Do meal kits reduce food waste? USDA explores potential amid rise in plant-based convenience foods

30 Jul 2021

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Meal kits have become more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many consumers turning to ready-to-assemble meals and subscription services for food that provides preparation convenience. But do meal kits help reduce food waste?

Brenna Ellison, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently shared her insights on the sustainability credentials of meal kits.

“Meal kits are designed to provide households with precise quantities of ingredients to make a specific meal. They can reduce food waste, particularly for food items that are infrequently used and unavailable in small quantities,” she highlights.

“For example, if two people wanted to make hamburgers at home using a meal kit, they would receive two hamburger buns and just enough ground beef for two hamburger patties. At a grocery store, they cannot easily buy two hamburger buns only and a small enough quantity of ground beef for two patties.”

Rates of waste
According to Ellison, meal kit manufacturing facilities are lean operations and “rates of waste are often in the low single digits.”

“Product quality concerns, including spoilage, and near or passed expiration dates, are the main causes of waste,” she adds.

Ellison also flags how one study shows that the benefits of meal kits, including food waste reduction and lower greenhouse gas emissions, outweigh packaging waste concerns (Heard et al., 2019).

“Meal kit companies are continuously pursuing innovations to mitigate or reduce the impact of packaging waste,” she notes.

Plant-based meal kits trending
In February, Vancouver-based Vegano, a plant-based meal-kit delivery service, encouraged Canadian consumers to take up plant-based eating.

“The pandemic has made many people look to preventative health measures, and eating more plant-based food has been proven to improve your health on various levels,” Beck Pura, communications spokesperson, told FoodIngredientsFirst at the time.

He explained that influential activists such as Greta Thunberg have raised awareness surrounding sustainability and the importance of preserving the environment.

The company is also striving to tackle food waste. According to Vegano, its portioned meals minimize food waste, which aligns with its “empty kitchen” policy.

In other plant-forward meal kits, Franklin Farms, a division of Keystone Natural Holdings, entered a new partnership with Purple Carrot, a 100 percent plant-based meal kit company last December.

The collaboration came as consumers sought new avenues to order their food, as highlighted in Innova Market Insights’ fourth Top Ten Trend for 2021, “New Omnichannel Eating.”

The COVID-19 effect
A rise in meal kits amid the pandemic and particularly during the Thanksgiving season was highlighted in previous FoodIngredientsFirst coverage. This is in line with an increase in online and bulk purchasing, which were ranked among the top consumption shifts prompted by lockdown measures.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored food safety in general while tackling food waste and extending shelf life remain cornerstones of natural preservations.

Industry efforts to tackle food waste
In further strides to combat food waste and loss, the app and social disrupter Too Good To Go allows consumers to purchase a “Magic Box” with a surprise assortment of food products from participating stores that would have otherwise been thrown away.

Recently, the app service launched in Canada, where 58 percent of all food produced in the country is wasted, equating to 35.5 million tons each year.

A UN report revealed that 17 percent of all food available at consumer level is wasted in March.

The research was conducted to support global efforts to halve food waste by 2030.

The Food Waste Index Report 2021 – from the UN Environment Program (UNEP) and partner organization WRAP – looked at food waste in retail outlets, restaurants and homes counting both food and inedible parts like bones and shells.

In the same month, WRAP launched Britain’s “first national week of action” to tackle endemic household food waste that is linked to the rapid onset of climate change.

On a positive note, however, endemic lockdown measures have led to an increase in behaviors such as batch cooking and meal planning, which help tackle food waste, according to 2020 WRAP research.

Source: foodingredientsfirst