Cutia Ţăranului (The Peasant Box)
Natural healthy food is nowadays a worldwide issue. Commodity, lack of time or lack of awareness bring more and more people into the position of consuming processed foods from supermarkets. The traditional markets started to loose ground in the favor of big supermarkets chains. The alternatives to healthy food are getting fewer and fewer every day.
We have already talked about this subject a while ago, when we mentioned some alternatives to a healthy nutrition available in Romania. Now our purpose is to present (while providing much more detail) one of the initiatives that brings closer to you the local products available throughout the rural Romania.
Cutia Ţăranului (The Peasant Box), founded by Andreea and Ronen in 2011, is an innovative solution in Romania. Producers create practical, diverse and healthy “boxes” full of fresh produce and food products that they deliver weekly or monthly to people who are interested in them. The available “boxes” are listed on the Cutia Ţăranului website, where people can learn more about their content, their producers and they can also order them and become members of the community.
How did you come up with this idea?
Through meetings with other Eco Ruralis members, we have discovered that there was plenty of quality produce available in villages in Romania. We also noticed it was getting more and more difficult for producers to get their produce to markets and to make a decent living. Markets in major cities were crowded and rent had become expensive for them. Hypermarket chains were establishing a growing presence in cities (often very close to the traditional market places), providing consumers with cheap alternatives. In addition to that, the costs of food production were constantly rising. These factors and others resulted in a difficult and deteriorating reality for producers.
How do you approach and select producers?
Producers are usually skeptical about ‘Cutia Ţăranului’ and have doubts about our model. It takes weeks if not months of slow and gradual communication. In the first years getting producers on board was more difficult. We approached the first producer family in 2011. When we moved from Cluj-Napoca to a house in a neighboring village. There, when we were walking our dogs, we met some neighbors working in the fields. They became the very first producers of Cutia Ţăranului.
Now it has become easier. There is evidence that this model works and today most of our producers get in contact with us.
When choosing the producers we work with, we focus our attention on those who care about farming and about people. Because our members want to have good knowledge about the products they buy. They also want to have a long lasting relationship with the farmers that supply them.
Our producers need to know how to grow food. They also need to be well organized and to plan their growing orders. They also need to have good working processes that make it possible to efficiently deliver their produce to their customers and the members of our platform.
Their ability to form and nurture relationship is also extremely important. Our experience shows that when producers care about their soil, work and plants they are also able to form caring relationships with their members. (We refer to our customers/consumers as “members”).
Did you have difficulties in connecting with the members?
We were fortunate that we didn’t need to do much work to get members to join. That happened, to our surprise, quickly and easily. People were looking for something like Cutia Ţăranului for some time already. There is a waiting list of people who are waiting for places and peasant boxes to become available in their region.
Most producers have a core group of members they supply with food.
Are the members satisfied with the service?
We think so, yes.
Of course, there is always a fluctuation of members leaving and new members joining. Though we don’t have firm numbers, our impression is that some people leave for technical reasons (such as leaving the city, or getting food from a family in a nearby village). But the most prominent reason for members leaving is that the boxes have too much food. And that their busy lifestyle (work, family, etc.) makes it hard to enjoy the produce, to cook and prepare meals. Most members, when asked for feedback, even when leaving, feel good about their producer and the project.
How is the producers-members relationship framed?
We want it to go beyond a basic commercial exchange. We are inspired by the traditional Romanian family, with members living in the city and other members (usually older, grandparents) who live in the rural area. When the people living in the city visit their family at the countryside, living in small villages, they come back packed with an abundance of fresh food and produce. That kind of relationship inspires us and that’s how we picture it. We are constantly doing efforts to guide producers and help them change the approach. Instead of selling a kilogram of vegetables, we want them to shift to a mentality of offering a regular weekly service that provides food for a family.
Our producers do deliveries on their own. This means that a producer who wishes to join Cutia Ţăranului needs to be able to do deliveries. And this is more than just a technical task. It is a point of direct touchpoint, a face-to-face meeting between a producer and a member. It is an opportunity to get to know each other better, to ask for feedback, to make requests, to order supplementary products.
The nature of the relationship quickly becomes personal and grows. Members can make specific requests. For instance, at one point, a member made an inquiry with their producer about kale. The producer had never heard about kale but did some research. Next year, all members of that box received kale in their boxes.
How does the boxes system work and what are they all about?
Cutia Ţăranului focuses on daily, healthy, good, affordable food. We would like to offer anyone who wants to introduce quality and local food into their lives the possibility to do so with our boxes.
Most of our boxes are currently offering vegetables. The contents change throughout the seasons of the year. But we also try to make available things like milk & cheese products, meat and bread. Indeed, we have seen an increase in diversity as producers try to make their boxes more interesting and more appealing to members. Some boxes offer supplementary products such as sunflower oil, tomato sauce, ‘zacuscă’ and more.
The typical vegetable boxes are delivered once a week. During winter, some boxes are delivered only once every two weeks.
There are also special boxes that are delivered at varying intervals. For example, we have Easter boxes that contain freshly butchered lamb. And this type of box is delivered only once a year, just before the holiday. We have a beef meat box that is delivered once a month.
What can you tell us about the price of these peasant boxes?
The prices are set by producers. They often ask us for help in finding the right price. Our experience has been that the market approach of ‘price per kilogram’ multiplied by the number of kilograms is not particularly helpful. Mainly because the weight of the box varies according to the different seasons. Spring boxes are lighter whereas fall boxes get heavier as root vegetables dominate. Therefore, after much consideration, we have come to a very different and simple approach:
- We ask our producers to assemble a sample box and look at it and ask them “what price would bring a smile on your face and make you happy to give this box to a member?”
- Then, when they start delivering the box, we ask them if members were also smiling and happy to pay them the price they’ve fixed for it.
When everyone is smiling the price is right.
To get a sense of current prices, you can browse the Cutia Ţăranului website and sample some of the active boxes.
In which areas are the boxes available for sale?
Cutia Ţăranului started in Cluj-Napoca (where most of the activity still is) and is also present in Bucharest.
We are currently in contact with producers in other cities (Bacău, Târgu Mureș, Brașov). And we look forward to bringing together more producers and members.
Projects for the future?
We are considering new strategies for our delivery system. Also, we are looking into proactive ways of reaching more producers. We invite more producers from counties all over Romania. And we believe there is also much work to do in generating awareness on the subject of local food amongst the general public. But we feel that this task is beyond our means. We try to connect and collaborate with other social initiatives to promote healthy local eating. We are only one piece of a larger Romanian puzzle or bigger picture.