The coronavirus pandemic has been with us a while now. The first death in the U.S. was recorded 6 months ago in Washington State. Unfortunately, the end is not yet in sight. As a country, we’ve made many adjustments in the way we live, including the way we eat. With the lock-downs, and subsequent gradual reopenings, restaurant dining is significantly down everywhere. An obvious outgrowth of this is a substantial increase in take-out food and/or food delivery.
A fair question is what has been the environmental impact in the way we’re getting our food. Are delivery services more environmentally friendly than individuals going shopping? Turns out the answer depends on many complex factors – so the answer is maybe/maybe not. For example, what is the distance the food is delivered? A delivery truck making many deliveries can drive fewer cumulative miles than numerous individuals driving to the store or restaurant. How efficient are the vehicle(s) involved? An electric vehicle recharged with renewable energy is much better for the environment than lots of gas guzzlers making the trips.
Another question involves the packaging associated with the food deliveries. Is a lot of plastic involved, and if so, is it easily recyclable? Is the packaging compostable, like cardboard or bamboo?
These are not new questions – they were with us before the pandemic. But the pandemic, and the associated increase in take-out and food delivery, has made these questions more important to think about as we’re planning our meals.
One meal option that has evolved over the past several years is the “meal kit”. Blue Apron is a leader in this industry, delivering millions of meals nationwide every week. Blue Apron actually provides an ingredient and recipe meal kit. Customers select from various meal plan options (e.g., number of meals per week) and make meal choices from many selections. For example, a customer could order three specific meals one week and, when their order arrives, it would include the pre-measured ingredients and recipe instructions for making each meal. The process continues weekly with an ever-changing selection of menu options and of course, you can suspend service when you’ll be away. Blue Apron, and similar services from other companies, provide convenience and variety, and in many cases, expands the expertise of both novice and experienced cooks.
Critics of companies like Blue Apron have voiced several criticisms. The first involves the packaging. Each meal has pre-measured ingredients, typically packaged in plastic. For example, if a recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of flour, then you’ll find a plastic pouch labeled “3 T Flour”. Convenient; no measuring; and if you have no flour in your house, you need not buy a 2-pound bag. But really, that’s a lot of plastic packaging for 3 T flour. Of course, for other ingredients that are not as common as flour, say Ground Chipotle Chile, it’s good to not have to buy a whole jar just for one or two teaspoons if it’s not something you typically cook with. At the end of every meal (and the meals are good) you end up with plastic that may, or may not ultimately be recycled.
A second criticism involves logistics. Because Blue Apron provides nationwide service, it distributes its meals through several very large distribution centers. Because of this, it is likely that each of the ingredients in your meal kit has traveled quite a way before arriving at your home.
But, environmentally, it turns out there’s more to the question regarding meal kits. A 2019 study, conducted by researchers at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, found that meal-prep kits are environmentally better than a trip to the store. The study concluded that, while meal-prep kits do “…involve more packaging waste, the emissions for grocery store meals carried two kilograms more of carbon dioxide per meal than those of the meal-prep kits.”
The researchers took a look at the bigger picture, including the supply chain and waste, analyzing the steps stores take in sourcing their food on their shelves. But more significant was the amount of food waste that exists. The USDA estimates 30%-40% of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. Some food spoils or damaged before it is sold, but much is discarded by consumers who buy too much and discard the extra. In addition to the wasteful environmental impact of growing more food than is used, is the downstream impact of discarded food in landfills giving off harmful emissions.
By comparison, meal-prep kits like Blue Apron provide pre-portioned ingredients, hence few if any leftovers. So, like many environmental questions, there is often no simple answer. But we can gain insights and improve the way we contribute to the environment by making better choices. For example, we can use a service like Blue Apron to find and try new foods without the risk of overbuying “exotic” ingredients. When we’re satisfied that we’ve enjoyed enough experimenting, we can re-create any of the Blue Apron meals without their service by simply reusing their recipes. We can buy that 2-pound bag of flour, knowing it won’t go bad. We can also employ common sense, environmentally sound purchasing decisions, like sourcing our food from as many local vendors as possible (e.g., farmers markets), thereby reducing overall transportation costs as well as providing business to our local community farmers. We can also buy sensibly – namely, buy only what we know we’ll consume before it spoils. And we can reduce waste by only preparing what we know we’ll eat.
I’ll admit, I have a hard time not making extra food, just in case I might want an extra helping. Terrible Idea! I’m often reminded “we can always make more”. Good Advice!
One last thought. There’s another company, Raddish Kids, that offers a subscription service for kids that teaches them, hands-on, how to cook. Each month a kit is delivered with recipes and instructions, and a quality kitchen tool. No ingredients are included, but there is a grocery list. The recipes are themed, e.g., from a particular country, so the experience is educational as well as a great opportunity to learn culinary skills. These are great skills for kids to learn, especially when they can enjoy the experience with their parents, siblings and friends. Parents just might learn something too.
These meal delivery services measure up well when compared to traditional grocery shopping. So, regardless of how we get our food, finding ways to reduce waste will be one of the most important things we can do for the environment.