Can a Food Delivery Service’s Business Model be a Solution to Food Deserts?

This post expands on the topic discussed in my latest (July 2014) column in The Seattle Times: “In a dietary rut? Here’s how to escape it.

Food conversations occur multiple times a day for me. I talk to patients frequently about dietary changes. I enjoy various cuisines and am fortunate to live in a city with an abundance of locally sourced food and a booming restaurant scene. However, as is the case for many people, figuring out weeknight meals while working full time is always a challenge.  Long clinic days don’t allow for much time pouring over a recipe or spending much time in the kitchen. An easy solution is to order food for delivery. But, even in Seattle, what’s quick is not always healthy. Besides, I happen to rather enjoy cooking. With time just as scarce on the weekend, what’s a healthy, fresh food seeker to do?

I discovered and signed up for a meal delivery service called Blue Apron at the beginning of the year. Blue Apron sends you a box of the ingredients you need to cook a meal for two (or 4 or 6, etc) three nights a week, along with instructions that fit one side of a glossy, 8×11 inch recipe card. You provide your own cooking oil (usually olive), salt, pepper, and water. Most items are premeasured, but you do have to do some prep work (chopping, slicing, dicing etc). It prices out to $10 per person per meal. While this is cost-prohibitive for some people (I can certainly whip up less expensive meals myself), it is unlikely I can have a set of recipes as varied as what Blue Apron provides. Discovering new vegetables, herbs, grains, and foods from other regions is invaluable. You learn to make things like salad dressings and pickles from scratch (with much fewer ingredients and preservatives!). It never feels boring to eat these meals. I can control the oil and sodium content of the food.  And since I grocery shop much less, I spend less on overall by not picking up extraneous items. I also don’t waste bulk ingredients for a specific type of cuisine that I might only make once. This service also eliminates my personal pet peeve, which is the “oops, I forgot to pick up an ingredient” emergency in the middle of cooking.

Blue Apron 1

Blue Apron 2

Can a system like this – at a lower price point – be an answer to food deserts across America? Food deserts are areas where people have limited access to fresh produce due to financial and/or geographical reasons. There has been a push (as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign) to try to engage Americans in healthier eating, with grocery stores being set up in such food deserts to make healthier items more accessible to residents in these areas. The results, however, have been disappointing. Reports state that the people living in those communities were more aware of the new store, but they never actually changed their purchasing or eating habits. Seattle, where I live, is the complete opposite of a food desert, yet some of my patients [and myself when I was younger and much less aware] seem to virtually live in one.  It might be due to cost, ethnic/familial culture, lack of time, or habit. I recently went to a cooking class where everyone in the group other than myself did not cook much. Though they had been to a few cooking classes, they never reproduced the dishes they learned. Perhaps a food delivery service like Blue Apron might provide the missing piece for healthy eating in food deserts and elsewhere by bringing the produce and the instructions to the individual.

Another plus with Blue Apron: you can engage your kids in healthy eating, too. The glossy handout with bright pictures is a great way to have kids go on a “treasure hunt” for different ingredients. They are naturally drawn to the little packages and surprise treasures in the box. They will learn about different foods along with you, and, if you include them in the process, you can draw them into eating foods they have never seen before, starting them on a lifetime of food exploration and awareness and less food anxiety than we have been experiencing in our current generation.


A few notes: 

While there are more food delivery services (like Plated), I haven’t tried them, so I have limited this piece to my experience with Blue Apron.

Be aware that if you have dietary restrictions or preferences, food delivery services may accommodate some but not all restrictions. If your doctor has placed you on a specific kind of diet, this type of service may not be right for you.

If you do want to try your hand at using Blue Apron, there is a fair amount of chopping and peeling involved. Taking a knife skills class can help you be safer and more efficient in the kitchen.

Also, I found that I prefer to eat more vegetables in a meal than what is provided with Blue Apron, so I occasionally supplement with vegetables procured from my local farmers market (a great thing to do in the summer). I could also sign up for vegetarian meals on the service, as a solution.  


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