There may be just a little less to fret about when choosing to order a meal kit for the week instead of taking that trip to your local grocer — it turns out there is actually some truth to the sustainability claims meal kit services make. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan published today, meals made from a meal kit service (Blue Apron, in this case, which did not sponsor the study) had a much lower overall carbon footprint than the same meals prepared from a grocery run.
Now this isn’t due to something particularly special on the part of Blue Apron or companies like it. Rather, it’s the streamlined supply chain and direct-to-customer delivery — getting food directly to homes and saving the driving involved in making a second stop at stores. When looking at the entire system behind getting that bowl of ragù on the table, the step with the greatest environmental impact is sourcing the produce or meat, but storing food, displaying it so shoppers can browse at their leisure, and then throwing it out when it doesn’t get bought actually makes grocery shopping, as a concept, fairly expensive.
While meal kits often do involve more packaging waste, when researchers considered this factor alongside food waste and supply-chain structure, they still found meal kit services to be less impactful than going grocery shopping. Ultimately, buying food that will remain unused and eventually be thrown out at the end of the week, either by stores or customers, outweighed aspects like the environmental impact of the boxes it took to get the ingredients for your pesto rice bowl to your door (of course, if you never bother to cook your meal kit, this advantage disappears).
An earlier study by the University of Washington in 2013 found that ordering groceries online caused fewer emissions from transportation in comparison to a grocery run. Meal kit study expands upon the conclusions arrived by the researchers at the University of Washington in that it further shows how unsustainable some of our most basic activities actually are.
What does “grocery shopping” look like in the future, if we want to be as environmentally conscious as possible? On the surface, this feels like extremely welcome permission to just lie back on the couch and order up FreshDirect any time we run out of food. These studies suggest the ability to peruse food at a store (choosing your own bananas, or meats, if we even continue to have meat) could actually become a kind of luxury. If, like me, you’ve ever had your groceries delivered only to find that the produce picked for you isn't up to your usual standard, you know how this could go sideways.
This latest study doesn’t appear to contend with the idea of savvy bulk buying — i.e., buying a correctly-sized bottle of vinegar one will get many uses out of versus the individually packaged thimbles that come with meal kits. Still, it’s worthwhile to reconsider the ingrained supply chains and systems we use for something as basic and essential as food, as climate change becomes more pressing.