Let's Be Honest, Episode 31: Meal Kit Delivery Service
Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.
Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!
Meal Kits: What Are They Good For?
HelloFresh and Blue Apron - these names may already sound familiar to you. They are the two leading meal kit companies worldwide, providing delivery of pre-portioned, ready-to-cook ingredients right at your doorstep. By subscribing to the service, indicating your preferences, amount of household members, allergies and dietary restrictions, meal kit companies send out customised boxes of fresh produce and recipe cards weekly.
Sounds convenient? Well, there are numerous reasons why meal kits have seen such a rise in popularity. Customers get to skip that mundane trip to the grocery store - in the busyness of everyday life planning meals and buying groceries is sometimes a hassle. In hopes of avoiding the trouble, it often leads to that quick fix for satisfying your hunger - ordering fast food. With a meal kit delivered right to your house, not only does it resolve the “what's for dinner” question, but also teaches healthier and simpler recipes that are easy to make, no matter your cooking skill. In fact, meal kit companies mostly cater to those less familiar with the art of cooking. Subscribers of meal kit services not only get to learn the ins and outs of cooking and try dishes that they have not tried before, but also using the service cuts down on cooking time and makes up for easier decision making when it comes to food.
Yet the most environmentally remarkable outcome of popularising these services is their contribution to fighting food waste. In meal kit boxes all ingredients are pre-portioned. That means they only contain precisely as much amount of ingredients as needed for the specific instructions of the recipe that comes along in the box. This works especially well with nuts, seeds, condiments and other additives that usually are sold in larger quantities at the grocery store and wind up sitting on the pantry shelf until their expiration date. Research shows that a meal purchased and prepared from a grocery store selection creates up to 33% more greenhouse gas emissions than using a meal kit . There are two main factors that influence these differences in emissions: the quantities of food waste and the supply chain structure. U.S Department of Agriculture study estimates that the manufacturing of meal kits produce quite low rates of waste as well, most of the waste being generated due to product spoilage .
A Success Story
Founded in Berlin in 2011 HelloFresh takes the crown of the absolute top most used meal kit service with a whopping 6 billion Euro revenue worldwide . Their most competitive contender American company Blue Apron gathered a revenue of nearly 500 million U.S Dollars in the year of 2021. Since then the field of meal kit services has expanded immensely. During the pandemic, the idea of meal kits caught on . Ordering groceries to your residence became a good alternative for visiting the stores at a time when it was advised to stay home. Since meal kit services gained this large exposure, customers are now able to choose between the many options and find the one that caters to their needs the most. New companies have surfaced, offering deals based on your individual selection, ranging from vegetarian and vegan meal plans to keto, gluten-free, lactose free and low calorie options.
Another significant factor in the meal kit era that we cannot overlook is their marketing strategy, especially that of HelloFresh. For a few years now HelloFresh has relied heavily on influencer marketing . By sponsoring influencers' posts and videos and offering a promo code, prospective consumers can confirm the service's authenticity and are motivated to sign up for it. Since then, more and more people have grown familiar with the concept of meal kits.
The Good and The Bad
The main criticisms that meal kit services have received are to do with packaging. While plastic pollution continues to be one of the most pressing environmental issues, meal kits are not exempt from playing a part in it. The meal kit is delivered in a cardboard box for storage, padded for safety, and the pre-portioned ingredients inside are separately packaged for preservation. Plus, there are recipe cards. To keep produce fresh, cooling materials, such as dry ice or frozen gel packets, come along inside the boxes . Meal kits that deliver cooked frozen foods require cooling materials to be packed in a shipping box that will not be damaged by condensation . The materials with gel compounds are not reusable and ought to be disposed of safely due to the chemicals they contain. Also, if the meal kit carries beverages, the customary solution for steering clear of spillage in the box is to deliver them in plastic bottles.
Luckily, some meal kit companies have tackled these challenges and adopted greener alternatives for their packaging. For example, some companies have started using regular ice packs made from water. These can be emptied and reused. And companies have started swapping the non-recyclable plastic bottles for reusable ones. Other companies have even opted for compostable containers.
But of course, not only the wrapping is of importance when we choose meals, but also the contents of them. For instance, Sunbasket, San Francisco-based meal kit company, stands out by their focus on organic and sustainable ingredient sourcing. Almost all of their dairy products are certified organic by USDA. On top of that, their meats are antibiotic and hormone-free. This is to demonstrate how with produce sourcing and food delivery there are many leeways to make more environmentally conscious decisions. Even then, research shows that the rates of how meal kit services reduce household food waste outweigh their packaging problem.
The Future of Meal Kits?
The meal kit industry will only continue to advance. It is anticipated that this service market will increase more than threefold by 2030. And thus far, we can already conclude that meal kits have revolutionised the way we think of grocery shopping and meal preparation. Pre-packaged meals are not solely a delivery service anymore. The trend has found its way into our regular grocery stores. In 2019 the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn introduced pre-cut “fresh packs” for five different healthy meals . These packs serve the purpose of simplifying healthy, vegetable meals that save time and effort. This is just one example of how the meal kit model continues to evolve. Supermarkets worldwide have begun launching pre-portioned packs with recipes that encourage bringing vegetables in people's diets, at the same time minimising the amount of unused ingredients being wasted. So, we can only speculate that we might see more of pre-portioned, pre-cut meals sneaking their way into our daily habits.
Author: Liva Puka
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Comparison of Life Cycle Environmental Impacts from Meal Kits and Grocery Store Meals | Resources, Conservation and Recycling
Do Meal Kits Reduce Food Waste? An Interview with Dr. Brenna Ellison | USDA
Size of Meal Kit Service Market Worldwide from 2021 to 2030 | Statista
The Case of Meal Kits: Environment's Friend or Foe | EcoWatch
How Meal Kit Services are Dealing with Packaging Waste | The Momentum