I’ve been a member of the Cofco (Cambridge Organic Food Co.) organic box scheme almost as long as I’ve lived in Cambridge – somewhere in the region of ten years. Yes, almost every week for the past decade, a box of fresh, seasonal vegetables has appeared on my doorstep, waiting to be turned into delicious, healthful family meals. So I was delighted to finally be able to go and visit them and find out a bit more about their operation. On a cold November morning, I arrived at their smaller-than-I-expected barn in Haslingfield, for a tour of their facilities, including office, cold store, electric-delivery-van-charging-point, and of course, lots and lots of boxes.
The arrival of the week’s fresh fruits and vegetables was in full swing, with crates of pink kale, beautiful romanesco cauliflowers, giant parsnips, and weird and wonderful varieties of squash arriving constantly. Packing stations were being set up so that team members could fill the day’s boxes ready for delivery. On an average week, the company delivers around 700 organic veg boxes to families in and around Cambridge, as well as fulfilling wholesale orders from local shops and restaurants.
David, my guide, was enthusiastic about the provenance of the produce on offer. Most of it is very local, and the farmers and producers are all known personally by the Cofco staff. There were carrots, swedes and parsnips from the fens; squashes, chard and pears from Audley End; and delicious (and award-winning) bags of salad from Wild Country Organics in Great Abington, among many other things.
This is one of the things which attracted me to Cofco all those years ago – and keeps me coming back. Unlike the various national box schemes on offer, where the origin of the produce may be far, far away from the consumer, Cofco really strives to keep it local, reduce food miles, and ensure that its fruit and veg spends as little time in transit as possible.
It is a testament to Cofco’s commitment to local food that they are also creating partnerships with local producers to distribute non-traditional box scheme foods, and extending their range of ‘store cupboard’ items. For instance, the Cofco Coffee Club, in association with local cafe Hot Numbers, delivers bags of single-origin coffee, accompanied by detailed tasting notes, to members each month. Cofco teams with Arjuna Wholefoods to supply minimally-packaged dried goods, and will soon be building on their association to launch their own muesli blend. And Hodmedods is an East Anglian firm that are bringing traditional beans, peas and pulses bang up to date, and I saw their range of dried & tinned beans, plus delicious legume-based snacks, on the Cofco shelves. To quote the Cofco website, these peas & beans are, “a massive step towards a more sustainable diet.”
I had a chat to Duncan Catchpole, the founder of the business, and it quickly became clear that such sustainability is at the heart of everything Cofco does – from its electric delivery van to its A5 letterhead (which uses less paper than the traditional A4 size) and the ongoing reuse of its vegetable boxes. (DH often tells me off when 2 or 3 empty boxes stack up at home – Cofco collect them and reuse them as many times as possible.)
It was no surprise then, that Cambridge Sustainable Food held their first anniversary party in the Cofco barn just recently – a celebration of local, sustainable food and drink, and a great opportunity for consumers to meet and mingle with producers. Duncan was enthusiastic about Cofco’s role in ‘closing the loop’ between farmers and growers and the people who ultimately eat their produce. “We still talk about box scheme members, rather than customers, because it’s much more than just buying a product. The farmers, the distributors, and the consumers are all part of a system, and we all rely on each other. I hope our members feel like they’re part of a food community by belonging to the box scheme.”
“We’re trying to grow that sense of community by holding events, by our monthly newsletter, and by inviting our members to join us on Facebook and Twitter, so they can keep up to date and feel more involved in what we do. We recently invited our Facebook followers to come to a muesli-making event, where we mixed and tasted and formulated the new ‘Cofco blend’ of muesli that we’ll be launching soon. Having our members involved is very important to us and the way we do business.”
If you live in or around Cambridge and would like to try out the box scheme, you can sign up here and use the offer code FFF to get a free mini sample box, with no obligation. The mini box is about half the size of a standard box and will give you a good idea of the sorts of things you’ll receive in your regular delivery. If you’re happy with the free sample box then you don’t need to do anything – Cofco will start delivering their Original Vegetable box each week. If you don’t want to continue as a member of the organic box scheme, just let them know and you won’t get any paid-for deliveries.