Becoming a Better Food Trader
Tuesday, 22nd July 2014 by Chen

Growing Communities has learned a huge amount from running a successful community-led box scheme in Hackney for 20 years. We decided we wanted to share that knowledge to help other groups to bring fresh, seasonal food to their communities while supporting local small-scale farmers and creating jobs. So we set up the Start-up Programme, which has so far helped nine groups to get up and running, who are now all members of the Better Food Traders.

To show you a bit more about what it’s like on the programme, we quizzed Tom Allen of Vegbox in Kentish Town about the highs and lows of getting his scheme started: “Being part of the Start-up Programme is one of my favourite things in my life at the moment. Planning and ordering vegetables every week and devising recipes for the newsletter just does it for me - who’d have thought it?!”

Here's the full interview:

What were you doing before you joined the scheme?

It was about a year after a group of us co-founded Transition Kentish Town that we heard about the Start-up Programme. We were doing film showings, food workshops, gardening clubs and so on for Transition Kentish Town.

Had you thought about running a box scheme before you heard about the programme?

No. We had talked within Transition Kentish Town about the fact that we wanted to start something big, something that would be really visible in the area, something that could generate income and lock in social change. When the email came around with details about the programme we thought, perhaps this is our opportunity.

What inspired you to join the scheme?

Going along to the training workshop, seeing how Growing Communities works, and getting excited by the passion and vision that we saw there.

How have you found it?

It’s been great. Now we feel like the Start-up Programme is the mothership that we all need to nurture so that it can spawn more veg box babies!

Which bits of Growing Communities’ support have been most useful to you?

Having the whole model all worked out and ready to go, right down to the level of having an ordering spreadsheet that we could just take over and use. That meant we didn’t have to go through so much thinking and decision making, we could just tweak the existing model as we went along.

What has been the best bit?

Getting to know the farmers that we buy from, understanding much better the difference between sustainable and unsustainable farming.

What has been the most challenging bit?

We were slow to get going, mainly because none of us initially put in the time that starting up a big new thing like this required. After a while, I reduced my day job from five days to four days and used that day a week to put in the work that was needed. I had to take a bit of a leap of faith.

Has anything surprised you - either pleasantly or unpleasantly?

We launched at a time when veg prices were rising quite sharply, so we were surprised because the margins we thought we were going to have didn’t work. But we didn’t want to raise prices - being affordable has been part of the deal - so we tightened the margins and worked with it.

Have you met new people in your community?

Yes, we know our pick-up points very well now, and of course our members. We were all quite well embedded people in our community already though. That’s very useful by the way, knowing your community quite well already.

Have you created jobs in your area?

Yes, we have four part-time people who are paid for packing and transporting veg. We find the kind of work we offer really suits a particular kind of flexible worker who has a portfolio of different jobs and it’s great to be able to support them.

What sort of feedback do you get from customers?

We get loads of positive feedback whenever we do surveys. Having the weekly newsletter with recipes is particularly popular. Here’s a sample quote from a member replying to our last survey: “Excellent. I always look forward to seeing what’s in the bag. I enjoy the surprise, variety and quality... I like the written information about sources and I love the recipes. I like the convenient self pick up and direct debit payment. I like feeling that I support local food and I eat well.”