First thing’s first: I’m writing this article to cover my ass.
Blue Apron, the near-unicorn meal kit delivery service more famous for its baroque packaging than its actual meals, is producing a six part podcast called Why We Eat What We Eat. I was contacted a day or so ago by Gimlet Media to be interviewed for an episode in which a person lives by a “climate change” diet for a week; they wanted to speak with me as an expert after discovering an incoherent rant of mine on Quartz.
I’m writing this article for the sole purpose of making my feelings about Blue Apron — and other services like it — known in the event that I participate in the interview and, as a result, find myself accused of shillery.
It’s Not About the Packaging
One of my favorite things in the world is finding a Blue Apron sponsored ad on Facebook and reading the comments.
I’m sure a silent majority of those who’ve interacted with Blue Apron love the service, but a vocal plurality has made an Internet pastime out of raining crap on them at every opportunity. Lots of complaints about missed deliveries, bland food, high prices, and, especially, the teeny tiny individual packaging of every single ingredient — apparently down to pinches of salt.
It’s this last one that the company seems to take the most heat for. BuzzFeed, Mother Jones, and even Time went in hard on meal prep services about the amount of garbage they pile up in packaging and freezer packs, trashing their hypocritical stance on sustainability.
Personally, I don’t really care about the packaging. Most of it is plastic and can be recycled, as can the freezer packs, even if they’re currently not. If Blue Apron is being silly enough to let this be a problem, there’s a fairly easy fix. And frankly, given all the other plastics and packaging most of us consume without a second thought, most people would do well to address their existing behavior and leave Blue Apron alone.
What I do care about is Blue Apron’s claim about creating a better food system. So let’s talk about that.
In the article that brought me to Gimlet Creative’s attention — and in others — two things are argued:
- Today’s unsustainable agriculture is aggregated, centralized, and global; technology and global markets drive production with little concern for distribution or ecology.
- Tomorrow’s sustainable agriculture should be distributed, decentralized, and micro-regional; ecology and local markets drive production, technology drives distribution.
Blue Apron has both feet in the former model.
This is a diagram Blue Apron uses to convince you that its devouring of the farm-to-table supply chain is somehow good for you. Let’s start on the left with “Farm & Producers.”
Blue Apron has “partnered” with some 150 farms and snapped up BN Ranch from serial rancher Bill Niman (of Niman Ranch, which is now owned by Perdue — because of course it is — albeit without Mr. Niman’s involvement, and is still carried by Whole Foods). Blue Apron is expanding the BN Ranch network as quickly as possible and sending its resident agroecologist to babysit the methods and practices of the farms it doesn’t own outright, all while setting the farms’ gate prices with an eye on its own profits.* In short, Blue Apron is setting itself up to either own or control the entire production end of the supply chain. This is exactly the way oft-maligned companies like Perdue and Tyson’s operate.
Then we get to the middle of the diagram: Wholesalers, Regional Grocery Warehouses, and Grocery Stores. Blue Apron owns this outright: they’re the wholesaler, paying rock bottom gate prices to the farmers. They’re the warehouse, with three big distribution centers in the continental United States. And they’re the end retailer, replacing the grocery store with a website and its army of meal preppers, packers, and delivery trucks.
In short, Blue Apron adopted the playbook of the conventional agricultural aggregator/integrator and extended it into the retail space with delivery trucks and meal prep. Despite this being little better than incremental progress, they go much farther and refer to it as “innovation.” It may be the single most offensive thing about Blue Apron.
They’re not shy about being a vertical integrator, either. Co-founder and COO Matthew Wadiak (a former protege of the legendary Alice Waters, who herself speaks of Blue Apron with thinly veiled contempt) flat out stated:
“We can pay farmers more, while paying less for meat,” Wadiak says. “By vertically integrating, we’re going to be more lean, and that’s better for everyone.”
Pay farmers more than what, exactly? Anyway, this is where it’s important to mention that Blue Apron is a [terrible] publicly traded company whose sole legal obligation is to its shareholders. When the principles of sustainable agriculture collide with the purses of investors, the latter wins. Always.
*In Blue Apron’s Vision page, it claims “guaranteed markets for farmers,” which is a polite way of saying “we set the prices, we are 100% of your market, we own your ass,” effectively turning farmers into serfs who take on all the operational risk at whatever price their sole customer will offer. This is the model of commodity farming that dominates American agriculture today. Perdue is particularly famous for this crap.
The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
Q: Why would Bill Niman, the Godfather of Sustainable Meat, sell Niman Ranch?
A: Because it was a sustainability boondoggle hemorrhaging cash faster than Jack Whittaker at a strip club.
Niman Ranch, a sprawling network of hundreds of farms and ranches, lost around $4 million in the year Natural Food Holdings took over. Niman himself quit when the new owners introduced conventional production methods to make the company profitable. He started BN Ranch as a new project, grew it, and sold it to yet another integrator/aggregator, this time called Blue Apron. Bill Niman is now so stinking rich his flagship ranch overlooks the Pacific Ocean, whose azure waters will provide a soft landing when Blue Apron’s relentless demand for big revenue, low costs, and growing margins puts its sustainability ethics in the crosshairs of powerful investors.
The temptation to cut corners is a temptation even for a company that’s performing well. Blue Apron, as stated earlier, is performing abysmally. Paying “top dollar” to farmers, growing beef on grass, and dispatching an agroecologist to test soil pH will be the first things on the chopping block when Blue Apron’s activist investors demand two things: a reduction in the retail price point to improve market share, and a slashing of input costs to keep (or create) a net margin. We’ve seen this movie before.
Trouble is waiting for any business that wants to scale sustainable, earthbound agriculture the traditional way: forcing uniformity on the production process in order to make it lean and profitable; selling the commodified yield of that process to anyone, anywhere; and then expanding the production model and market share as quickly as possible. You’ll hear the phrase “farms, not factories” over and over again in sustainable food circles, but an outdoor factory is precisely what Blue Apron is trying to create with its acquisition of BN Ranch.
Take this quote from the article linked earlier:
Blue Apron will raise only grass-fed, grass-finished cattle of British breeds, like Black Angus and Hereford, in areas where grass thrives year-round (e.g. Northern California and New Zealand), according to The Washington Post. Before the purchase [of BN Ranch by Blue Apron], the company did not have these requirements.
In software, this kind of statement is referred to as “calling a bug a feature.”
Blue Apron is limiting its beef production to two breeds in the interest of carcass uniformity so it can sell identical beef from California to Connecticut. It’s also preying on public ignorance about farming, hoping the term “British breeds” will conjure images of special, highfalutin, tea-sipping beeves instead of the two most overwhelmingly common and over-bred strains of beef cattle in the United States. Sustainable agriculture, meanwhile, advocates precisely the opposite of this approach — a proliferation of diverse breeds adapted to a multitude of local ecologies.
Then there’s the mention of the literal nowhere that “grass thrives year round.” However sunny and mild the air may be, grass doesn’t grow in a drought: a condition with which northern California is now tragically familiar. When there’s drought, and the grass doesn’t grow while you simultaneously refuse to feed hay, that means one thing: your cows need more room to graze. The more severe the drought, the more acreage they need. Argue all you want about this resulting in a tastier steak (and I’ll argue against that all day long), ranging cattle over more and more land is an ecological and economic non-starter. So is shipping beef across the ocean from New Zealand to a country that produces grass-fed beef just fine in its wetter regions.
This is going to turn the company into an economic pressure cooker that’ll eventually result in an investor revolt. The result could well be CAFO beef, multiple product lines and certifications, and another exit by Bill Niman. Blue Apron may well succeed, but not as an eco-integrator. Natural Food Holdings and Perdue knew better.
Chris Newman is a farmer in Virginia’s Northern Neck. He’s tall and skinny and is growing a great and woolly beard for totally non-political reasons. If you like what you’ve just read, please consider a click on that there green heart thing. And if you really like what you just read, maybe you’ll become a patron (contribute as little as $1/month!) so he can spend even more time writing, building foodscapes, and democratizing Local food.
Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms