Is local food’s future tied to knife and cutting board sales?

By Kami Semick

Recently in the local news, I read about a plea for funding from a pillar of local food in my community, Central Oregon Locavore. Central Oregon Locavore, fondly known locally as just Locavore, is a non for profit organization with a brick and mortar retail store for farmers and ranchers to sell their food on consignment. Locavore is also a Food4All order pick up location in Central Oregon. Read more about their plight and consider donating to their GoFund Me campaign.

This news coupled with the explosion of interest in the fresh food sector from companies such as Amazon and Blue Apron, has me pondering the future of local food, questioning my fellow citizen’s willingness to use a knife and cutting board, and wondering about the environmental impact of small portions of processed, heavily packaged foods sent through the mail.

This morning brought news of Amazon going after the prepared meal marketplace.  Amazon promises to send small portions of heavily packaged chopped food so that all you are left to do is assemble and cook. In fact, Amazon is applying for a trademark for the phrase “We do the prep. You be the chef.”  But all this comes with a large price tag.  Two servings will set you back $16 to $20, far exceeding the cost of buying those groceries and preparing a meal.  Add on top of that an additional $99 membership fee and a delivery fee. And you still need to cook.  Remember, even after receiving your food in the mail, wrestle off the packaging, reading and following the directions, cooking is still required.

Then there’s Tovala, a company that wants to sell you a steam oven in addition to a mail order meal subscription.  Apparently their steam oven will reduce the risk of a disaster in the final cooking step.  Their pre-processed and packaged ingredients are optimized to be steamed in their oven. Buy their meals, buy an extra oven, but you still have to cook, or steam, in the case of Tovala.  You didn’t like that fresh off the grill flavor anyway, did you?

Observing Blue Apron, the Silicon Valley “unicorn” who established the market for mail delivery prepped meals, might be an early indicator of the prepped meal market.  Blue Apron recently went public on what appeared to be a somewhat rocky IPO, and their stock continues to fall below the initial offering price. Reading the prospectus, one of Blue Apron’s challenges is that they spent more to acquire a customer than they make from a customer. Heavy packaging and shipping costs and a high drop off of customers after the first few orders makes it easier to see why Amazon’s prices are high and why Amazon requires an annual subscription to bind customer loyalty to their service.

All this fuss, and it simply comes down to a knife and cutting board.  Do we really fear taking a few extra minutes to wash and chop our food?  Are you willing to pay an extra 2 to 5 times for food because of the chop? And at what cost to the environment?  Each one of the prepared meal packages is like shipping a mini fridge. Ice and heavy packaging are required to make sure that the food stays fresh as it travels for a few days from the processing center to the carrier to your door step.  Breaking down and preparing all this packaging for recycle (best case) takes effort and time.  Couldn’t that time instead be used to chop?

Is shipping mini fridges across the country with heavily packaged chopped ingredients a sustainable trend? From the environment’s perspective, the clear answer is no.  From a consumer’s pocket book perspective, a part of the answer may lie in the customer drop off rate of Blue Apron. May I suggest another indicator as chef knife and cutting board sales?  If those drop precipitously, we are all in trouble.