By Madison Pascoe
“Regular meal subscription services such as My Food Bag and Hello Fresh market themselves as a convenient alternative to supermarket shopping to consumers with a large focus on sustainability. But is it actually transformational change or too little, too late.”
The science is almost unanimous- some of the biggest issues facing humanity are climate change and the rise of noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer which now collectively account for 73% of global deaths and are often linked to suboptimal diets. This has created a big focus on consumer decisions related to diet, with many New Zealanders moving toward healthier diets to reduce emissions. Regular meal subscription services such as My Food Bag and Hello Fresh market themselves as a convenient alternative to supermarket shopping to consumers with a large focus on sustainability. But is it actually transformational change or too little, too late.
Demand for meal subscriptions have skyrocketed due to COVID-19, with My Food Bag experiencing its three consecutive biggest weeks for sales in its seven-year history in March of this year at the peak of Level 4 lockdown in New Zealand. HelloFresh experienced similar jumps in demand, requiring an increase in delivery windows and new shifts. Given there is no evidence of this slowing down, it seems imperative to address just how sustainable meal subscriptions really are. There is a real need to address the environmental impacts of food production, given that it is estimated to contribute 19-29% of greenhouse gas emissions.
A pressing issue facing a high-income country such as New Zealand is food waste which is largely related to consumer behaviour, as well as lack of co-ordination in the supply chain. In recent years, a surge of meal kit subscriptions such as Hello Fresh and My Food Bag have claimed to be the answer to both these problems and the evidence provided is convincing. Both Hello Fresh and My Food Bag advertise their sustainability as one of their key traits – My Food Bag claims it is 33% more greenhouse efficient than supermarket-bought meals, 98% of the ingredients sourced in New Zealand, use ethical farming practices and have recyclable packaging. It refuses to use any supplier of meat that is not free-range and it the largest buyer of free-range pork in New Zealand.
My Food Bag also claims it is very close to becoming a ‘zero food waste business’, which is one of the major issues facing both the globe and New Zealand at the current time and has been exacerbated by COVID-19. It is estimated that roughly a third of food produced for human consumption is wasted or lost globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually- much of which is wasted at the consumption stage in high income countries such as New Zealand. Love Food Hate Waste New Zealand puts the weight of New Zealand’s food waste at 157,389 tonnes a year, which is worth roughly $1.17 billion dollars. Not only does this represent emissions from putting it into landfill, but also a huge waste of energy that is used right from production through to the supply chains that get the food to consumers. This also does not recognise that when food goes to landfill, it means it is not given to the many families in New Zealand that experience food insecurity (which amounts to one in five children under the age of 15). By only ordering what is necessary, meal kit subscriptions avoid people throwing out leftovers or old produce as every food item has a specific purpose with no excess.
Meal subscription services may make the biggest impact to food sustainability in the amount of energy that is saved in getting produce from where its grown to the consumer. Hello Fresh advertises this on its website, stating that because it orders the ingredients straight from the supplier, it saves CO2 emissions by not stopping at warehouses which cuts back on transport time and extra storage, as seen in the image below. My Food Bag makes similar claims, by delivering to >30 customers on a typical delivery round, it can massively reduce the distance covered and therefore greenhouse gas emissions when compared to each of those customers doing their own supermarket shop, and only buying what is needed to fulfill the orders. Any food leftover is donated to charities such as Kiwi Harvest.
This all sounds great – but is it enough?
Meal delivery services are said to provide transformational change, but are meal subscriptions the best chance for the future of food as a whole? There is a range of implications that would occur if the claims about sustainability made by My Food Bag and HelloFresh are unfounded as it is slowly transforming the way we consume. The valuation of the meal kit industry in the United States was estimated at about $1.5 billion dollars with an annual growth of 25% – and this was a figure taken prior to COVID-19.
The concern here is that it’s too little, too late for meal subscription services to have a real impact on New Zealand’s carbon footprint. New Zealand has the 7th highest meat consumption per capita in the world, and New Zealand’s share in global warming is more than four times greater than its share of the global population and 1.5 times greater than its share of the global land area. This poses a serious issue given the climate impact of meat, beef and lamb in particular, is among the highest of all GHG emissions. An investigation of the meal plans on offer shows that both Hello Fresh and My Food Bag’s meal choices rely heavily on meat as a source of protein with few options to support a ‘flexitarian’ diet many consumers have adopted, which focusses on reducing meat consumption rather than abandoning it completely. Of the eight My Food Bag ‘bag’ offerings, only one is vegetarian and one is plant-based. That means three quarters of My Food Bag offerings rely on meat as the center of the meal, further normalising the every-day consumption of animal products.
Further to this, customers rely on My Food Bag and Hello Fresh to always make ethical decisions. There is no way for consumers to know if these values are acknowledged at all times, or just when it suits. This is a concern as New Zealanders may focus less on verifying the sources of their food by shopping directly from growers at farmers market and from small-hold organic farms with a large focus on animal welfare as is the current trend. In the current climate, a big emphasis has been made on ‘buying local’ to help repair New Zealand’s economy in the wake of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, and if meal subscription services increase due to the sustainable marketing, but if these claims turn out to be misleading, this could have major consequences for New Zealand’s organic farmers.
By replacing conventional supermarket shopping with a meal subscription service, consumers lose contact with the supermarket, one of the main sites at which consumers have control over the decisions they make. Many consumers are happy to spend a little extra in their supermarket shop to make ethical choices such as free-range meats or organic vegetables. Research indicates that many consumers are seeking to eat healthier to reduce emissions. But people may be more likely to choose convenience over ethics, which would slow down the current trend of ethical buying. If that was the case, meal delivery services may actually have a negative impact on reducing emissions.
Meal subscription services do not address another problem, the accessibility of healthy food in New Zealand. The average cost of a My Food Bag or Hello Fresh meal is about $10 per meal, per person. For many families, this prices them out of a major avenue to healthy eating.
My Food Bag and Hello Fresh do not supply much practical information on how they plan to reduce packaging and offer little transparency or verification on their supply chains. Hello Fresh in particular provides scant information on their supply chains, only offering that they use free range chicken, alongside statements such as “working closely with Kiwi farmers and suppliers wherever we can”. This gives little confidence to consumers concerned with making ethical choices when sourcing the majority of their meals.
What can we do about it?
Meal food subscriptions offer one way in which New Zealanders can largely reduce their food waste and energy levels used in the supply chain. However, it does little to address the bigger issues related to our wider eating habits, namely our meat and dairy consumption, which are related to both the issues of global malnutrition and climate change. A study by researchers at the University of Otago tells us that if New Zealand moved toward a plant-based diet, where our eating pattern replaced all meat, eggs, and milk products with plant-based alternatives, and we also reduced our food waste, it would provide great benefits to both diet-related emissions, health gains and health system costs savings of between $13.9-20.2 billion dollars, all while reaching our Sustainable Development Goals. While this seems an unlikely shift, consumer behavior indicates that people are interested in making dietary changes toward a plant-based future: one in 10 New Zealanders are now vegetarian or mostly meat-free according to the Better Futures report.
The food subscriptions appear to offer a viable solution to food waste and saving energy on the supply chain, which is increasingly becoming a source of energy waste in developed countries. My Food Bag’s focus on local suppliers and free-range meat is encouraging, as well as its focus on becoming a ‘zero waste business’. But it is not enough. The issues of climate change and disease related to suboptimal diets require more drastic changes than meal delivery kits can offer in their current state. One course of action that meal delivery services could take is to provide more plant-based alternatives with a larger focus on vegetables, fruits and legumes which are proven to be more climate-friendly and healthier. Hello Fresh and My Food Bag could increase transparency in the supply chain by introducing supply chain verification, which would allow consumers to trace each ingredient back to its source and check the ethics of the business in question. This could allow consumers to hold My Food Bag and Hello Fresh accountable for their claims around sustainability, and consistently check that the food they receive is in line with their ethics. Given that ordering is digital for both these companies, this could be a service solely introduced online and therefore reduce the cost.
New Zealand faces a major crossroads- we have an economy that relies heavily on the meat and dairy industry which shows no signs of slowing down. Agriculture makes up the largest emissions impact of meal subscription services, which provides further support for policy changes to impact adequate change. As noted by the University of Otago study, the savings in health costs alone should inspire urgent action from the New Zealand government. Current suggestions include a meat and dairy tax, the removal of GST from fruits and vegetables to increase accessibility and education for the New Zealand public on the impacts that meat production is having on our environment. It seems that there is a place in the future of food supply in New Zealand for services such as My Food Bag and Hello Fresh. What is clear, however, is that meal delivery services are not a silver bullet in addressing the major issues of climate change and disease related to suboptimal diets.
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Madison Pascoe is a postgraduate student at the University of Auckland. This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.