PHOTOS BY KRISTIN TEIG

The local, good food movement is growing up. Moving beyond Pollanean “here’s the problem” rhetoric, the movement is now primarily characterized by solutions, many of which aim to answer a core question: how do we ease the practice of healthy eating among an increasingly busy population?

Nationally, a crop of fresh food delivery startups are shortening the distance between people and their food, and in the process getting busy Americans back in the kitchen and around the dining room table together. The concept got a big push earlier this year when Beyoncé announced that she and her personal trainers are launching a delivery service called 22 Days Nutrition, which will ship pre-cooked, plant-based meals to any address in the continental United States.

Here in greater Boston, Bey will have to contend with a handful of food delivery services that already have a market foothold in the area. Companies like Just Add Cooking and al FreshCo deliver kits of ingredients, along with recipes—cooking not included. And for those nights when cooking just ain’t happening—admit it, we’ve all been there—Heirloom Kitchen and The Foodery have got you covered with their prepared meals, brought right to your door. Observers say startups like these provide a solution previously dominated by fast food: convenience.

“[These new companies] actually cook it for you or break it down into the components and tell you how to cook it for yourself,” says Rachel Greenberger, director of Food Sol, a support program for food entrepreneurs based at Babson College. “They allow the consumer to eat their values by supporting these local businesses.”

Time.

Tamarah Belczyk and husband Patrick Gillespie have too little of it. Their jobs–Belczyk is an attorney with a private equity firm and Gillespie works in litigation technology—can feel all-consuming for the West Roxbury couple. They have a young son, whom they are committed to feeding healthy, local foods. But many nights, like so many of us, they just don’t have the time nor energy to both prepare a meal from scratch (based on their local-first values) and sit down together to enjoy it.

So in late 2013, Belczyk, Gillespie and their young son turned to Heirloom Kitchen, and continued to do so as often as weekly, to fill in the dinner gaps.

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Meals3-1

“It doesn’t feel like a restaurant, where the take-out business is secondary to sitting and eating in their restaurant,” Belczyk says. “It’s all well thought-out and high-quality.”

Here’s how it works: healthy meals made from local ingredients—a beef rigatoni for Gillespie, Vietnamese phô for Belczyk, and quinoa cake for their son, for example—are prepared in Heirloom’s Dedham kitchen and driven a couple miles to the family’s home in West Roxbury. They need only order the food online the day before, reheat it in the oven, and, of course, sit down and eat it together.

The Foodery’s business model is similar, except it caters to a more urban clientele who order dishes like wild-caught haddock or Japanese chicken salad by midnight on Wednesday for delivery Sunday evening. Started in 2011 by longtime friends John Bauer and Mike Speights—who left successful careers in finance—The Foodery prioritizes cooking with clean food, grown sustainably. If the best organic produce is grown on a local farm, even better.

Heirloom Kitchen gets almost everything from local producers during New England’s growing season—including Brookline’s Allandale Farm and Needham’s Neighborhood Farms—and sources beyond the region during the winter. Founder Gerald Coakley says Heirloom’s seasonal philosophy (“We change our menu when the farmers tell us to change it”) stems from his personal commitment to supporting local producers and is the fundamental difference between Heirloom and typical quick-serve restaurants that deliver.

“The food is better,” says Coakley, who left trial law to start Heirloom in late 2013. “People would rather pay a little extra and go a little further out of their way if they can get local, high-quality food.”

But besides a night out here or meal delivery there, we should be cooking more of what we eat. In 2012, almost half of American food dollars were spent outside the home, the highest level since the United States Department of Agriculture began tracking such expenditures in 1970. We generally eat better when we cook at home, consuming more balanced meals with fewer calories. Given that we’re sicker from diet-related disease and fatter than ever (the population that is obese is rapidly approaching 30%), most nutritionists—and even the First Lady—are urging Americans to dust off the stovetop.

“We have to be deliberate about [getting back to home cooking traditions],” First Lady Michelle Obama told Cooking Light magazine this year. “It won’t happen by accident.  People are busier today.  Life is different … but we have to find those new healthier norms.”

My family used to cook together. Our son, proudly donning his white chef’s hat and red apron with “Chef in Training” emblazoned across the front, could maneuver through the kitchen, pouring two cups of broth, fetching a pepper from the crisper, or washing and tearing greens for a salad. But between lingering work calls, helping our son (he’s now eight) with his Common Core math problems, and whisking our one-year-old to bed when she’s overtired, dinners these days usually consist of one of us boiling frozen ravioli or throwing together some veggie burritos. We all wish we cooked as a family again.

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Meals3-2

Could a meal delivery service get the Holts back in the kitchen together? We decided to put the concept to the test.

It’s 7pm on the nose when I open the front door to al FreshCo founder Laurel Valchuis, who is smiling. In her hands are three bundles, neatly wrapped in craft paper and bound with twine. She’s here right when she said she would be, but a transportation nightmare throughout Boston after a foot of snow the day before forced her to catch a ride with a friend to our East Boston home instead of her normal delivery method—a bicycle. It’s one of the first times bike delivery has been thrown off.

Because of the weather delay, we wouldn’t get around to cooking up the contents of the vegan bundles—a dish of farro with roasted butternut squash and other winter vegetables—until the next evening. Unwrapping the two farro kits (forgetting that each kit feeds “two hungry adults,” I mistakenly ordered a third kit, a vegetable flatbread), I see that it contains shrink-wrapped bags of pre-cut butternut squash, cabbage, onions and, of course, farro. I don’t notice the little containers of olive oil until I’ve already used my own to get the onions cooking.

As my wife empties two bags of squash into a greased baking pan and tosses it in the preheated oven, our son hums Bob Marley as he stirs the sautéing onions. Sweet smells (and is there a sweeter smell than onions cooking?) are now filling the kitchen. Our son’s arm is getting tired from stirring, he says. He’ll be back in the game when it’s time to lightly toast the farro, fill the saucepan with stock, and fold in the roasted squash and cabbage once the grain is cooked through.

A little salt, a dash of pepper, and dinner is served. The total prep and cooking time: about half an hour. Despite his participation in cooking the meal, our son, like us, has never tried farro and is clearly a bit leary of it when he sits down to eat. But after a couple bites, he’s commenting favorably on its creaminess and flavor. My wife and I can’t shovel the stuff in fast enough; it’s precisely the right mid-winter dish. Even our one-year-old sat like an anxious baby bird, mouth open, waiting for her next piece of squash or spoonful of faro.

The verdict: al FreshCo could not have been more convenient, family dinner prep was fun and easy, and the dish was delicious—something we probably would not have sourced and made ourselves. And what an experience for the kids.

For al FreshCo, vegan recipes and support of local producers— and specifically those who use sustainable practices—are core to the company’s identity. Al FreshCo gets produce from The Food Project in Dorchester, the Neighborhood Farm in Needham, Red Fire Farm in Granby, and Vanguarden Farm in Dover, NH. The finished meal kits, which feed “two hungry adults,” cost about $16 each.

Valchuis says two experiences in particular set the stage for the founding of the company and its values: her 2011 work helping Zambian smallholder farmers market their crops; and her graduate studies at the University of Vermont into why Americans do or do not participate local food systems. The latter paper, which is set to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, identified three barriers to engagement with local foods: convenience, knowledge and price.

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Meals3-3

Al FreshCo’s convenience factor is obvious—the pre-cut food, the recipes, the new subscription plan—but Valchuis says she’s also increasing knowledge by engaging Bostonians who might not normally be a part of a local food hub and keeping the price point reasonable by making her production and distribution as efficient as possible.

“I knew I wanted to find something that was promoting breaking down those barriers to getting people more engaged in the food system, which has many positive benefits to all parties involved—farmers, companies, consumers,” says Valchuis, who says she bought 5,000 pounds of produce from local farmers last year. “The meal kits are the application of my research.”

Based out of CropCircle Pearl Kitchen in Dorchester, Just Add Cooking—a service we also recently tried as a family—is a slightly scaled-up, omnivorous version of al FreshCo. Ingredients arrive in boxes for two or four eaters, with enough for three, four or five meals. Customers choose from recipes like cod with horseradish and brown butter or tempeh and cauliflower taboulleh, all of which are written and tested by co-founder and chef Anders Lindell. The meals price out to between $6.50 and $13 per person.

“It’s important to teach your kids how to cook, and knowing what’s in different dishes—knowing what a carrot looks like,” says Jan Leife, 55, and co-founder of Just Add Cooking. “A carrot doesn’t look like it does at McDonald’s, for instance.”

While Just Add Cooking uses only local distributors, not all of the food it delivers was grown in New England. About 70% of the food it delivered in 2014 was produced in New England, a number the company’s founders want to see rise each year.

“We can play an important part in this farm-to-table context where we have contact with local companies and deliver to people’s kitchen, efficiently, with no waste,” says Liefe, who adds that the company currently is below five percent waste.

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With online delivery companies tearing down barriers between Greater Boston’s consumers and fresh, local food—combined with the area’s wonderful year-round markets and CSA programs—we have fewer excuses than ever not to eat healthier and more locally at home, cooking more of what we eat.

“Five years ago, if someone wanted to buy local, they’d have to drive to a farm stand or go to a health food store,” Greenberger says. “Now I have this middle-of-the-supply chain that gets the food from where it was made to me.”

Al FreshCo - al-freshco.com

The Foodery - fooderyboston.com

Heirloom Kitchen - heirloomkitchen.com

Just Add Cooking - justaddcooking.com

 

STEVE HOLT covers food and beverage, nutrition policy and urban issues for local and national publications and has been featured in the annual Best Food Writing anthology. East Boston is home. Connect with him on Twitter and Insta-gram: @thebostonwriter.