Dinner by the Numbers: How Do Meal Kits Stack Up?

Meal kits are convenient, but can they help create a new distribution channel for small farmers?

Food Waste, Technology

Luke's_Tamale_kitPutting food on the table on a busy weeknight is a universal problem. Now, a horde of new, sleek, venture capital-funded services has arrived on the market peddling what they think is a solution: kits made of raw ingredientsportioned and sometimes preppedthat can be assembled quickly to make a meal “from scratch.”

The rising popularity of these meal kits has led to a Gold Rush of sorts. Big brands like Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh cater to the general population, each offering a half dozen or so meal plans for everyone from families to vegetarians. Then there are the niche kits: organic food (Eat Purely), vegan food (The Purple Carrot), Southern cooking (PeachDish), and smoothies (Green Blender). All claim to work with local suppliers to some extent, creating a whole new distribution outlet for small- to mid-size farms.

Although these kits have the potential to waste a lot of packaging, many of the companies behind them actually hope to cut down on food waste. Instead of buying obscure ingredients you’ll only use once, or receiving three heads of kale in your weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription box that will inevitably wilt in the crisper drawer, the kits provide you with only what you need for a recipe. Not a bad model for a country that throws away 35 million tons of food a year.

Some meal kit creators also strive to eliminate food waste higher in the supply chain. Blue Apron claims to deliver more than 3 million meals a month. That requires a lot of produce, and Blue Apron and other services are collaborating with farmers, in some cases planning menus a year out in order to sync with crop rotations, and ensure that all the food each farm grows goes to use. In doing so, they could be creating a new form of farm-to-table food delivery, somewhere in between a CSA and a restaurant.

“We’ve had a farm strategy since day one,” says Matthew Wadiak, founder and COO of Blue Apron. He says that the three-year-old company has spent the past few years talking with farmers, assessing their needs and challenges, then figuring out how to address them. Wadiak is a champion of forgotten heirloom produce, like honeynut squash and black panther soybeans, which he says goes over well with both his customers and the farmers.

Blue Apron works with the 31 farms, and the culinary staff have sustainable agriculture backgrounds (the culinary director came from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture), so an awareness of crop rotation and cover crops has been built into their business model.

For example, the company recently worked with 12-acre Alewife Farm farm and others nearby in New York’s Hudson Valley to source thousands of pounds of pea shoots for a recent seared salmon dish. Alewife owner Tyler Dennis says that the peas helped fix nitrogen in his soil, and the guaranteed revenue from the order was a huge boon.Blue Apron product shot

Farmers are not only reliant on the weather, but also on the whims of customers at farmers’ markets and the picky palates of chefs to sell their wares. Dennis is talking with the company to grow more peas, as well as some baby fennel and baby leeks. “I would really like to incorporate my business with Blue Apron’s in a more substantial way,” he says.

These meal kits can be expensive when compared to a home-cooked meal at around $8 and $12 per person. That’s not much more than take-out from most casual restaurants, but they do require 10-30 minutes of actual cooking time. They also create their own waste in the form of the packaging that holds, say, two tablespoons of butter for one recipe, or the ice packs to keep the food cold. But meal kit proponents are quick to point out that they’re also eliminating a lot of the packaging higher up in the food distribution stream.

Perhaps the most limiting part, at least to someone who knows how to cook, is that these services only offer a few options each day. That’s where a model more like Luke’s Local, a San Francisco-based meal delivery company, comes in. Its stated goal is to help busy people get through the week. So the business offers recipe kits, but also heat-and-serve prepared meals and raw produce and ingredients, more like a regular CSA.

“[Our customers] love that they can get some of these things to cook dinner or have dinner at home, some fruit for the morning for breakfast, a box lunch to bring to work,” says owner Luke Chappell.

Like Wadiak, Chappell has made working with farmers a priority from the beginning. He says that there’s rarely a day that goes by without communication between his team of chefs and farmers like Andy Griffin from Watsonville’s Mariquita Farmeither they’re on the phone talking about what’s fresh that week, or Griffin is texting them photos of what’s ripe and good to feature. In a weekly meeting, the team looks at all the produce set to come in and figures out what to do with it.

Offering a range of options also eliminates waste almost entirely, says Chappell. For example, he can source a whole pig from Chico, California-based Llano Seco Ranch and use every part: the skin for chicharones, the bones for broth, the cuts for the prepared chefs meals, chorizo for a breakfast burrito, and tenderloins for a dinner recipe kit.

Food gurus like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman often point to scratch cooking as the answer to many of our food system’s ills, and the best a way to eat sustainably grown ingredients without breaking the bank. But it’s unclear whether or not meal kits can ever serve as a bridge to more affordable, traditional home cooking.

They could simply be a function of the new “shut in economy,” where those with means order everything into their homes and never leave. But those behind the companies say they’re working to make it easier for busy professionals and families, who might not cook at all otherwise, to take advantage of the values of community supported agriculture or farmers’ market shopping without the time commitment.

“My argument is that we take the good parts of the CSA, which is the seasonality, but we make it really usable for everybody,” says Wadiak. And no matter how you feel about the cooking-by-the-numbers approach to dinner, it’s hard to argue with that.

 

Photos, from top: A tamale kit from Luke’s Local, several meal kits from Blue Apron.

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  1. April
    Thursday, July 9th, 2015
    I like the concept of these meal kits, but I couldn't get over the wasted packaging when I tried one. Why not use reusable coolers to store items?
    Also, the prep time can be daunting for a weeknight, even if portions are measured out, there is lots of chopping.
    Thanks for sharing!
  2. Betty
    Friday, July 10th, 2015
    I like this idea as a way to get more people eating freshly cooked meals of local produce. Are there ways to reduce packaging waste? Does each separate vegetable need it's own package? Can users subscribe to this service and return reusable packaging each week, as CSA members return the crate in which they recieve vegetables?
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