smaller, local schemes, potentially undercutting these businesses.

These unanswered questions aside, I’d like to highlight a key difference in the research findings. This difference lies between two models of local food: the veg box schemes and the CSA’s. The veg box schemes were largely able to start expanding production to feed more citizens (in some cases this may entail sourcing produce from other producers), whilst CSA’s were much less able. The reason for this lies in their distinct structures: CSAs are most often set up with those that they are designed to feed (their members) already committed. The deeply value-based, long-term relationship between the CSA members mean that their market is stable. They also aim not to source any of their produce outside of that which they grow. This structure means that they are less able to expand, at least rapidly. In spite of this some CSA’s have taken on more members through stretching resources, or have increased cropping plans to supply others later in the season. Their pool of volunteers has further allowed some to step in where others have had to stop, or in helping add capacity with deliveries.

In contrast, veg box schemes are in some sense primed for expansion, or at least a fluctuating market, in that there is no requirement for a long-term commitment to being a part of the scheme. Additionally, they often don’t have a pledge to source all of their produce from their own farm, which allows them to source from around the UK and internationally. Despite this, their values such as organic and sustainable farming give citizens the confidence that higher standards are being adhered to, even when produce is imported.

Is one model more sustainable or resilient than the other? Although it is a term whose history and various meanings have already been mapped out by David Alexander (2013), the results raise questions about what resilience in practice actually is. Inherent to resilience is adaptability, and in my view, it is also diversity.

What is clear is that they both have strong sustainable and resilient qualities, even if these are different. It is also clear that they are both needed in times of crisis. The divergent models allow citizens to engage with them as their needs require. However, the deep-embedding and commitment of CSA’s highlights the need for a greater value-change from citizens, and from politicians. It is further apparent that both models are needed in greater numbers across the country. Many organisations and researchers are lobbying for more government support in growing local fruit and vegetables, evidenced by the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance set up in 2018. In the previous blog post, the need for a coordinated government response is set out.

Are local food producers the answer to a more resilient food system? Some would argue their fragility in the context of a globalised food system, but this ignores the bias towards which crops have become commodities, and that these are not necessarily the best for our health. Similarly, these global commodities are more often than not causing socio-ecological degradation of the planet.

Therefore, it is evident that there is both demand and need for government to give more support to sustainable local food producers, for local citizens. With the easing of restrictions underway, it is important that we continue to empower both growers and citizens with support and advocacy.

You can take positive action by writing to your MP about:

  • The importance of sustainable local food systems and the need for greater UK fruit and vegetable production,
  • Supporting amendments in the Agriculture Bill.

See here to find your local MP: