Sunday, October 29, 2023

Waste not, wanted not

Not everyone prioritises their personal values, and some are probably only vaguely aware of what their personal values even are. A casual skimming of this blog would affirm that I’m not necessarily like most people, in many ways, and so it’s not a surprise that trying to live in accordance with my values is probably among the most important things to me. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been trying something new to do just that.

Nigel and I had a shared passion to live as sustainably as we could, starting with what we we could do, then building from there. I’ve been giving a lot more effort to that, mainly because I can, but also because I try to live my life in a way that Nigel would be proud of—something I’d do if he was still alive, of course. Toward that end, I recently I tried yet another experiment in more sustainable sourcing of food. It had mixed results.

The story really begins back in June, when I ordered a box of avocados and lemons directly from a grower/supplier. It was successful—and stressful: The avos and lemons were really good quality, but it had far too many avocados for me to use without pushing hard. I gave a couple away, one went bad before I got to it, but the rest I managed to eat—usually smashed on toast, one way or another. Most of the lemons, however, ended up being used for cleaning after they were well past use as food. I didn’t order another box.

Well before that experiment, I saw Facebook ads for a Waikato-based company called Misfit Garden, something that was set up to:
…connect growers and consumers closer together to help fight billions of kilos of unnecessary food waste.

Instead of telling farmers what we want (which is how the food system usually works) we speak to them each week to find out what is already grown and what is needing a home.

In your Misfit Box you can expect the 'too big', the 'too small', the 'too misfit', as well as some damn fresh produce (the way it's meant to be!)
Customers sign up to have a box delivered every 1, 2, 3, or 4 weeks, and can choose a “Mini Misfit Box” for smaller households, or a bigger one better suited to larger households. There’s also a seperate “Seasonal Fruit Box” that appears to be the larger sized box, and a small veggie-only box. Subscribers can also order add-ons, which vary from week to week, just as the box contents do.

I ordered the “Mini Misfit Box” on an every other week schedule (the photo up top is of the first box—Box 1—at the left, and this week's order, Box 2, at the right). I felt that getting a box every week would be too much for me, and getting one fortnightly might mean I’d get through one box before the next arrived. I’ve now had two boxes, and it didn’t work out quite as I thought.

The first problem I hadn’t considered is that they’d send things I was unfamiliar with, or maybe too much for me to get through before it went off. In the first box, there were two telegraph cucumbers, and I managed to get through most of one in salads, though I had to throw some of it away (sorry, put it into my compost bin). I used the other one to make cucumber relish, kind of out of desperation to use it for something before it started to rot.

Both boxes contained pears, something I haven’t had in maybe decades (Nigel hated pears—and cucumber, for that matter, so I never bought either). The pears from the first box are now getting to the point where I need to use them for, I dunno, something, or I’ll have to throw them away (sorry, into my compost bin). I did eat some the mandarins/oranges I was sent, though, so—there’s that?

Fruit was a mixed success, then, but so were the veggies: I don’t eat potatoes very often, but both boxes had them, and—much to my surprise!—I’ve managed to get through most of them. Onions are always nice to have, and the small “pickling onions” in Box 1 were actually perfect for the cucumber relish. The most recent box had two red onions, something I use once a week or two when I make red lentil dhal.

There were the new-to-me items, too. Last box, it was New Zealand yams, a native of the Andes which aren’t actually yams, but a member of the oxalis family. I don’t remember if I’ve ever had them before, but I’ve certainly never cooked any. So, I roasted them (the most common suggestion I got), tried some that way and put the rest in my red lentil dhal. I thought they were fine—didn’t wow me, and I was surprised at how sweet they were, but they were fine.

The box this week included an enormous bunch of silverbeet (our name for chard). I’m pretty sure I’ve had that before, but I’ve absolutely never cooked with it. I decided to use the company’s recipe for Silverbeet Soup (photo at the bottom of this post, with some chopped fresh coriander—a huge bunch of which was in this week’s box). It was a little more fiddly than I thought it would be, partly because—never having cooked with silberbeet before—I didn’t quite grasp how much of the stem needs to be cut away from the leaves (the leaves were added at the end), but I got there. For the final steps, everything is whizzed up and cream is added, making something that reminded me a lot of the cream of celery soup I made—except not quite as nice. It was fine—I just preferred the celery soup.

Through all this experimentation, I’ve learned that putting wilting spinach or silverbeet in a sink of cold water revives them—um, so I could wilt them in what I was cooking? I even accidentally realised (due to vegetables rejuvenating in the sink) that if I scrub potatoes in a bowl, I can throw the water and dirt out onto the lawn (which desperately needs actual topsoil). In the past, I’ve always washed the soil down the drain. So… a win?

Among other things I got were a celery bunch, a giant bunch of cos lettuce, and some carrots—all of which will get used. So far, I’ve also used all the avocados I’ve received. The first box had three, and they were relatively small, so it was easy to use them up as they ripened—not nearly as challenging as the avocado box I got in June.

I was drawn to this idea because I liked the prospect of keeping fresh fruit and vegetables from going to waste, and I also liked the idea of providing another market for growers, many of whom are here in the Waikato. For a long time, I’ve been buying the “Odd Bunch” range of vegetables at the Countdown supermarket chain, and they’re a similarly mixed bunch of “imperfect” things. When I began this experiment, it was based, first, on the fact that I know I need to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, something I’d cut back on due to cost: Frozen is much cheaper, and it doesn’t go off before I can use it up. I knew that “The Odd Bunch” range was cheaper than the “perfect” counterparts, and I suspected that ordering direct might be good value.

To find out, I created a spreadsheet (of course…), and entered each item in the boxes, along with its weight or quantity (some things, like avocados, are sold individually). Next, I checked the online prices for both supermarket chains that deliver, Countdown and New World. I used either the lower price or averaged if neither one was a perfect match for what I’d received. Each box costs $32 plus $7.50 shipping, so $39.50 total. However, the supermarkets charge delivery fees, too, and they vary depending on a number of things, so it made sense to compare only the price of the produce and ignore delivery charges (they’d be important for an actual financial analysis, but this post isn’t that).

Box 1 would’ve cost me $49.88 at the supermarket, and Box two would’ve cost $37.40, so both supermarkets would’ve charged more than the $32 I paid (full disclosure: The first Box actually cost me $25.60 because of a 20% discount when I bought two boxes). So, yes, at normal prices, I came out ahead financially over the two orders.

However: If there’s too much for me to get through in time—either before it goes off or before more arrives—is there any savings at all? If one of my goals is to reduce wasted fruit and veggies, then it doesn’t work if I have throw stuff away (sorry, into my compost bin). To get around this, I could switch to a veggie-only box delivered every three or four weeks, or I could just stop it altogether. This is the option I’m leaning toward.

I think what the company is doing is great, and I love that they’re based in the Waikato—however, I think that for me, the potential for waste is too high to ignore, and I honestly don’t like the pressure of having the think of something to make with the box contents—especially if I’ve never used them before—rather than buying produce specifically because I want make something. It’s not just that it’s backwards, it’s that I also don’t need the pressure to use the stuff reasonably quickly. If my household had another person in it, things might be different, and the pressure could be reduced simply by checking in advance to see what’s in the box—maybe, but meal planning has absolutely never been a strength of mine, and now that I’m living alone I find it’s even less so.

The experience meant I also learned some new things, like that what Kiwis call “yams” are actually a form of oxalis, and that silverbeet is chard. Today, when I had the leftover soup for lunch, I thought some nice bread would be nice (I’m out), and then, probably because it’s a creamy soup, I remembered how my mother used to make New England clam chowder, and sometimes served it (or other dishes) with oyster crackers, and I realised I had no idea what they were or—especially—why they’re called that (it turns out that no one knows for sure). Those are an American thing, anyway, so I used what I had, and crumbled some water crackers into it. It was nice enough, quite similar to using oyster crackers, and also different than the version the night before.

So, this was another experiment that was an incomplete success: It wasn’t that it was bad value or that it failed, it’s simply that it wasn’t right for me, and that’s something I’d never have found out if I hadn’t tried it. For a household of two or more people, I think this could be a really good thing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good for me.

The challenge of values isn’t in holding them, and it isn’t merely in trying to live in accordance with them: It’s in being willing to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate them and the ways we try to live by them. This is another thing that’s a journey, not a destination. Because of all of that I’ve very glad I tried it.

The Silverbeet Soup, with fresh coriander on top (also from Box 2).

As always, I was NOT compensated in any way whatsoever for my comments—they’re my sincerely held opinions. This is one of those times I took a chance and got great products and service, and I just wanted to share my experience.

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