Friends Heather Hardy and Karen Hedgepath found a way to make families healthier and earn some extra money to boot. Their business, Brown Box Veggies, grew out of a passion to provide their own families with healthier food choices. Each has children and each works a full time job, yet they established Brown Box Veggies as a fruit and vegetable business that supplies fresh produce to more than 150 families twice monthly.
Heather started “boxing” fruits and veggies when her children were younger and she was a stay-at-home mom. For almost 10 years, she organized a food co-op from her house for friends and neighbors. She took a break from the co-op for a few years, but while on an educational field trip with her children two years ago to a local farm, she was inspired to start again, this time on a larger scale. Her goal: to offer as much South Carolina grown produce to as many people as possible for an affordable price.
Karen, whose husband, Patrick, grew up in Pelion with Heather’s husband, Brian, decided she wanted in on the action. She began by volunteering her time in exchange for free produce. “As the business grew, it became a lot for just Heather, so she asked me to be her partner,” says Karen. The two women started by visiting all the farms in the Columbia area that supply produce to the South Carolina State Farmer’s Market to learn exactly where and how produce is grown and packaged. They even discovered some unique farms, such as one in Vance, S.C., that grows kiwi.
“We are super lucky to pack South Carolina kiwi in our boxes during their season,” says Heather. “Many folks don’t realize there is a kiwi farm in South Carolina.”
The process works like this: two Fridays a month, the two women and some helpful family members visit the State Farmer’s Market. There, they carefully select four different varieties of fruits and seven different vegetables – enough to fill each of their customers’ boxes. While some of the produce comes from out of state based on the growing season, almost everything in the boxes is South Carolina-grown. The cost to each customer is $22; in a grocery store the same amount and variety would cost more than $30. Customers also have the option of purchasing an organic salad box and an all-fruit box with many tropical fruits inside.
Jackson Brothers Farm provides a space within their facility at the Farmer’s Market for sorting. “This really has been a blessing and instrumental to our success,” says Heather. Boxes are lined up and fruits and/or vegetables are carefully placed in each one. Sorting and packing is exhausting, but fun, points out Heather. Typically, they don’t wrap up until close to midnight. “We’re big on quality control so this slows things down a bit when we’re packing,” says Karen. She adds that the reward is seeing all the beautiful boxes packed and ready for delivery. Customers’ boxes are then delivered to five different locations around Columbia for a Saturday morning pick up.
Customers sign up and pay for their orders on the Brown Box Veggies website (www.brownboxveggies.com). An email confirmation indicates the pickup location. Pickup is the first and third Saturday of each month between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. There are no membership fees, and there are no participation requirements. If the limit on customers is reached for a delivery date, the website indicates when the customer can sign up for the next delivery.
Because the contents change from one delivery to the next, Karen says that customers tell her it is like Christmas when they open their boxes.
Lere Robinson is one of those customers. A local nutritional consultant, she learned about Brown Box Veggies through a friend and is impressed with the quality and variety of produce. “I am all about supporting our local businesses, and when I heard that the majority of the produce is local, I got excited,” she says. “Fruits and vegetables coming from other countries are often depleted of nutrients, as the produce is often picked when underripe and then still spends many days in transit before we get it.”
Even though Brown Box Veggies does turn a small profit, Heather is quick to point out that it is not all about money. Supporting South Carolina farmers and knowing more than 150 families are eating healthier is rewarding for both her and Karen. To educate the public locally, they have been guests on WIS News 10 and have been asked to speak at various events.
“People don’t have to eat canned vegetables and jarred fruit,” says Heather. Many people feel that cooking and eating fresh produce requires more time, and they are just too busy. To offer ideas, the company’s Facebook page posts recipes and suggestions for meals. The website is an educational tool as well, with fun facts about how much produce children, women and men should eat daily, as well as information about fundraising opportunities and how to start a local co-op.
Heather says one of her favorite vegetables is kale. “It’s grown year-round here, so it is always available and is considered the super food of veggies. It’s always in my refrigerator,” she says. She uses kale in salads and smoothies, sautés it, and even makes the most delicious dehydrated kale chips that she puts in her kids’ school lunches instead of potato chips. Most of Brown Box Veggies’s kale comes from Jackson Brothers Farms in Pelion.
Heather also likes the Fuji apples from the orchard at York-based Windy Hill. Recently, the company added Wil-Moore Farm’s free-range eggs to its organic salad boxes. In season, peaches come from Watsonia Farms in Monetta.
Cabbage is a favorite for Karen’s family. “My boys love it baked in the oven with a little olive oil and seasoned to taste. I also use it in soups and stews.” She suggests dipping pieces of pineapple in chocolate, sprinkling with almonds, and then sticking the pieces in the freezer until the chocolate hardens. “It makes a great snack or dessert.”
One of the most unusual items that Brown Box Veggies has included is creasy greens from Rawl Farms in Lexington. “These wild greens are considered an heirloom green,” says Heather. “They are a bit spicy and are awesome pan fried.” Also unusual, but popular, is ginger root. “Ginger tea when you are not feeling well does the trick every time.”
Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, from Watsonia Farms is another unusual item. And Karen says that Ugli fruit was most surprising. It is similar to a grapefruit or orange – and very tasty, despite its name. Offering customers distinct produce that they might not have been willing to choose for themselves in the grocery store is another goal of the owners. “We want our customers to be adventurous and try new things,” says Karen.
Besides selling produce, Brown Box Veggies also makes an effort to donate what they can. “We make sure several boxes each sorting period are donated to needy families in the area and any boxes not picked up are automatically donated to additional needy families or shelters,” says Heather. “This is something we make a priority in our lives and is a big part of our business.”
Heather says that running Brown Box Veggies is a win-win-win situation. The business supports as many local growers as possible, it saves people money on fresh produce, and it provides two families with a little extra income.