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Delivering to the Desert: Meal Kits and Food Insecurity

For the busy American household with disposable income, the delivery meal kit is a dream come true. It arrives at your doorstep in an insulated box that has mysteriously kept the produce and meat refrigerated, even though you remember it shipping from a few states over. Inside are saturated, glossy cards walking you through recipes promised to be equally delicious and easy to make. Ingredients are pre-measured (this will decrease food waste, meal kit companies pledge), and the packaging is sustainable, so no guilt for the environmentally-conscious consumer. 

For others, the distance to fresh produce and nutritious ingredients is much further than a few steps to their front door. To get to the closest supermarket, you have to take a bus ride or two at rush hour after work. When you get there, the prices of fresh foods are hiked so high that you remember why fast-food is the far more reasonable option. There’s an opportunity cost to be healthy, and this just isn’t worth it. 

At first blush, these snapshots show opposite ends of the food consumption experience in the United States — a picture of acute economic inequality told through the lens of food accessibility. They both illustrate the influence of convenience and choice on what gets to your table. And while these two stories appear to exist in entirely different realities, they may not be as irreconcilable as they seem. The meal kit delivery industry could effectively improve not only the supply issue that hinders access to nutritional food but also the demand issue, forging an innovative business model that might just be part of the solution to tackling food insecurity in the US.

The second story is a quintessential picture of what’s known as a food desert. The US Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a place where over a third of the population lives at least one mile away from a supermarket in urban areas and at least ten miles away in rural areas. Under this definition, an estimated 19 million Americans live in a food desert. This geography is also racial: The presence of food deserts often overlaps with Black- and Hispanic-concentrated neighborhoods. The correlate term “food swamps,” now common parlance in public health circles, refers to an area with a high concentration of unhealthy, pre-packaged, and artificial food options — think fast food or frozen dollar-store dinners.

Food deserts have long been associated with higher rates of a host of health conditions like obesity and heart disease. In this narrative, food consumption is seen as an access problem: either the healthy food is just too far away or, even if nearby, it’s too expensive. However, the economic literature suggests that this supply argument only partially explains health behaviors in low-income communities. A 2018 paper from researchers at NYU and Stanford found that equalizing food access across the income distribution would only reduce nutritional inequality by 10 percent. The authors point to education, knowledge about nutrition, and regional food preferences as more important factors. Other studies have similarly found that nutritious food consumption doesn’t change significantly even after grocery stores open in poor neighborhoods. This suggests that traditional supply-side policy responses to food deserts, like subsidizing supermarket relocation, might not be as effective as previously thought. 

Enter meal kit subscriptions, a booming industry expected to grow from a market value of 4.65 billion dollars in 2017 to 11.6 billion dollars by 2022. There are currently at least 20 meal kit brands on the market, and they run the gamut from organic to luxury to comfort family-style. Among these, two companies continue to dominate: Blue Apron and HelloFresh, which together capture nearly 70 percent of the market. Unsurprisingly, with restaurants taking a massive hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the meal delivery industry experienced a boost. Blue Apron, for example, saw a 27 percent increase in demand by the end of March 2020. These meal kit services are undeniably appealing: less time spent grocery shopping and meal-prepping, fewer salad mixes that will inevitably go bad before they’re ever opened, and less incentive to turn to fast-food or takeout options when in a pinch. Most meal kit brands now also include the culturally obligatory gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, and Keto options. But these perks come with a steep cost: a box with six servings can go for over 80 dollars, easily coming out to around 13 dollars a meal. Brands justify these high prices by spotlighting gourmet, organic, GMO-free ingredients, but 20 to 30 percent of this price is actually accounted for by shipping. Procuring and delivering raw meat and fresh produce to front doors, often cross-country, is a logistical nightmare — the kind of supply-chain apparatus only companies like Amazon seem to be able to wrangle. 

So, could meal kits actually address nutritional inequality at a national level? One company, Eat Well Meal Kits, is optimistic about this future. Founded in 2017 by students at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Eat Well offers a SNAP benefit-authorized 15 dollar box meal kit for a family of four. Its recipes are curated by a two Michelin star chef and require no more than 30 minutes and one pot to prepare. By keeping prices low, Eat Well is certainly cutting through the supply problem. Moreover, while Eat Well opts for direct pick-up instead of delivery, they make it convenient to grab a box with stands in local YMCAs, health centers, and housing communities. Perhaps more importantly, Eat Well has successfully addressed the demand problem — and the solution is fairly straightforward. Eat Well describes its recipes as “easy to follow, kid-friendly, and community informed, incorporating local preferences into nutritionally balanced meals…” This approach is consistent with the growing body of research that points to preferences, perceptions, and knowledge about food as overlooked determinants of consumption behaviors. Eat Well’s philosophy of centering the community’s feedback is a fairly low-cost way to focus on the underlying barriers to healthy consumption in food deserts. While sourcing community feedback may be a challenge if this model were scaled up, it is an indispensable undertaking. 

For now, Eat Well operates only in the greater Boston area, but similarly innovative models of meal kits have cropped up around the country. This mini-boom has resulted in the creation of some unexpected cross-sector partnerships. The foodQ service, for example, is a project by the Health Care Service Corporation and Blue Cross Blue Shield, an insurance agency, in collaboration with Chicago- and Dallas-area meal delivery services Kitchfix and Front Porch Pantry. A self-declared effort to study the social determinants of health, foodQ uses ZIP codes to determine customers’ eligibility for the service. Qualifying households can order online and get meal kits delivered for a modest 10 dollars a month with free delivery and buy-one-get-one deals. These localized approaches could minimize the unaffordable shipping-related costs and make the meal kit subscription model more easily scalable. Companies like Eat Well have also expressed interest in opening kitchens close to customers, which could offer employment opportunities within target communities. Given the potential for cross-sector collaboration and the experience of private companies in minimizing supply chain costs, the government should encourage but not oversee this implementation. One way they can do this is by allowing families to use SNAP benefits on these meal kits, which is a hallmark of the Eat Well model.

If companies are able to find ways to economize shipping and offer more affordable options to low-income consumers, the meal kit industry could play an increasingly important role in addressing the massive issue that is food insecurity in the US. Granted, this isn’t a substitute for good public policy, which must include reevaluating poverty thresholds, improving nutritional assistance programs, and promoting positive health behaviors. But by addressing both supply and often overlooked demand, meal kits are a promising model for combatting nutritional inequality that we shouldn’t take off the table — both figuratively and literally. 

Image: Original Illustration by Jinghong Chen