Other than birth and death, no human activity is more universal than eating. And what can be a better indicator of lifestyle changes than how and what people eat. What do these trends tell us about our needs, desires, frustrations and aspirations?
As the title of my column suggests, I like to look at the new social trends that impact our lives, sometimes in obvious ways, but frequently in ways that are not so apparent. If you want to understand the times you live in, look at the trends that come and go and ask yourself some questions. What lifestyle condition makes them attractive? Why do some trends endure and become a part of our social fabric while others fizzle out after six months or a year? What do these trends tell us about our needs, desires, frustrations and aspirations?
Other than birth and death, no human activity is more universal than eating. And what can be a better indicator of lifestyle changes than how and what people eat? I’m not exaggerating when I say that understanding food consumption trends is fundamental to understanding the well-being of ourselves and our planet.
In my last article I wrote about the slow food movement, its growth into the slow life movement and how it reflects a philosophy of life that is in opposition–or perhaps in reaction to—the frenzy of our lives today. As a symptom of this hectic pace, in recent decades fast food has become synonymous with the quintessential “American lifestyle” and has by extension, come to define the “Westernization” of the post-globalized world. Worse, fast food and the American lifestyle are seen, and justifiably so, as the narrow end of the wedge that pushes into a traditional society and opens it up to “Westernization” and all the ills–medical and social– it brings in its wake. Fast food has become the symbol of a sick society that no longer knows how to live in harmony with itself and with nature. On the personal level fast food is blamed for widespread obesity, heart disease and diabetes; on the environmental level for its outrageously excessive packaging that is chocking our planet.
There are two other trends (or should I say fads?) that are worth investigating. One is the meal kit delivery service industry and the other is the restaurant take-out delivery services such as Grub-hub. Today we will look at the meal kit model and in the next article we will examine the restaurant take-out industry and the mystery of the “dark kitchen.”
A meal kit subscription service sends customers pre-measured, already prepped (ie diced, sliced, julienned, etc.) ingredients, along with the recipe and instructions on how to cook the meal. Yes, you will still have to do the cooking. As a concept it started in Sweden but it quickly spread to several other Northern European countries. In the U.S. Blue Apron, HelloFresh (which was already operating in Europe), and Plated entered the competition and quickly took off, spawning innumerable imitators. What started out as a trickle has now become a deluge. Today even Wal-Mart offers this subscription service.
Why do people find such a service attractive? The reason most frequently cited has to do with time: the time that you, the super-busy person, will save in shopping for groceries. But I wonder will you not need to go to the market for any other supplies? Milk? Bread? Cereal? Toilet paper?
There are other reasons that feature prominently in advertising. These include adding more varied and unfamiliar choices to the usual repertoire of dinners. Instead of relying on the same old eight or nine dishes that most of us prepare on a regular basis, you can explore cuisines and recipes that have been unfamiliar to you and your family. Or that, “No math skills required” as Plated claims, because the ingredients are pre-measured. It’s not surprising that the skill of measuring out a half cup or two tablespoons should have become intimidating in a nation where numerical literacy is at an all-time low. But should we encourage this downward slide? What’s more, HelloFresh ads ask you, “When is the last time you finished a container of saffron or cumin, or used an entire bunch of cilantro?” to claim its service saves you money. Minimal clean-up also sounds like a selling point, and finally, the “descriptive instructions make it easy to master techniques that you might not have tackled before” and this is promoted as being educational.
The objections to these spurious claims are obvious. Any cook, even the rawest beginner, can see that they are insubstantial. For one thing you still have to follow a recipe, whether it’s the one they send you or the one you found yourself; washing one less pot won’t make your clean up that much easier, and when you consider that each serving of that meal in the kit will cost you about nine dollars, ($8.99 at Blue Apron) you can see that buying one 2 ounce bottle of cumin at $2.99 that will last for a year doesn’t offset that high price of each serving.
However, apparently while this marketing approach may work well to hook a consumer, especially the fun that they promise you, a recent survey from Market Force Information revealed that due to a number of reasons, the retention rate of these customers is. 57.1% of respondents cited the price point as being too high and the portion size as being too small. In short, customers are not getting value for money. he second most cited reason was that they didn’t like the recipes. One critic even complained that she finds the instructios insultingly condescending.
If we stop to consider the environmental impact of the industry, we see that it has come under serious criticism principally for two reasons. The first is the difficulty of recycling the freezer gel packs included with the kits whose purpose is to keep the perishables fresh while in transit. The active ingredient in many gel packs is sodium polyacrylate, the same polymer in adult and baby diapers. This is a non-toxic powder that can stay cold when saturated with water and frozen, absorb hundreds of times its own weight in water, expand accordingly, and is practically indestructible when it enters landfills or the ocean. And the second is the incredible amount of packaging that each meal kit comprises. At a time when even McDonald’s and other fast-food companies are trying to become more environmentally responsible and “green,” meal kits come in a veritable nesting doll of boxes and gel packs of all sizes. This is ironic, considering that the largest segment of subscribers are millennials who, as a demographic group, are also the strongest supporters of “going green” and reducing their carbon footprint. Vegans especially are concerned about this waste and after considering the claims made by the companies for their recycling efforts have concluded that there is in fact no way to get around the problem.
According to The Motley Fool as a business model the meal kit sector is unsustainable, suggesting that its decline will be inevitable, it “seems a lot like the dot.com boom and bust of the late 1990s”.
Already a host of companies that had jumped into the fray, such as ChefD, have folded. It will remain to be seen whether the trend, with all its commercial, marketing and environmental drawbacks, survives.