It was based on a very narrow and wasteful definition of 'normal' shopping behaviors.
When I first heard about the study that found meal kits to be more environmentally-friendly than grocery shopping, I was uncomfortable. Meal kits are the antithesis of so much that I believe in and write about enthusiastically for this website. They feature small portions of ingredients wrapped in non-recyclable plastic that are delivered to people's homes by gas-guzzling trucks. How could that possibly be a good scenario?
After further reading and reflection, I've realized that the grocery-shopping scenario to which meal kits were compared in the study, despite being considered the 'norm' in the United States, is far worse than my personal approach to food, which suggests that I'm light years ahead of both.As Eve Andrews explains in her 'Ask Umbra' column for Grist, the study hinges on a narrow definition of 'normal' behavior on the part of consumers and grocery store operators. There is massive waste occurring on both sides, with supermarkets stocking shelves to appear full, rather than reflect demand, and tossing between 5 and 12 percent of food.
Shoppers aren't much better. Their waste numbers are even higher, throwing out roughly one-fifth of everything purchased – to be precise, "19 percent of fruit, 22 percent of vegetables, 20 percent of dairy, 22 percent of meat, 19 percent of grain products, and a whopping 31 percent of seafood." We have a tendency to get swayed by good deals, overstock our fridges, and overestimate the number of nights we'll actually cook.
By comparison, meal kits are a decent option. They're highly efficient and streamlined because a single company controls production and does not want to lose profits. "As a bonus of all this streamlining, the carbon footprint of a meal kit is relatively easy to model," Andrews writes.
But if any one of these factors changes, the balance shifts. If you support a grocery store that implements better food management practices, that puts out its seconds for sale and puts nearly-expired food on clearance, that sends food to compost instead of landfill, that donates unsold goods to local soup kitchens, then they're already deviating from the norm.
Similarly, if you meal plan carefully, take leftovers to work, leave space in your schedule for 'clean out the fridge' nights, compost uneaten food, walk or bike to buy your groceries, shop at a farmers market without any plastic bags, you've taken it even further.
Andrews cites Elizabeth Balkan, Food Waste Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (emphasis mine):
"If you’re buying food at the supermarket and you’re using most of it or more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks you’re using, or if you are participating in a food scraps system or bringing leftovers to work, or if the supermarket you patronize is donating their leftover food — then this analysis doesn’t mean anything. You’ve basically proven this study wrong. You are more efficient than the reference case that this study uses, which is admittedly a very wasteful one."
As interesting as it may be, this study should not be used as an excuse to quit grocery shopping and sign up for meal kit services. Instead, it can be an incentive to tackle the appallingly wasteful way in which the supermarket model delivers food to us – and we shoppers receive it. This is a call to action, not an assurance of complacency.