*Some of this work’s landscape has changed, including Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market, which I comment on below.
In 2016 my life quickly became more complicated when my husband was deployed with the Army National Guard to the war in Afghanistan. I was a parent in graduate school with a long commute from studio to home, and we ate a lot of Whole Foods hot bar that year—way too much—but thankfully we could. I’d been getting a lot of flyers from a meal kit delivery service. Their branding said things like: ‘We’re trying to build a more sustainable food system.’ I was skeptical. I had seen their packaging in online reviews. But frankly, I was also desperate to feel better about my family’s dinners. So, as any nerd would do when the data does not yet exist and the opportunity presents itself, I conducted:
A comprehensive literature review helped me understand the two systems, through a whole life-cycle approach (LCA) and identify opportunities for design.
“An LCA provides a systems-based accounting of material and energy inputs and outputs at all stages of the life-cycle: acquisition of raw materials, production, processing, packaging, use and retirement.” (1)
I learned that indeed delivery services have the potential to improve our food system’s longterm sustainability, and this service wasn’t. So I asked:
“How might we design a service that reduces the barriers to cooking healthy, high-quality food at home, with the smallest environmental footprint?”
*Based on market data indicating the top consumers of meal kit delivery services are < 44 year-old urban singles with incomes > $100K, and dual-income families within these categories (captions not visible on mobile site)
Food traveling greater distances to the consumer increases its environmental impact through air, soil, and noise pollution, contributing to an overall loss of biodiversity. Food miles are reduced by sourcing from local growers and farmers (2, 3), and potentially through optimized delivery services that serve clusters of neighborhoods with trucks filled to the capacity.
Food waste is one of the greatest contributors to overall environmental impact and green house gas emissions through its over production and loss. Loss occurs at every level of the distribution process due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation. “It’s estimated that 30-50% of all food produced never reaches the human stomach.” (4) *At the same time, over 42 million Americans in 2015 didn’t have enough food—thats about 1 in every 8 people—including 13 million kids who went hungry.* Reducing steps in the process of distributing food and pre-portioning ingredients are ways to reduce the need to grow, purchase, store, and consume excess food. (5)
Studies have shown that organic foods have higher nutritional content and typically use more sustainable practices than conventionally or industrially farmed foods. (6,7) Organic ingredients contribute to an overall healthier meal and a healthier, more sustainable food system.
This feature can suggest weekly in-season recipes using local organic ingredients sold in-store. It suggests additional recipes using ingredients in-common, generates an interactive shopping list, and provides information about how to prep, cook, and store extra ingredients. It can be integrated into the existing WFM app and eliminates the need to plan meals and lists in advance of a store visit.
Consumers ordering meal kits alone make a separate trip to the store for additional groceries. This means meal kit deliveries are increasing overall vehicle emissions, noise pollution, congestion, and infrastructure wear through duplicated transit. WFM can offer meal kits in-store using local and organic ingredients. This eliminates extra trips while making it easier to prepare a pre-planned meal.
This concept reduces overall food miles by activating existing grocery store networks that already support local and organic producers. WFM has a network of 462 retail stores sourcing local and organic products across the U.S. (in 2016). These stores and their distribution centers can act as neighborhood hubs—enabling optimized fleet delivery of meal kits and groceries by neighborhood, reducing both food miles and vehicle emissions while reducing the barriers to cooking healthy meals at home.
Whole Foods Market was chosen for this side-by-side analysis because it shares the same consumer demographics and sells high quality local and organic foods at similar price-points to the meal kit delivery service.
Comparing the two systems helped me identify their strengths and weaknesses and to ultimately imagine how those strengths could work together to create a more sustainable system that meets the consumer demand.
As mentioned, this study was conducted in November of 2016, a short time before Amazon acquired WFM in August of 2017. The partnership has opened opportunities to test some of the concepts above—including the Amazon Meal Kit, which arrived in late 2017 and most recently in their introduction to WFM stores in the Spring of 2019.
Complete list available on request.
(1) Heller and Keoleian. Assessing the Sustainability of the US Food System: A Life-cycle Perspective. Agricultural Systems 76, no 3. (2003)
(2) Environmental Engineering; Grocery Delivery Service is Greener than Driving to the Store. Journal of Ecology, Environment, & Conservation, 192. (2013)
(3) Van Passel. Food Miles to Assess Sustainability: A Revision. Journal of Sustainable Development 21 no. 1. (2013)
(4) Lehman. The Garbage Project Revisited: From a 20th Century Archeology of Food Waste to a Contemporary Study of Food Packaging Waste. Journal: Sustainability 7, no. 6, p6994-7010. (2015)
(5) Williams and Wikstrom. Environmental Impact of Packaging and Food Losses in a Life Cycle Perspective: A Comparative Analysis of Five Food Items. Journal of Cleaner Production 19 no. 1, p43-48. (2011)
(6) Benbrook and Mccullum-Gomez. Organic vs Conventional Farming. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109(5), p809-811. (2009)
(7) Siikavirta et al. Effects of E-commerce on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Case Study of Grocery Home Delivery in Finland. Journal of Industrial Ecology 6, no. 2, p83-97. (2002)