Cindy Burke is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic and recipe writer for The Trans-Fat Solution.

The 10 things your organic delivery company won’t tell you

By
January 7, 2008

Organic box delivery services have become very popular in urban locations and college towns, particularly throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They offer consistent access to fresh organic produce, plus the convenience of online ordering and home delivery.

Organic boxes differ from a CSA (community-supported agriculture) share, where customers buy a portion of the crops from one local farm or a collective of small farms. Organic box companies don’t grow veggies and fruits; they purchase organic items wholesale from produce suppliers and farmers, then resell them to consumers.

With a young child at home and a disability that makes it difficult for me to carry heavy grocery bags, I am the target customer for organic delivery services. I think they offer a good option for people who eat a lot of vegetables but do not have access to a store that sells organic produce. They are not a perfect option, however, and I found that out when I worked as the marketing manager for an organic box service that delivers to homes around Seattle and Portland.

Where are your organic vegetables grown?

One part of my job was to try and reduce the customer “churn rate.” In marketing, the churn rate is the number of subscribers who voluntarily leave during a given time period. A high churn rate is considered a strong indicator of customer dissatisfaction. The churn rate at this company was about 25 percent per month, meaning that 25 percent of our customers decided to take their business elsewhere every month. Since the owner wasn’t receptive to negative feedback from customers (or from the marketing manager, for that matter), the churn rate was difficult to change.

As you might guess, another major component of my job was dreaming up promotions to sign up new customers. I was pretty good at getting customers to sign up for the service. The problem was that once the delivery service started, customers didn’t get what they expected, and so after a few weeks, they would cancel the service. I often wished the company would simply give potential customers the plain facts about what to expect from an organic box delivery subscription. Since they won’t tell you what to expect, I will.

The 10 things your organic delivery company won’t tell you:

  1. Most companies do not allow you to customize the box contents, although they usually allow you to make a few substitutions. The mix in the box is created to be cost-effective for the company, not necessarily to work together for the customer. If you’ve ever tried to find a recipe that uses collard greens, eggplant, and beets, you can relate.
  2. Produce in your box may have been shipped from as far away as New Zealand, China, or South America. Few organic box delivery services provide information about a food’s point of origin. (Small Potatoes Urban Delivery is a notable exception. The SPUD website allows customers the option of receiving a box that contains only “local” produce. You can also click the supplier link for any food item on your itemized list and see how many miles it has traveled to reach SPUD, as well as the total miles for your entire grocery delivery. Nice.)
  3. Organic services deliver more food in a weekly box delivery than you would probably buy during trips to a grocery store. About 50 percent of the cancellations I processed were from people who could not use up their delivery fast enough.
  4. You have to be willing and able to cook most nights of the week in order to use up a produce box within a week. You also have to be willing to cook and eat produce you may be unfamiliar with: celeriac, fennel, artichokes, garlic scapes. At the same time, if you enjoy culinary challenges, you may find it fun to cook with the unusual treats that organic boxes can offer.
  5. Organic box delivery services buy produce from the same farmers and wholesale distributors as your local grocery stores. The organic box company tries to create a mix of fruits and vegetables that costs them about $18, which they then box up and deliver to you for about $35.
  6. How do they keep their costs so low? About 10 to 20 percent of the items in a weekly box may be considered “Grade B” by wholesalers or farmers because they are too small, have imperfections, or are slightly wilted. Think green bananas, small mushrooms, bumpy potatoes, spotted apples, wilted basil — food not suitable for retail sale at a grocery store. The organic box companies buy this produce at a discount.
  7. If you are not satisfied with an item, the company will provide a replacement in your next delivery, but you are out of luck until then. If you have all of your ingredients ready for Eggplant Parmesan, and they send bad eggplant, you’ll be buying your eggplant at the grocery store. The next week, you may end up with eggplants you do not want.
  8. Your delivery date and time are set by the company and are not changeable. Delivery times may vary from week to week. Boxes are left on your porch, rain or shine.
  9. Organic box packing systems are not “certified organic.” They are not inspected by certified organic inspectors, and do not follow certified organic standards for food processing. Most produce is delivered to a warehouse in crates in late afternoon, and at about 4 o’clock the next morning, workers weigh it, bag it, and pack it assembly-line style into your box or bin for delivery.
  10. An organic box subscription does not free you from having to do regular grocery shopping. You’ll still need to go to the grocery store for basics that aren’t included in your delivery, such as cooking oil, beverages, and staple items.
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Organic box delivery services can be a great convenience as long as you know what to expect and don’t mind the trade-offs. These days, I prefer to buy direct from local sustainable farmers whom I know personally. I like to cook food that’s in season and eat yogurt and other dairy products from humanely raised animals, and since I visit the farms I buy from, I don’t need an organic sticker on my produce — I can look around and see how things are grown.

If buying local is your goal, too, you might be better off subscribing to a CSA and shopping at your local farmers’ markets and food co-ops.

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1. by Joanna on Jan 8, 2008 at 2:40 AM PST

Golly. This sounds bad. I subscribe to Riverford, based in Devon and elsewhere in the UK. They grow quite a bit of the produce they sell, and buy in the rest, clearly telling you where it came from (AND making sure that it was not airfreighted). The produce is fantastically fresh, and of the highest quality. There are newsletters from the farm, recipes, suggestions. There are about six or seven boxes to choose from, and lots of goods outside the box ... it only takes two or three weeks to sort out what works for you. I have a small box, and lots of extras - a big sack of potatoes every so often, avocados weekly, lemons every third week, that sort of thing. Also milk and eggs. Meat sometimes, too.

Riverford’s main large-scale competitors, Abel and Cole, have a system whereby you can say that you never want courgettes or onions, or whatever it is. They are greengrocers rather than producers, but their produce is of the highest quality. I prefer Riverford, partly because of the direct link to the farm, but also because I like the people who run it.

I’d really recommend either of these firms - in fact I often do ;) And if US box schemes really are as poor as you describe them, then I’d really recommend anyone wanting to start or improve one to visit either or both of these operations to see how it can be done to the highest standard.

Of course it’s true that you have to be committed to cooking if you subscribe to a box scheme, but that can be fitted into a busy life (prepping ahead, cooking the entire red cabbage and freezing it into portions, etc etc), and anyway, commitment to better health for the individual and the planet is not going to fall into your lap without a little effort. And after a while, it becomes a pleasurable way of life. Sorry to sound smug

Joanna

2. by kaloaina on Jan 9, 2008 at 6:48 PM PST

Yes,I too find this article great.
But,I would like to add I find it an adventure opening up my CSA box. I must admit that I’m not up against a timeline so what evers there I’ll cook and freeze whats left for use later in the year.I’ll call friends see if they any recipes or visit the net.
Mahalo keep up the great work
I really enjoy Cilinate

3. by oregon foodie on Jan 10, 2008 at 7:25 AM PST

Our family belongs to a CSA here in the Portland area. Our weekly box is delivered to my husband’s large employer, thus saving a trip for us. We selected the farm because of that convenience, but it has really been a fantastic choice. We receiv a weekly farm letter by email during the season, giving us a heads up on what our box will contain as well as a glimpse into life on the farm. We’ve also received several emails during the off-season, letting us know what is happening on the farm this time of year as well as offering suggestions such as to buy locally produced frozen fruits and veggies during the winter rather than fresh stuff shipped from afar. I’ve really loved feeling connected to our farmers and feeling like I’m helping to keep small farms in business

4. by Ayesha on Jan 10, 2008 at 10:54 AM PST

I work at SPUD, the company you noted in your point about shopping local - thanks so much for the mention; we do work hard to offer folks the choice to buy as locally as they can. We try to put people in touch with their food community and let our customers know what farmer or baker they’re buying from. I do agree that grocery delivery is not always the “perfect option” for everyone - some of our customers order weekly, others order as they need and top up with shopping trips - but grocery delivery today isn’t as all-or-nothing as it used to be.

For example, if you do choose to order a produce box, you can set preferences for it then edit it as much as you want. You can see the cost of each item, and the box total changes as you add or remove stuff - we don’t bump up the price of a set box. If you choose not to, you just add the produce or groceries you want and can order as you need, it doesn’t have to be weekly.

While there is a mix of produce that changes weekly according to seasonal and local availability, it includes a standard selection of produce most people expect to find year ‘round. It’s pretty unlikely you’ll get a backlog of rutabaga and celeriac and other multisyllabic veggies that require googling before preparation... unless that’s what you’re looking for. Basically if you don’t want it, you don’t have to buy it. In the summer, folks tend to buy at the local farmer’s market but still get groceries and staples delivered... and we have a wide range of groceries, so we do carry things like cooking oil and beverages.

As for grades, we only buy B or #2 grade produce when there’s nothing else available locally, and we let our customers know. The only deficiency is weird sizing, not quality so they’re not as pretty, but just as tasty. We usually recommended them for juicing or pies. Because ugly fruit and veg need love too.

Any shopping choice is not without its trade-offs, but unlike when we started out, I think there are definitely more options today to mix and match and see what best suits your palate and schedule.

5. by bipolarlawyercook on Jan 14, 2008 at 3:24 AM PST

I will give kudos to Boston Organics-- they tell you where everything’s coming from, tell you in advance what will be in the box so you can customize your “no” list and your substitutions list, have a biweekly and smaller box option for people who cook less, and buy as local as possible during New England’s short growing season. Every shipment contains a double-sided info sheet, with the first page talking about that week’s produce and sources, as well as news about the organic produce industry and their sources (I particularly love the news about our Fair Trade banana company and their one boat, which can hold up availability). The back side of the sheet has recipes for some of the produce contained in most boxes. I’ve also found them to be very customer friendly, with a usable website. Finally, they offer nice add-ons like organic eggs, peanut butter, fair trade teas and coffees, etc.

6. by Rachelle Thibodeau on Jan 19, 2008 at 8:31 AM PST

While this article provides an interesting insider perspective, I think the author must have worked for a particularly bad company. Not all services are the same. I have order organic for five years from one company.

1. I click & order whatever items and quantities I want from their web site. There is no standard “box” of food.
2. Food origins are listed beside each item. For overseas foods, it’s just the country of origin. For foods from the US & Canada, they tell you the state or province. And there is a large and growing selection of “bioregional” foods grown in a 100-mile radius.
3. No standard “box” with this company. Order what you need.
4. Cooking every day is not a problem for me most of the time. Sometimes if I’m busy I’ll cook 3 nights and plan ahead to have leftovers. I don’t have the expectation of not cooking. How would I eat if I didn’t cook? Fast food? No thanks.
5. Once again, no box, no problem.
6. This is true, i’ve occasionally received brown eggplants or mouldy berries. I just email the company and the item’s cost is removed from my next order, no questions asked. The organic produce at my grocery store stays on the shelves for too long and is much worse quality than my delivery service.
7. Cook and eat what you have. You could get an eggplant home from the grocery store and find it’s gross inside when you cut it too. This is just a fact of life.
8. My company delivers three nights a week in my neighbourhood, 6-9 pm. I choose the night and arrange to be home. I also belong to a CSA (we eat lots of veg!) and they don’t tell you a time, so you leave a big cooler on the porch with icepacks (summer) or blankets/pillows (winter) to protect the food.
9. All the items in my order are certified organic and labelled as such by recognized certification bodies.
10. My company delivers organic dairy products, bread & other baked goods, meat & fish. I do still have to buy some groceries, but I can manage quite easily with either a larger monthly order or a small bag each week.

I encourage readers to shop around and find a service that provides good value. Don’t let this article discourage you from trying these services.

7. by anonymous on May 13, 2008 at 7:13 AM PDT

finally! something that shows that organic is not always the best thing for you to consume.

8. by KahlilBlack on May 17, 2008 at 1:13 PM PDT

I am sorry to say that the transition in Tacoma, Washington from Pioneer Organics to spud! was disasterous for me.

I have nothing but good things to say about Pioneer Organics. They weren’t perfect but would immediately respond to complaints about quality of produce and other issues.

Their highly-touted “miles travelled” amount was 0. An impossibility.

spud! took over Pioneer recently and the first delivery I received was last week. It was horrible. Half the produce was bad or on it’s way to going bad. Lettuce was packed tighter than I pack my socks when travelling. But, far worse, repeated emails went unanswered. Multiple phone calls to the number on the invoice resulted in a fast busy signal. An email using their web received the automated response but nothing else. A phone message to the phone number on their web site was answered by a machine and never returned.

Look, I’ve grown used to what passes for customer service these days and I always cut more slack when dealing with businesses that try to work for a better world. But this is beyond even that pale.

9. by Susan Tychie on Jun 10, 2008 at 9:34 AM PDT

Some of the smaller services in Canada and the UK work directly with many farmers in their regions to offer fresher, local organic foods in season. I have run Share Organics in Victoria BC for over 10 years and the amount of local produce I can offer has increased dramatically during this time. I am now looking at adding more local processed foods to keep us going thorugh the winter. I offered customized boxes early on and about 50% of my customers choose to make substitutes in their box. Recipes help use seasonal stuff. In the UK small services work with 2 or more farms to provide all you need from within 30 miles! This model can be replicated here. I have developed an online management program that can help you do this in your area. Home Delivery Management (www.homedeliverymanagement.com) provides a reasonably priced way for a small service to offer customizing and work with many local farms. It a matter of scale - small farms, small home delivery company or CSA serving the local community! Start one in your area!

10. by kristensguide.com on Oct 12, 2008 at 10:23 AM PDT

I live in the Portland, Oregon area, and I use a couple of different organic delivery services. One offers the “surprise box” style and the other lets you choose which items you want in your box.

By using both, I get the fun-factor of the surprise box and am often introduced to new foods I would have just walked by at the grocery store; plus I get the confidence that I can cross routinely bought items off my shopping list.

And the nicest thing of all... when I’m in my “gosh I’m so tired; I don’t feel like going grocery shopping” mode, I can rest easy knowing that my family’s basic food needs will show up at my front door.

True, no service is perfect, but the two I use are great. Both let you decide how frequently you want to get your delivery (weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.) and allow you to add extras (like bread, milk, etc.). Both focus on mainly local farmers, but understandably they sometimes need to import foods (like tropical fruits) to the Pacific Northwest. And if I ever have a problem with my order, they do their best to fix it within reason.

It has also saved me money by reducing the number of times I need to go to the grocery store, so I have fewer opportunities to impulse shop.

11. by Rachel on Jan 6, 2009 at 9:16 PM PST

I’m glad you wrote this article, but a lot of the issues seem out of date. Over the years I’ve gotten The Box (which I think is no longer existent), Westside Organics (which is now Spud), and Spud.

With The Box, in the pre-internet days, I did have wasted food, too much of certain things to eat in a week, etc.

Today, you can customize up the wazoo, forbidding items you won’t eat and substituting exactly what you want. You can add staple items (pasta sauce, laundry detergent, frozen foods, etc.) so you don’t have to go to the grocery store at all. You can get as little produce as you want.

For me, I want to eat more fruits and veggies, but I won’t pick them up at the grocery store. I like to have them delivered to force me to use them up.

One negative you don’t mention is that you don’t get to pick your fruit. I like my nectarines and mangoes a bit on the hard side, but with delivery I have no way of preventing very ripe food.

12. by anonymous on Jul 22, 2010 at 7:45 PM PDT

As an employee of a organic delivery company on the seattle area (not spud or amazon), I feel I should offer the flip side to each of these points. Now I do not know who the author of this article worked for, but it does not apply to our company, at least for the most part.

#1. We do select the contents of each bin, yes and we do have the ability to make substitutions. Putting a mix of fruit and veggies that work well together is a HUGE factor in what is put in. We also include recipes for unique items like collard greens, eggplant, and beets.

#2 With the exception of tropical fruit that simply does not grow in the U.S., we do try to avoid imported produce. I think I can speak for our competitors on this one as well. China, please...most organic suppliers won’t even touch chinese produce. At least none of our sources do.

#3 We provide at least 2 different size options and the option of service on a weekly or every other week basis.

#4 Since when is cooking at home most nights a bad thing? It is the best way to get the most value out of your box. One box of our produce is probably less than what you would spend on a meal for 2 at a restaurant. Unless you like fastfood, which if that is the case you are probably not into organic food anyways.

#5 True, we use many of the same suppliers as your local grocery store. We buy farm and co-op direct as well. Here in Washington, most of the year local supply is quite limited. It’s kind of a ‘feast or famine’ thing. If you live in Southern California, staying local is much easier.

Hitting a set dollar amount per box is very difficult to do. Sure, due to the volatility of the produce some weeks we do very well (probably less than $18 per box) and some weeks not so good.
Did you know that the produce section of your grocery store has the highest markup of all...

#6 That is simply not true of us...

#7 We offer 3 options.
-Replaced in next delivery as mentioned above.
-A monetary credit/refund for the item ($4 minimum)
-We have been known to make the extra trip to replace the item. Although most of the time, people don’t want us to do so.

#8 Pretty much true. With us ( I can’t speak for others) there is some room to be flexible. We serve certain areas on certain days. This is for efficiency as we are small company, not a big corp with giant fleet of trucks. We do our best to keep the produce out of the sun and use cold packs when necessary.

The default delivery location is the porch but if want it delivered elsewhere, it is not a problem.

#9 We are certified by the Washington State dept of Agriculture as organic food handlers and we are inspected. I do recommend you ask you organic food company if they have certification by the wsda!

#10 That is true. Produce is our main function by we have added additional items recently in hopes of becoming more of a convenience for our customers.

If you are wondering why I don’t mention the company I work for it is because it is against the rules of posting here.

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