Are Meal Kits the Solution to Dinner Plans? Probably Not
Pre-measured meal kits are gaining popularity. But are these meal kits really the miraculous cook-at-home solution that we need? Let’s look at some of the serious problems with meal kits.
I’ve always looked upon these meal kit deliveries with a health dose of skepticism, both from an environmental and food standpoint. To be fair, I spent a good portion of my working life dealing with food: working at a deli, a bakery, a farm, and eventually teaching cooking classes, so I don’t think I am exactly the target market for these meal delivery kits.
One thing I do like about meal kits is that they get the cooking-averse into the kitchen. Whether it’s for folks who don’t like cooking, those who don’t have time for cooking, or those that think they don’t have the skills to prepare a proper meal, a pre-planned, pre-measured meal kit seems like a great way to start preparing more wholesome foods at home. But there are a few downsides.
Are meal kits healthy?
Many of the the top-selling meal kits focus on meat-based dishes. Studies repeatedly link meat consumption to heart disease, diabetes, and an array of other lifestyle diseases. Some meal kit companies do offer vegetarian and even some vegan options, but most of the brands– Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh– tend toward the high-end animal food spectrum.
The exception, of course, is Purple Carrot, the vegan meal kit that famed author/activist Mark Bittman joined earlier this year. Ok, so maybe meal kits are a good solution for omnivores. But, there is another problem.
Of course, if you are swapping fast food take-out for a meal kit dinner, chances are you are trading up, health-wise, but these meat-heavy options still don’t do your health many favors.
What about meal kit waste?
Pre-portioned meal kits address an important food waste issue, since a good portion of our food waste footprint happens at home. Because meal kits come with exactly as much food as you need for a dish, you’re not wasting that last bit of cilantro or letting the potatoes get moldy in the vegetable bin. Since the meal prep is centralized at the company, the food waste is often diverted from landfills into composting facilities.
The at-home food waste component of meal kits comes in when you don’t end up making all of the meals in your box. That’s not uncommon, since these meal kits are marketed to people who don’t cook at home already.
The perfect portions in meal kits create waste of another sort, however. All of those chopped veggies, cuts of meats, and sprigs of herbs come individually wrapped, often in disposable plastic. Jill Moorehead at The Kitchn points out that each clove of garlic and each slice of vegetable comes in it’s own plastic baggie.
In a more scathing review, Ellen Cushing painstakingly photographed her three-meal plan from Blue Apron delivery, and – if you’re an eco-nerd like most of us around here– the results are pretty terrifying.
Customer Problems with Meal Kits
It turns out that meal kits are flopping in OTHER ways too.
A few recent reports have shown that while the idea of these meal kits is appealing to consumers, and there are tons of new signups for their plans, the kits don’t have the appeal to stick around very long.
Mother Jones reports that 90% of customers drop out within six months, which is a pretty huge churn rate. Tom Philpott writes that these meal delivery companies, “are expected to generate $1.5 billion in sales in 2016. Investors gobble them up, too—meal-kit startups have drawn $650 million in venture capital over the industry’s short life span.”
Some new research from the research firm 1010data found that, “only half of Blue Apron customers stick around after the first week of service, and only 10 percent are still subscribing within six months of starting. Similarly high drop rates prevail for high-profile Blue Apron rivals HelloFresh and Plated.”
Philpott postulates that customers sign up enticed by free meals (currently Blue Apron is giving you three meals free!), but are then are choosing another meal kit option that offers similar deals.
My guess is that while these meal plans seem like they are going to make cooking and dinner prep so much easier, but the time spent choosing the meals, waiting for delivery, and the actual cook time just might not be worth it. Hopefully these meal kit folks are turning people on to the joy of homemade cooking, and they are realizing that they might not need to meal kits at all!
The Human Cost of Meal Kits
Even setting these other concerns about meal kits aside, there is a bigger problem brewing. On October 2, 2016, Buzzfeed released a scathing report about conditions at the Blue Apron packing facility in Richmond, a suburb of San Francisco.
Blue Apron has seen record growth, so the facility workforce expanded quickly to meet demand. This high-speed growth is creating tensions between staff members, and between staff and management.
Tensions are high. Police buzzing about the facility, shooting threats, bitter cold, and rushed working conditions are maxing out a “rapidly [hired] massive unskilled workforce.” Buzzfeed reports that OSHA found, “nine violations and proposed penalties totaling $11,695 for unsafe conditions that put workers at risk for fractured bones, chemical burns, and more” as a follow on for another forklift violation earlier in the year.
Whether this is indicative of the meal kit industry has a whole has yet to be seen. Blue Apron is the leading company in this fast growing field, and it makes sense that they are leading in sales and also in company issues.
But really, it’s not really surprising. We’ve long known that food service workers have generally terrible working conditions. The food that we eat has been farmed, hauled, processed, and often cooked by other people working in often terrible conditions. The food industry is rife with stories of servers that are underpaid, slaughterhouse workers that toil undocumented in dangerous, soul-crushing jobs, or farmworkers laboring in inhumane conditions.
The problems with meal kits are really just another manifestation of an entire food system that is broken. There is no ‘disruption’ happening here. Meal kit startups are relying on the same system that keeps companies like McDonald’s and Nestle in business, and this is where the real disruption needs to happen.