Assessing the economic value, economic impact and ...

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Assessing the economic value, economic impact and scalability of box schemes in the UK



The title of the PhD project is: Assessing the economic value, economic impact and scalability of ‘Alternative Food Networks’ using the box scheme sector as an example.

The objectives of this research are:

  • To create indicators to measure the financial sustainability of the box scheme sector
  • To identify the opportunities and threats for improving the financial sustainability of box schemes
  • To assess the potential for the box scheme sector to scale up to the extent that they become a significant source food for the UK population.

The theory behind the research - A theoretical framework

The box scheme business model has been used in the UK organic sector since 1991 and it is inspired by the Tei-Kei in Japan. Farmers who decided not to supply supermarkets used it to create and manage their own market independent of external forces. Along with these aims, there were aims of social and environmental sustainability in the retailing of organic produce.

Today it is not certain whether all box schemes align, practice and how well they practice the sustainability ideals of the pioneers. Therefore, this research will use a hybrid approach to find the financial sustainability of box schemes taking into account that sustainable practices may influence the financial performance of box schemes.This hybrid approach consists of four different ‘lenses’ or ways to look at financial sustainability:

  • Traditional business economic measures: This lens will help to understand the economic performance of a box scheme by using measures such as turnover, employee numbers, wages, and profit and loss.
  • Local economic impact assessment (LM3): This lens will help understand the economic impact the box scheme has on its locality. The research will use the LM3 tool designed by the new economic foundation and widely used in the UK by charities, social enterprises and public sector
  • Size of the local food movement: The academic literature has made a connection between the size of the food movement and the demand for local food. Thus, it could be possible that the bigger the food movement, the more customers box schemes have. This lens will help understand how much the box scheme contributes to the local food movement and how other investment either from government or charities contributes to create more box scheme customers
  • Values based supply chains framework: This framework developed in the USA, proposes a way to develop the financial sustainability of a food businesses by linking it with its supply chain. ’Value chains are long-term networks of partnering business enterprises working together to maximize value for the partners and end customers of a particular product or service’ (Stevenson and Pirog 2008:120).

The national box scheme and CSA survey

Why is a box scheme and CSA survey needed?

The aim of the research is to assess the economic value and economic impact of the box scheme sector. Therefore, this research needs to identify who is part of the sector and collect information from them such as turnover, number of employees, number of customers, wages and purchase and sales figures. The method chosen to collect this information is a  survey because it can be easily accessed by many and it requires less financial resources than other data collection techniques such as interviews. The national box scheme survey can be accessed online, by paper or by phone. The organic Growers Alliance, The Sustainable Cities Network and The CSA Network have already offered their support to circulate the link to the survey. The goal is to have 60 surveys responses by July 2017.

Why does the survey includes CSAs if the research is about box schemes?

Box schemes and CSAs set up and operate in very similar ways. For example, some box schemes are community interest companies and some CSAs are limited companies. To date there is no establish definition of the difference between CSAs and box schemes. The national box scheme and CSA survey will list a number of practices that will help differentiate between the two

How will the research benefit CSAs?

The survey will collect the same data from box schemes as from CSAs. With this information, we plan to write a report. This report will be co-produced with the CSA network and hosted in their website.

The survey will launch on Wednesday 24 April.

Case Studies

Another method to learn about the economic value, economic impact and scalability of box schemes is case studies. Unlike surveys, case studies allow for in depth analysis. The research project will be working with 6 box schemes to gather information on:

  • Local economic impact of the box scheme
  • The financial performance of the box scheme
  • The size of the local food movement
  • How the case study performs under the ‘values-based’ supply chain framework

This information will be gathered through:

  • 2 interviews with the box scheme
  • 2 interviews with 2 suppliers from the box scheme
  • A focus group with clients, suppliers and box scheme workers

The work with case studies will take place between September and December 2017 if you are interested in putting forward your box scheme as a case study email

How can this research contribute to the sustainable food movement?

People interested in sustainable food usually gather every year in two events the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the Organic Research Centre Producer’s conference. This year both events concluded with the same message, the need to change food and farming policy. Lawrence Woodward identified the different names used in both conferences: ‘citizen’s agricultural policy’, ‘land reform’, ‘modern peasantry’ and ‘the people’s food policy’.

In January 2016, the ‘people’s food policy’ was initiated by the Land Workers Alliance, Global Justice Now, the Permaculture Association, the Ecological Land Co-operative and the Centre for Agroecology Water and Resilience at Coventry University. This document will set out policies and recommendations on food and farming in the UK in 9 topics including markets – reorganising food trade and localising markets. This research fits within the markets topic as it aims to study the box scheme sector in the UK.

There are no clear figures of how many box schemes exist in the UK. The CSA network lists approximately 100 box schemes on its website. However we do not know how much money they make, how many people they employ and whether they are a viable option to localise food markets. This research will help to paint a picture of the box scheme and CSA sector in the UK and thus contribute to the aims of initiatives such as the ‘people’s food policy’. 

About Me

Paola has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Florida International University and a Masters degree in Urban Design from University College London. For two years, she worked in the architecture sector contributing to award winning projects such as South Point Park in South Beach, Florida and The University of Aberdeen Library in Scotland. Up to that point, Paola was intending to pursue a career in the architecture sector, until the financial crash of 2008.

Since 2008, she has been working in the sustainable food and farming sector. First as a volunteer at Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming and then as a project officer for Capital Growth, the project that helped Londoners start over 2,000 community food-growing gardens. In 2012, she helped set up Calabaza Growers, a farm in the edge of London that supplies vegetables to box schemes in the capital. In 2015, she started her PhD in the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience. Paola is from Colombia and speaks English and Spanish.