It’s a scary and exciting time for meal kits.
As every other kind of commerce moves online, food and grocery have likewise been migrating in a digital direction – and why not? Consumers can buy shoes, books, coffee pots, linens and dog toys online, so why are they still going to the grocery store for the same dozen eggs and gallon of milk they buy every week?
Many are embracing the convenience of having grocery staples delivered to their home, in some cases including fully constructed meal kits that save them the trouble of finding a recipe, shopping for ingredients, and prepping the meal.
Yet many are also questioning the sustainability of the meal kit model – and not just environmentally speaking, but business-wise. In fact, the two may be more closely intertwined than meal kit megaliths would like to admit. Boston-based meal kit company Just Add Cooking aims to address both by sourcing its kits from farms and businesses in the New England region.
“Meal kits are hard on a good day – and nearly impossible on a bad one,” said Amanda Mayo, Chief Gastronomic Officer for Just Add Cooking. “We know the pitfalls that national competitors have run into. Shipping 20 pounds of gel ice packs isn’t sustainable.”
There are a number of reasons for that, said Mayo. It’s expensive and wastes fuel to ship such a heavy package. Then, customers are stuck with a growing collection of these gel packs in their freezers, because they can’t be dumped down the sink or safely thrown away. Mayo said it can actually lose those brands customers because the business is not thinking about the food system as a whole.
Today, “People are really starting to question where their food comes from,” said Mayo. Therefore, a sustainable business in the meal kit space must not only make life easier for subscribers, but also answer the growing consumer demand for locally sourced food and supply chain transparency.
“People don’t want to cook every day, but they’re also realizing that the stuff in the frozen food aisle isn’t what you should be eating every day, and takeout gets expensive,” said Mayo.
That’s why local markets are one of the fastest-growing food segments in the U.S., she said — though local food can still be difficult to get. Boston is right on the ocean and ships its seafood worldwide because it’s so good, said Mayo, yet there are only a few fishmongers selling it in the city, so if the locals want to eat any, they’re going to have to work for it.
Aye, that’s the rub. Who has time to hunt down fresh ingredients — and, once acquired, who has time to cook them?
“People really, really hate cooking,” said Mayo. “Even me — I used to like cooking, but then I had two kids. Meal kits are here to stay.”
And if that’s the case, Mayo said, then it’s important to do it right, and that means doing it sustainably.
In practice, that means that the week’s recipes may change based on what produce is available. There may be a problem with sourcing something. Or maybe Just Add Cooking is trying to reduce food waste, as is the case when the company takes cauliflower stems that would have gone in the trash and turns them into rice for a recipe.
Mayo said that both customers and vendors have to be flexible and committed to a sustainable local food system more than they are married to their own meal plans. Luckily, that’s exactly what many consumers seem to want.
Sourcing locally also makes it easy to trace problems back to the source and engenders trust in the products, said Mayo.
“The people who produce it are eating it; they’re living in my community,” said Mayo. “If my kid goes to school with the fish monger’s kid, and I know that he’s giving that fish to his kid, then it must be OK for my kid, too.”
Mayo said that Just Add Cooking is currently finishing up a seed funding round and is looking to start a Series A round to take the model to new markets. The company just celebrated its five-year anniversary.