23 August 2022, New Zealand: A produce delivery business selling imperfect and surplus fruit and vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colours, is helping make use of produce at risk of going to waste. ANNE HARDIE reports.
Angus Simms and Katie Jackson started their fruit and vegetable delivery box business, Wonky Box, during Covid-19 with a goal of reducing the amount of produce wasted. Often produce with imperfections such as being misshapen or varying from the standard size, means it does not meet main market requirements but is still perfectly fresh and good to eat.
“Why get bogged down with cosmetics when it’s all the same on the inside?” Angus says. “It’s fresh but might have an ugly look or different size. Produce tends to be graded on size, colour and shape. We will always have the freshest produce, but it may be ugly.”
Angus says, because of market requirements, a fair amount of produce grown by a grower doesn’t end up leave their property and is subsequently wasted. In market gardens, some of it is not even pulled from the ground or cut. Before Covid-19, it was estimated that up to 30 percent wasn’t harvested and that has risen to 40 percent due to the post-Covid climate, lack of labour, poor prices or no market for the imperfect or surplus produce.
Turning this waste into a business became an obsession for the couple after they realised just how much food wasn’t even getting to market.
The number of growers involved in the scheme has expanded since its inception. Approximately 25 growers in the Kapiti and Horowhenua region now supply produce to Wonky Box, which is then packed and delivered weekly to some 1200 customers around Wellington.
With the business off to such a successful start, Katie and Angus are looking to establish a packing and distribution centre in Auckland to deliver as far as Hamilton and Tauranga, with plans to expand the business around the country and reduce even more waste.
Angus, Wellington born and bred, spent a “hell of a lot of time” in the United Kingdom and returned to New Zealand in the middle of Covid-19 with his partner, Katie, to show her his home country during a working holiday. The couple worked in horticulture last summer and realised growers were facing enormous challenges with labour, Covid and moving produce.
“It hit home – how costly things are in the supermarket, especially returning from the UK where grocery products are cheaper,” Angus says. “Here, produce wasn’t leaving the farm and we were spending fortunes in the supermarket.”
They returned to Wellington and went door knocking at farms in the Horowhenua to ask growers if they had surplus or cosmetically-challenged produce they could not sell. An important value was to pay growers a fair price for their produce, and they were able to buy a range of vegetables and fruit that they boxed and sold online through their website. Since then, the business has grown naturally and they only began actively marketing their Wonky boxes recently.
“Fortunately for the business, we had a second lockdown which made a massive difference for us and the company,” Angus says. “We learnt as we were growing the business that there was an appetite for it.”
Customer reviews show they love the surprise of weird and wacky fruit and vegetables in their delivery box each week and say it is fresher than in the supermarkets. Angus says that is because they buy direct from growers and get it to customers quickly without it going through intermediaries. Their website gives customers a heads up on some of the fruit and vegetables they can expect in the boxes each week, to help with meal planning.
Coverage of the supermarket duopoly in the media, and the cost of living, has prompted customers to look for alternatives, and Angus says those customers don’t care if their vegetables and fruit are weird shapes or different sizes that wouldn’t be accepted by the supermarkets. Often, the produce is the same as growers sell to the main supermarkets but due to the season, they have an excess they can’t sell.
“We’re trying to reduce waste at the source of the food chain. It’s a very interesting part of the supply chain to be focused on,” Angus says.
“Some growers were reluctant to be open about the waste on their farm – no-one wants to scream and shout about their waste.”
Angus says their business model is driven by growers and what they haven’t been able to move before. The grower-led approach benefits the grower because it gives them a different revenue stream, he says.
“A lot of the big commercial growers in New Zealand are price takers. They’ve got one or two major buyers dictating what the price will be and are sometimes losing money. They’re not making a lot of money, especially when you think about the cost pressures they face, including the increase in fertiliser, fuel and labour costs.
“if we can come along and offer the similar pricing as the supermarket for their excess, I think we can help them become more sustainable.”
Whatever growers have available each week is what’s delivered to customers. Wonky Box now has a healthy network of growers beyond the Wellington region too – including kumara from Dargaville and citrus from Gisborne, as well as a mix of large commercial growers and small organic orchards with as little as 50 trees.
“Mostly we approach growers and build that relationship, although couple have come to us,” Angus says. “Ideally, we would love to do more for more growers.”
Sometimes, growers haven’t been able to supply them with produce even when it was financially worthwhile because they didn’t have the labour to harvest it.
“We had a grower who was going to supply us with mini leeks but literally wasn’t able to because they didn’t have the labour to pull [them] from the ground,” says Angus. “Then a storm came and those leeks were ruined. They spent six months growing those leeks and didn’t have the workers on the farm to pull them out. We’ve seen that happen with a number of growers recently because of nasty weather which has some severe repercussions.”
Several growers have told them they have been scaling back operations due to labour shortages, and Angus says reduced supply will have an effect on consumer’s wallets. Even when supply is reduced there will still be wastage because there will still be ugly, smaller produce and excess quantities at certain times.
“If we can influence New Zealanders to consume what growers have available, not only will they be doing local growers a lot of good, they will be saving themselves money in the long run.”
According to the Wonky Box’s website, a third of the planet’s food is wasted, which adds up to 1.3 billion tonnes of “perfectly good grub that is never eaten.” A New Zealand survey revealed 86 percent of Kiwis believe wasting food is wrong. While Wonky Box can’t do much about household food waste, Angus and Katie will continue working on reducing food waste at its source.
“We’ve been a fairly small player, but that is going to scale up and we want to make a big impact across New Zealand.”
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