Plated: The high price we pay for meal delivery services

Pictured is an at home meal delivery box. Each item in the box comes individually wrapped in plastic.

BY: Nicole Caldwell

At-home meal delivery services have brought convenient, home-cooked meals to the masses.

   But what we’re earning in reduced food waste and controlled cooking experiments come at a huge deficit to the environment through excessive packaging and ice packs—and too often cost us our relationship to the food we eat.

We have a serious problem with trash.

    The United States represents 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but produces more than one-third of the planet’s waste. Collectively, we cut down around 900 million trees every year to create paper products—and every one of us goes through around 18 tons of paper, 23 tons of wood, 16 tons of metal, and 32 tons of organic chemicals in one lifetime, according to the Clean Air Council.

    Nowhere is our wastefulness more obvious than with our eating habits. Our obsession with convenience has created a food culture of throwaway straws, disposable napkins, plates, cups, mugs, to-go containers, plastic bags, individually wrapped food items, and tons of food being thrown in the garbage instead of portioned properly or composted. We eat without thinking, and then we toss what’s left into the closest garbage can.

    In New York, we produce on average more than 4.5 pounds of garbage per person every single day, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. The scariest part is that the majority of that daily waste is recyclable, compostable, reusable, or never had to be created in the first place. Single-use items—most commonly connected to our food and beverages— comprise the majority of what we throw away. Our state has around 30 landfills that take in roughly 6 million tons of waste every year. Jefferson County alone hauls 36,000 tons of garbage to Rodman’s landfill every year.

    Something has to shift. And the easiest place to start is with our own eating habits.

Meal delivery services prey on our Americans’ love affair with efficiency.

    There are more than 100 meal kit delivery services available in various forms in the United States. Some deliver prepared meals you can heat up or eat raw, while others bring all the ingredients portioned out and packaged for you to put together with the help of a provided recipe. If you’ve got dietary restrictions, don’t worry: There are gluten-free, paleo, vegan and allergen-sensitive options. You can customize the meals you get, select for a whole family or a single person, and never have to waste a moment figuring out what to pick up at the store for dinner tonight. The price tag for all of this is at least $60 a week per person—and a whole lot of waste.


    Meal delivery services come with individually wrapped items: a clove of garlic wrapped in plastic, a single egg packed in cardboard. They also come with insulation, big, wasteful ice packs, little jars, and single-serving plastic containers of things like cheese or butter.

    Trying to reduce food waste feels hypocritical when there’s all this trash to contend with.

    Much of the packaging forced on us can be recycled, to be sure—or sent back to be reused, in the case of some meal delivery plans. But recycling is still an energy-intensive and polluting process. Recyclables in St. Lawrence County have to be hauled off to FCR Recycling in Stanley, N.Y., west of Syracuse for processing— a labor- and energy-intensive process requiring the same resources recycling seeks to conserve. Wouldn’t it be better to not have something left over at all, to not have had to produce this totally unnecessary packaging in the first place?

    “I don’t think a reduction of food waste gives you that much clout to stand on when a customer’s trash can is loaded with plastic after creating a meal,” said Megan Scott, who co-founded a zero-waste meal service called Planted Table with her sister, Chef Lauren Mahlke. Planted Table delivers prepared meals to the San Francisco Bay Area in a model that functions just like any other meal-delivery service, minus the trash. “Food can be composted and isn’t creating the toxic problems to our environment that plastic is,” she said. Planted Table delivers customers local food from nearby farms packaged in glass containers and a reusable cooler that gets picked up every week and refilled.

The future of meal delivery services may lie in local offerings.

    What Scott and Mahlke are doing in California is thankfully not the only one of its kind. From coast to coast, there are small startups popping up offering local food without the packaging waste that benefits farmers, consumers and chefs. While we’re still waiting for something similar in this region, it may be coming sooner than we think.

    At Food Matters NYC, customers get on the phone to answer questions about their health, exercise regimen, food goals and even sleep patterns before local chefs source ingredients from area farms and craft a menu the clients give final approval on.

    Just Add Cooking, New England’s only local meal kit service, sources all local ingredients and delivers to area homes with just a recyclable cardboard box and frozen water bottles (instead of gel packs) that customers can then drink and recycle. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start—and probably less than most of us bring home from the grocery store every week.

    “Our customers love it [the reusable packaging]!” Scott said of Planted Table’s returnable glass food containers and coolers out in California. “They say their trash cans are empty at the end of each week compared to before using Planted Table meals. It makes everyone feel so good not having an overpacked trash can and creating so much waste. Since our launch, we have only had one customer tell us they prefer the convenience of disposable containers and that is fine. It just means they are not a match for our meal plan, which we totally understand.”

    But could these ideas go national? Scott suggested we rethink that hope. “Do consumers really want their meals made by a large corporation and shipped in the mail across the country?” She asked. “Our meals are made by a local chef who knows our community, knows the region and what is in season and tasting good. We have a relationship with local farms and make our recipes around what produce is tasting best that week. We employ a team of people that live in our community and send taxes back to the community we live in, all while feeding people heart-healthy meals with zero waste.”

Changing our relationship to food—and waste—starts at home.

    So if these zero-waste meal services aren’t available here and you’ve got two left feet for culinary skills, what are you left with? Don’t worry, this region’s got you. The tri-county area is lucky to have many small co-ops, health foods markets, farmers markets, farm stands, and resources available to us that provide fresh ingredients… and recipes.

    For someone like Megan Scott, making even one switch at home got the whole eco-friendly vibe rolling. “The biggest and easiest change I have been able to make in my own kitchen is to buy a set of reusable produce bags and get most of my ingredients from the bulk bins,” she said. “I fill up my canvas bags with all my kitchen staples and then bring the bags home and empty the ingredients into reusable jars. You can do the same with produce. It also saves me a lot of money to buy from the bulk bins. They have everything I need. It’s a simple change that has really reduced waste.”

    The Farm House Kitchen in Sackets Harbor offers cooking classes year-round and advice on sourcing local ingredients. Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in the tri-county area host “Harvest of the Month” events to encourage families to explore eating healthier foods, and hold various cooking classes and food-related workshops throughout the year.

    Natural markets like the Mustard Seed in Watertown have bulk sections where you can use your own reusable bags and events calendars that make it fun to learn more about getting around in your own kitchen. Maple Rock Bed and Breakfast in Canton has cooking classes in everything from homemade pasta to tapas. The list is extensive, and growing.

    The best part of keeping your culinary adventures local is knowing you’re supporting your neighbors, your local ecology, and your health. These options are fresher and cheaper than a delivered meal, and with the added bonus of no waste.

    Just remember to bring your own bag.