I've never heard my mother so excited about cooking as she was the day her first GreenChef box came. Considering how busy she is, dinner was always an afterthought, a rotation of simple dishes that wouldn't leave her laboring for hours. Enter GreenChef, then HelloFresh, then soon — now that they're delivering to Kansas — the granddaddy of them all, Blue Apron. She's a walking, talking referral service. ("Have you tried GreenChef?" she asked me the other night while pressing send on a coupon for a free week. "I really love it.")
My 62-year-old mother isn't alone. Blue Apron and its lookalike competitors — all offering a few meals per week delivered to your door, ingredients perfectly portioned and recipes provided, with prices starting around $60 a week — have proliferated across the country, snapping up subscribers who sign up online and schedule (or skip) their deliveries weeks in advance based on their interest in the pre-planned menus. In a recent New York Business Journal interview, Blue Apron CEO Matt Salzberg claimed the market has tripled in the last six months alone, and the company is still growing "really, really fast." Last November, the company was sending out one million meals a month; barely six months later, that number has tripled, and investors have taken notice: On June 9, the company closed a $135 million investment round, putting its valuation at about $2 billion.
An emotional interaction with food is "the secret sauce to educating people about food and biodiversity."
Blue Apron is another reinvention of the CSA model — in which subscribers commit to purchasing a "share" of a farmer's seasonal crop, with the produce then distributed throughout the year. Instead, Blue Apron provides a lifestyle upgrade, granting subscribers access to well-balanced meals without the stress of meal planning. It's the joy of cooking distilled to its essence: Chop the provided ingredients, combine as directed, and enjoy your basically-homemade meal. But simplicity comes at a cost. When produce comes in a box, experts worry consumers are losing their understanding of the food chain, instead buying into a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. Are services like Blue Apron the future of home-cooked food — or are they a mindless extravagance for wealthy Americans?
It makes sense that consumers' thirst for efficiency would eventually enter the healthy food market: While the market for locally-grown, organic produce has been booming, figuring out how to use them can be tricky, especially if you're not used to scheduling your meals in advance, supplanting your planning with knowledge of the local crop cycles, or enjoying the ability to buy in bulk. CSAs offer some respite from this pressure, providing members with in-season crops from nearby farms, but hurdles emerge for even seasoned chefs: How to use all of the food, and what to do when it goes to waste.
According to a 2006 survey (PDF) from the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, 35 percent of departing CSA members claimed that they received "too much produce." Other research indicates that households toss between 12 and 25 percent of purchased food, including more than 50 percent of leafy greens (clearly, no one eats their aspirational salads). Blue Apron built its empire on the idea of reducing food waste: Everything subscribers receive is pre-measured to the precise proportions the recipe requires; no half-heads of lettuce rotting in your fridge to be found.
Food-delivery services also tackle another frequent issue: 12 percent of the CSA survey takers said they "did not know how to prepare the food" contained within their boxes. Blue Apron's packages include detailed directions on how to cook, and under the direction of Blue Apron co-founder and COO Matthew Wadiak, the service, like CSAs, isn't shy about exposing its audience to new veggies: A recent box included ramps; another, apazote. But Wadiak says the key to convincing buyers to actually eat everything is giving them "a safety net and a recipe," he says. "If you can cook with it and interact with it on an emotional level, it changes your perception. It's the secret sauce to educating people about food and biodiversity."
Integrating that locally-grown food into your diet requires paying careful attention to hyper-local seasonality — as well as the growing schedules of nearby farmers. "The idea of planning ahead is a challenge," says Jennifer Goggin, the co-founder of FarmersWeb, an online marketplace designed to connect farmers with services like Blue Apron. (FarmersWeb also works with restaurants, corporate cafeterias, and other buyers of bulk produce.) "If you really do want to get your food from the ground, you have to give your farmer notice," she says. "The convenience factor is a challenge, and it requires planning ahead and a shift of how we, as individuals, look for food."
The plan-ahead model in itself isn't new. "In my lifetime, a lot of people already did this by collaborating together in the neighborhood," says Ken Meter, a food systems analyst with the hyperlocal-focused non-profit Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis. Together, they made the planning decisions for meals that could serve a whole community "without outsourcing to some other place. We need to get back to that home-based sense of real families having smarts about food."
But programs like Blue Apron allow consumers to do both at bulk rates, which can have a positive effect on farms. In 2012, the New York Times declared crop rotation "the future of farming." The process intersperses "heavy feeder" plants — ones that uptake a significant percentage of the soil's nutrients, like the nitrogen-loving brassicaceae family (think cauliflower and cabbage) — with less hungry plants like legumes to restore nutrients, promote soil fertility, and reduce pests. The end result? Less pesticide and fertilizer — and healthier farms.
Blue Apron’s farms currently have 1.1 million pounds of produce in the ground, but critics say it’s "serving a niche audience."
Currently, 31 farmers are working with Blue Apron to create their "ideal crop rotation," Wadiak says. Its team of recipe developers works with farms months in advance, creating a planting schedule that best suits their soil and scheduling the resulting produce into a meal plan. "We allow them to do what they do best," Wadiak says. The company's network of farms have 1.1 million pounds of produce in the ground which, once harvested, will be portioned and shipped out to subscribers alongside the recipes that have been developed for that specific crop. Sustainable farming advocates have long been pushing for crop rotations, but for the most part their recommendations have "never been put into practical use until we put it into scale," Wadiak says. Goggin estimates buying in bulk reduces costs by about 20 percent, in addition to eliminating wasted food.
Combined with the farming advances companies like Blue Apron and FarmersWeb have made, a neighborhood-based model like Meter suggests would be a fantastic way to solve meal-planning on a wider, cross-income scale. But as it is, only those that can afford to spend $60 per week on three meals are served by the model. "They're serving a niche audience and not really taking into consideration people that need access to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables," says Lauren Ornelas, the founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project. Yes, the ability to rotate crops is fantastic — but less so if the only ones benefiting are the well-off.
Blue Apron detractors often point out two areas where meal-delivery services fall short: cost and environmental impact. Despite an outcry about the packaging these boxes use (small plastic bags for three carrots, little plastic containers of soy sauce, cold packs), the clamor is somewhat of a red herring: Everything included is recyclable, if perhaps difficult to do so. Advocates argue that because delivery companies use local farms, they're avoiding a lot of the waste that comes when your tomatoes are flown internationally to your grocery store.
"When things are being flown in from Mexico or somewhere, there's a lot of packaging involved," Goggin says. "Small farms don't use any of that. They deliver the product in wooden bushel boxes. Even if they add packaging, it evens out." Nina Goodrich, executive director of sustainable materials management group GreenBlue, says that Blue Apron probably does provide a fair trade-off. "The footprint of food is usually much bigger than the footprint of packaging," she says. "If the packaging can extend the shelf life even a small amount, it is worth it." Unsurprisingly, Wadiak also agrees — although he does want the company to improve its packaging to be more eco-friendly. "Because we're buying direct, our product comes in crates instead of corrugated boxes. Consumers don't see a lot of the packaging on the early end of the supply chain, which we've completely eliminated," he says.
"You treat vegetables differently when they don’t just show up on your doorstep."
What of learning where our food comes from? For years, it seemed the United States was on an upward track: CSAs and farmers' markets were bringing local produce to the forefront. Citizens were increasingly aware of food origin and grasped the complexities of cooking locally. According to Meter, a weekly mystical box that simply arrives at your home could create a worrying distance between us and our food. "The convenience may mean that people lose track of things like how to choose vegetables or make decisions for themselves," he says. "It's taking the thought process and the risk out of cooking."
"There's a demand for something like Blue Apron, and I'm not opposed to that, but I just don't think it gets us in the direction we're trying to go," Meter continues. "You treat vegetables differently when they don't just show up on your doorstep. There's no sense of the pace and watchfulness required to take it from a seed to a final vegetable." Sure, Blue Apron includes information about its local suppliers and growing processes in the box, throughout its website, and on its savvy Facebook page. But if "these people are so busy they can't go grocery shopping," Ornelas points out, "why would they read the brochure inside the box?"
Meter also worries about putting our own health and nutritional needs into the hands of a one-size-fits-all nationwide solution. Customizing your boxes with Blue Apron is only negligibly possible: The vegan or gluten-free or peanut-allergic are out of luck, at least for the time being, although change may be coming (on its Facebook page, the company responds to the repeated requests for more customization with promises of "soon"). And it's not just about accommodating different diets: Meter believes food should be custom-tailored for your body. Considering Blue Apron's nationwide scale, that's a Herculean demand — but something its subscribers should consider when scheduling meals.
"If you're saying that someone in New York at a computer tells you what food you're going to have for the next six months, are they making the decisions on the basis of your health and your body?" Meter asks. "Or are they making the decisions on where the market provides the cheapest peppers or which trucker came through?"
Either way, I'm not going to cancel my Blue Apron box. My mom certainly won't — it solves too many problems and makes life so easy. But I might take a gardening class.