Vegetable boxes were supposed to help busy families and individuals eat healthily, cook with seasonal produce and support local farms.
But many people have found they often receive a box of vegetables they’ve no idea what to do with because they don’t know what they are or how to prepare them.
Another recent attempt at food revolution, which launched its second operation in Brighton back in April, is Housebites. Its aim is to deliver freshly-cooked food made by professional chefs working from home directly to its customers.
The latest food enterprise aiming to match healthy eating with speed and time (and with a Brighton connection) is Gousto, a small start-up company owned by two former bankers and run by a group of five friends.
Timo Schmidt and James Carter (who studied in Brighton before heading to the City) are Gousto’s head honchos.
“I spent more than six years in finance working really long hours,” says Schmidt, as he rushes between food tastings and food supplier meetings.
“I loved cooking but simply didn’t have the time to cook, to look up recipes and to go shopping, so I ate lots of ready meals and junk food.
“Even if we did cook something, we always ended up having lots of food waste,” he adds.
“I was unhappy about it, so I thought there must be a way to solve the problem.”
In 2011, Schmidt and fellow disenchanted City boy Carter, who lived in the same building, travelled to Italy to do some pasta tasting and brainstormed how they could turn their passion for food into something rewarding – both financially and spiritually.
“We wanted to do something more creative than finance. I wanted to do something more fulfilling, and if I work long hours I at least want to do something I am passionate about.”
After starting as a market stall – selling all the ingredients for healthy, balanced recipes, measured out with exact quantities and a recipe and 8-step idiot-proof guide to cooking – the pair decided to launch as a home-delivery company.
It’s rapidly grown into a business with 15 employees – all of whom test the dishes to make sure they are easy for customers to follow at home.
“There is no motivation like going from high income to zero income,” jokes Schmidt.
The couples’ bag, £42 per week or £39 for vegetarians, has enough food for three generous meals.
The family bag, £67 per week or £62 for vegetarians, should feed four to five people for three nights.
The food is delivered fresh. The produce is seasonal and local where possible. The ingredients, from spices to rice, are weighed exactly and packed in plastic bags in a bio-degradable wool-insulated box. They arrive at your door on Wednesdays.
“It’s not quite 100% British,” says Schmidt. “The fish is from Scotland and the meat and vegetables usually come from Devon. But this week, for example, we have a wild boar sausage recipe with meat from a tiny supplier in Piedmont. Sometimes when you have speciality ingredients, you have to import.”
The recipes change every week. Among the selections this week are pork fillet with Italian-style butterbeans, sweet chilli and lime beef on noodle salad, quinoa burgers with fresh salad, and mascarpone cauliflower with rice.
“Our chefs and nutritionists include Marion, a mother of four, Emma, who has been on Masterchef and focuses on British cuisine, and Karl, who has two Michelin stars and makes more adventurous recipes.
“They like to focus on seasonal cuisine, so at the moment there is a lot of fennel and butternut squash, more gamey meat. Then in summer there will be lighter recipes using raspberries, for example.”
Many people might have received fennel in veg box and not known what to do with it. Schmidt says if you decide to pick a dish made with something more unusual one week you’ll soon be an expert in how to prepare it.
“I don’t want to sound patronising, but I do believe in the learning aspect. Just to give you an example, I wasn’t a big fan of pork, but I learnt fantastic concepts when I tried a dish designed by one of our chefs and I’ve been cooking it ever since.
“Since you choose the recipes, though, it’s really up to you if you want to challenge yourself.”
Encouraging families and couples to try something different is a key aim.
“We want people to go beyond the ten-dish repertoire. I think that is a big point for families. Normally they have such busy lives that they cook the same stuff. Our aim is to help people diversity outside the normal selection of dishes with as little fuss as possible.”
He admits price-wise Gousto can’t compete against supermarkets. But he thinks the ease and fact Gousto cuts down on food waste by measuring the ingredients is a plus point. Compared with restaurants, he believes £7 a head is a good deal.
Gousto plans to introduce child-friendly meals and a wine service matching recipes with the bottle’s tannin.
One problem is that a service with so much packaging and sent on an individual basis cannot be sustainable.
“The ecological argument is super important to us. The boxes are biodegradable and we are working on a way to get them shipped back to our warehouse – we are already testing that.
“It’s crucial. If we focus so much on local seasonal and organic produce (and we try to be organic with everything – every recipe card is printed on recycled paper) the packaging has to be aligned with that.”