Eat Your (Organic) Veggies: Interview with Ella Heeks

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What would you say if someone offered you a box of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables delivered to your home every week? Ella Heeks is willing to wager you might be interested.

Heeks is the Managing Director of Abel & Cole, an Organic Delivery Service in England. Through Abel & Cole, customers order a weekly bounty of pesticide-free produce and schedule its delivery to fit into their busy lives. It’s convenience and ethical eating, waiting patiently on the porch.

While you can find Organic Delivery Services in most American cities, Brits have taken a particular liking to their weekly veg box – and also to ODS pioneer Abel & Cole. 30-year old Heeks spoke with The Jew & The Carrot about working with an idealistic company, soaking up farmer wisdom, and Able & Cole’s response to some customer’s requests that they boycott Israeli-grown produce.

What’s your background with food?

I studied Politics and Economics at Oxford university, because I wanted to understand the systems that are producing the environmental catastrophe of global warming, and I wanted to find the most constructive role for myself to play. I concluded that, for me, small business seemed the best way get things done fast. I could be in control, work hard and make a difference. In particular, I thought food would be a great area of focus, because food has such a massive impact on the environment and society.

How did you first get involved with Abel & Cole?

When I left university, I knew that I wanted to set up an ethical food business. There weren’t many other people doing that kind of thing back then, but Abel & Cole was one of the few I found. At the time, Abel & Cole was tiny, struggling, and losing money, but it was also exciting, ethical and full of great ideas. I thought it would be an awful waste if it didn’t succeed, and I decided to help out instead of starting my own company.

How much time in your job do you spend in the field – talking to organic farmers?

Talking to organic farmers is the best part of my job. The skill and knowledge that they bring to their work is awe-inspiring. It’s great to walk alongside a farmer as he works and ask stupid questions about what he’s doing. Why are you breaking branches off your apple trees? Why are these lambs so much friendlier than the others? Why have you left that big wild patch over there? There is always an interesting answer.

Organic Delivery Services seem to be more popular in the UK than they are in the US. Why do you think makes them so appealing to people in the UK?

I can’t see any reason why people in the US wouldn’t enjoy getting an organic delivery any less than people in the UK. But you’re right, they’ve really taken off here. People want excellent organic food. They want to eat more healthily and enjoy cooking more. They want to stay in touch with the seasons. They want to support British farmers. They want to cut food miles and packaging waste. Abel & Cole gives them a way to do all of this. It’s the green alternative to the supermarket.

I noticed on Abel & Cole’s FAQs that there is a question specifically addressing whether or not you source produce from Israeli growers – why is that?

We source from British farms whenever possible. At times of year when there isn’t enough British produce to fill our boxes with fruit and vegetables, we go to the closest possible source. So, Spain and Italy are the places we normally turn to for the supplies we need to get us through what we call the ‘hungry gap’, when British harvests are at their seasonal low.

Israel got a special mention in the ethics section of our website because some customers have asked us to boycott Israeli produce. This is as a result of their feelings about the condition of Palestine and perhaps in particular, the way that Palestinian farmers have been affected by Israeli policies. (For example, destruction of Palestinian olive groves, and disputes over land and water supplies.) We don’t boycott any country’s produce: we feel it is fairer to look at the individual growers, and only source from them if we are satisfied that they meet our criteria.ella2.JPG

How does Able & Cole apply ethics to business modules and practices?

We want to treat our customers, growers and staff with the utmost respect. The way to do that is to hire thoughtful, kind, committed people to serve our customers, work with the growers, and lead our staff. We want to do everything we possibly can to conserve resources and protect the environment.

Our impact on the environment is driven by the way we use resources – and therefore by myriad decisions about fuel, packaging, delivery routes and the like. So we need everyone in the company to strive for innovative ways of doing things that will help the environment. In other words, this also requires thoughtful, committed people – the kind of people who don’t just take the easiest, cheapest option but look for the best possible solution. Luckily, there are lots of people like this in the world, and they want to work in a place where they will be able to make a difference.

Interview conducted by Regina Otrovski for The Jew & The Carrot.

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6 Responses to “Eat Your (Organic) Veggies: Interview with Ella Heeks”

  1. Silverbrow Says:

    I’d be interested to know Ella’s views on how best to manage the over abundance that seems to occur with these boxes.

    All too often people who get them, me included, find they’re inundated with fruit and veg and often end up throwing them away. Is there an argument that Abel & Cole, Riverford Organics and other UK box schemes, should setup a recycling system for the unwanted fruit and veg?

  2. Ella Heeks Says:

    That’s a great question, Silverbrow. The thought of people having to throw any kind of food away is not at all good. If you find yourself swamped with supplies, my first suggestion would be to switch to a smaller box – Abel & Cole offers a range of a ten boxes to make sure that everyone can find the right quantity for them. If even a small box is too much though, you can put together your own box of just a couple of items by selecting from our fruit and veg favourites on the website. Alternatively, you could take a box every fortnight instead of every week. As for recycling systems for unwanted fruit and veg, I think the very best one is neighbourly kindness. What better way to get to befriend your neighbours than by offering them a bag of apples or a beautiful salad that you’ve got going spare?

  3. Michael Green Says:

    Good to hear that Abel & Cole are sourcing from Israeli farmers (only where the British climate is too cool, of course!)

    Anti-Zionist activists have been targeting other organic business in the UK, from Fresh+Wild (WholeFoods) to small independent retailer – pressuring them to boycott from Israeli organic farmers. With a couple of exceptions, the retailers have not yielded to their campaigns.

  4. Shine Says:

    Organic vegetables are the best. But where I live, they are more expensive, not always available. I think I will just grow my own.

  5. Ben Says:

    Thanks for sharing a little about your background Ella, was an interesting read. Hat’s off to you for helping Abel & Cole become such a success in the organic food delivery sector.

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