Figuring out what to fix for dinner is hard enough, but this chef-backed meal planning service is hoping to eliminate the guesswork while also eliminating food waste one kitchen at a time.
It’s everyone’s least favorite question: “What’s for dinner?” That question is becoming even more stressful for a number of consumers who want to help reduce food waste, make healthier eating choices, and to save money on their food bills. The pressure can become quite daunting on top of the maddening pace that many consumers maintain between work, family, and other responsibilities.
In 2015 alone, Americans tossed 37.6 million tons of food, according to US EPA data. Meanwhile, a USDA study concluded that people who eat diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables are often the biggest food waste culprits, with Americans tossing 150,000 tons of food at home each day. This is the equivalent to about one-third of the calories that each American consumes on a daily basis.
Chef Alison Mountford is hoping to provide consumers with an easy way to solve the age-old query while also cutting the amount of food waste that they produce through the launch of a new food waste-focused meal planning app service called Ends+Stems. The eco-friendly meal planning service recently launched its first-ever app that generates grocery lists and meal plans designed to be friendly to users’ waistlines, wallets, and wastebaskets.
A chef for 15 years, Mountford has worked in various consumer-facing food service capacities including launching her own prepared meals delivery company, Square Meals, which she sold in 2015. Her next venture involved assisting Munchery with its procurement while she explored a newfound interest in food waste.
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“Food waste reduction was something I did just to keep my business afloat. It was right at the end of 2015 when I sold Square Meals that NRDC came out with its groundbreaking report on how big food waste was,” she recently told AFN. “Ends+Stems started as an Instagram feed where I just wanted to communicate with home cooks behind closed doors. The idea to launch a meal planning business focused on food waste came from a survey I posted in a few Facebook groups. Within 48 hours 1,000 people had responded and 83% of them said that choosing a recipe each night made them feel stressed out. The majority of them also reported caring about food waste, but not knowing what actions they can take to make a difference.”
The app allows users to save profile settings, access recipes, and to navigate an interactive grocery list that takes the guesswork out of grocery shopping. Meals can be set for a variety of serving sizes and can be customized to suit a number of dietary preferences including plant-based, dairy-free, and vegan. There are also handy substitution guides to keep users cooking even when a key ingredient is missing from their pantries. The app service costs $12.50 per month of $9.50 per month for a yearly subscription.
Users can even see how much waste they are cutting through the app’s waste calculator that shows how much food users have saved each week in the equivalent of pizza slice measurements. Through the app, users can anticipate saving the equivalent of a large pizza from the garbage each week while using the meal planning service, according to Ends+Stems. Mountford based these calculations on rough numbers in consultation with NRDC, but hopes to conduct a more thorough study to figure out just how much waste proper meal planning and shopping can mitigate.
Startups innovating food waste solutions captured over $125 million during 2018 while grant funding from foundations reached over $134 million during 2016, representing a 70% increase during the prior five year period.
So far, Mountford has kept the venture self-funded despite spending time beating the Silicon Valley pavement in search of funding. Based in San Francisco, she was in close proximity to some of the deepest venture pocketbooks in the game but felt that her status as an outsider was a limitation.
“Not only is it harder as a woman, but my biggest problem is that I spent my years in the kitchen, not hobnobbing with people who decide where the money goes,” she explains. “I spent a few months trying to raise but I wasn’t progressing in my business. It’s a full-time job to do this and I don’t have a bank account that can support me for a year while I try to figure out how to raise. It’s something I would consider down the line, but I want to be doing more than fundraising right now.”
For now, Mountford is focused on scaling the newly-launched app. There are quite a few other meal planning services on the market, but in her view, she is the only chef-backed service that is a mission-driven business aimed at fighting food waste right at home.
“I have written thousands of recipes, sold millions of dollars worth of food, and cooked for celebrities and politicians. I have cooked a lot of food and planned a lot of menus. In food waste, though, we are all such underdogs and we need so many solutions to fight this problem, so if someone is doing something similar we fell more like colleagues than competitors There is so much market to capture when it comes to the food being wasted in our homes.
One thing she has ruled out for Ends+Stems’ future is prepared meals. As the meal kit and food delivery segment continues to be a dicey scene, margins are thin and consumers are overwhelmed with endless options. The cost of attracting and retaining customers, and the logistical challenge that is delivering fresh produce, has proven a cost too big for many such startups leading to closures and failure across the globe. Some more successful, later stage meal kit businesses also appear to be struggling. One of the first high profile meal kits, Blue Apron, listed on the New York Stock Exchange last year but has performed poorly ever since with shares worth just over$1 today, down from an IPO price of $10.
“The challenge in prepared foods is that people want it to be affordable. If you really want to scale it and make a difference for the average family or the average home cook, you can’t sell those meals for what they truly cost to produce. I kept making my meals at Square Meals more expensive because I wanted to support local farms and to stay in-season while cooking everything from scratch,” she explains. “Munchery kept trying to solve the problem by making meals cheaper. I don’t think we have seen a prepared meal delivery company figure out how to crack it.”