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

(article, Cindy Burke)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] 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. 

[%image veg float=left width=350 caption="Where are your organic vegetables grown?" credit='Photo: iStockphoto/Frank van Haalen'] 

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:

# 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.
# 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.) 
# 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.
# 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. 
# 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.
# 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.
# 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. 
# 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.
# 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.
# 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.

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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