Meal kits became more popular during the pandemic, as many households opted for food delivery due to stay at home orders and preferences for maintaining social distancing. Do these kits also help reduce food waste? Dr. Brenna Ellison, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, provides insights based on her study with USDA on meal kits.
Buzby: What are food meal kits and can they help reduce food loss and waste?
Ellison: 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. 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.
Buzby: How much waste is generated in the manufacturing of meal kits and what are the causes?
Ellison: Generally, meal kit manufacturing facilities are lean operations – 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.
Buzby: How are meal kit companies looking to reduce food loss and waste in the future?
Ellison: Currently, the focus is on diverting surplus food to other uses. Many companies donate surplus food to food banks or their own employees. For food that is not considered edible, composting is a common strategy. There is also interest in working with suppliers to reduce waste on the farm, the preferred waste reduction strategy (EPA Food Recovery Hierarchy).
Buzby: What about all of that packaging?
Ellison: 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). Also, meal kit companies are continuously pursuing innovations to mitigate or reduce the impact of packaging waste.
Read more blogs on the topic of food loss and waste.