TAKING THE ‘BORING’ OUT OF KIWI FOOD CHOICES
A unique local grower innovation programme introduces more variety in fruit and vegetables.
When it comes to some Kiwi eating habits celebrity chef Nadia Lim thinks things have got a bit too boring. “Over time the available range of many fruits and vegetables have become very narrow,” she says. “It’s not great sticking to the same boring things.” Which is why Lim, a co-founder of My Food Bag (MFB), thinks the company’s local grower innovation programme is so effective. In 2019 MFB is set to launch a bunch of new crops as diverse and unique as white eggplant, yellow scaloppini, trio lettuces ( three lettuces on one root system) and red bok choy - all of which will be added to many of the 300,000 meals it delivers throughout the country every week. These latest varieties follow produce like golf ball apples, purple and yellow carrots and watermelon radish previously introduced by MFB. Lim is a fan of this t ype of variety: “Watermelon radishes, for example, are so unique people can’t get them in supermarkets. And if there is no market for them, growers won’t produce them.” Lim says the grower innovation programme aims to change all this. “We look at all the different produce out there, partner with growers, hold their hand and allow them to experiment with varieties. “Growing food is one of the most important jobs in the world,” she says. “You can understand it when growers don’t want to take risks, but I believe someone has got to champion innovation. If they are not supported producers will lose confidence and not try new things.” But Lim is also keen to turn back the clock: “I would like to see a lot more of the old heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables again. A lot of these have been lost – fruit like blackboy peaches are a delicious and nutritious fruit, but now I never see them. “There are hundreds of varieties of apples too with beautiful, elaborate names like ballerina waltz and peasgood nonsuch (named after a Mrs Peasgood who grew it from a pip in England in the 1870s) while there is a similar story with potatoes.” Lim is worried many of these will be lost forever. “Something I’d like to do is step out from behind the plate, learn more about how we grow produce and establish seed banks. I think it will be important to have these in case of a disaster striking mankind.” Under the grower innovation programme MFB guarantees it will buy trial crops if they are successful and, in some cases, fund the seeds. “We put forward produce concepts based in international trends,” says Lim. “We then liaise with our produce supplier (Freshmax) who have a group of around 120 local growers about the possibility of growing the crop.” Freshmax liaise with the seed companies who then liaise with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) to get the seed and trial crop approved before appointing a grower. Once approved the crop is grown in fields or greenhouses after which MFB will trial in in recipes. If the recipe is a success, MFB will buy a full crop – and become the first to take it to market. MFB’s purchasing manager, Naomi Moses, says 97 per cent of its produce is sourced from New Zealand. The remaining three per cent includes produce like pineapples and ginger which cannot be grown in the New Zealand climate. All fish used by MFB is sustainably caught within New Zealand quotas, it has offered free-range chicken and eggs since its launch in 2013 while all meat used is from New Zealand MFB-supplier relationships which benefit both local economies and sustainable farming methods. One supplier, Taupo Beef, is working to help preserve the water quality of Lake Taupo. A group of about a dozen farms in the Taupo district have accepted a permanent cap on livestock numbers to help protect the lake‘s water and are independently audited each year by the Waikato Regional Council. Much of the drive behind this concept has come from Mike Barton who has been running a 150 hectare farm of his own in the area since 2000. Barton says MFB’s profiling of Taupo Beef through their recipes has “given us wonderful exposure and helped inform consumers about the power of their purchasing choices. They (MFB) have also given us scale that would have been very difficult to achieve otherwise. “We have been supplying them for about t wo years and at the start the scope of their needs was scary,” he says. “They are a big player but we have been grateful for the opportunity and have been able to negotiate a model that works for us. “Taupo Beef – and our story around sustainable production – is now in thousands of homes through My Food Bag and is something we would never have achieved alone.” Barton says the idea behind the livestock cap is to reduce the amount of nitrate leaching into the lake – an issue that is a major environmental problem facing waterways throughout the country. “I won’t know in my lifetime if we’ve got it right ( Barton is 66) because it takes 80 years for nitrate now in the pasture to get into the lake water,” he says. “Science tells us we are on the right track, but we’ve always got to be open to new ideas; and we also want to know what happens to the nitrate during the 80 years.” On his own farm Barton has also introduced other sustainable farming practices: He uses no nitrogen as fertiliser, has replanted 30 acres of his property in forest, recycles all plastics he uses and has a permanent research laboratory on the farm (run by Landcare Research) which looks at ways to improve food production. “This lab has been on our farm for seven years and has a life-span of at least another 20 years,” he says. “We host academics, scientists and policy makers from all over the world keen to see what we are doing. “Recently we had 36 farmers and academics from Germany - and 28 students from Iowa State University in the United States.” Other MFB meat suppliers include Neat Meat (who supply beef and lamb under the Harmony brand) and Te Mana Lamb, a new style of lamb meat which the company says is “higher in healthy intramuscular polyunsaturated fat – ‘good fat’ – and Omega-3 than any other red meat.”