Mark Bittman Jumps From the Opinion Page to Vegan Meal-Delivery Start-Up
The man who wrote the book on flexitarianism has a new gig at vegan meal-delivery service The Purple Carrot.
In September, longtime New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman stepped down from his post. He had long advocated for eating more plants and less meat through opinion pieces and columns such as The Flexitarian, as well as via healthy-eating cookbooks including 2013’s VB6, which extolled the virtues of a vegan diet during the day, with more flexibility for evening meals. But Bittman felt the problems of the food system and American eating were well-covered territory. He wrote that he was finally trying to do something to make it easier for people to get more plants in their diet: “I see it as putting philosophy into action.”
The Purple Carrot founder Andy Levitt told Fast Company that he approached Bittman hoping to find a “voice of authority” that could take the company to the next level and its mission to a national stage. Bittman’s team now develops all of The Purple Carrot’s recipes, and he is featured prominently on its new website. There have been behind-the-scenes changes too, such as raising the base wage for all employees to $15 an hour.
Bittman has high praise for the start-up. “It’s trying to be a company that sets examples and encourages not only the consumption of plant-based foods, but encourages fair treatment of farmers, the right kind of relationship between food and the environment, and shows respect for its customers, its workers, and on and on,” he told Civil Eats. “It’s the stuff I’ve been talking about for years.”
Though the Boston-based company started deliveries in 2014, The Purple Carrot sees this new chapter with Bittman as a relaunch of its services and has tacked on a few additional changes. Customers can choose between two-person and family-style meals (previously only the larger sizes were offered). The Purple Carrot has also moved to a subscription-based model more in line with competitors such as Blue Apron or Plated and has expanded its delivery area to include the West Coast.
While many seem excited about Bittman’s involvement, others are unhappy with the changes that have accompanied it. On The Purple Carrot’s Facebook page, multiple customers have complained. “I also loved ordering from The Purple Carrot on a week to week basis, but if I ordered every week the food would go to waste,” wrote Melissa. “I’m only one person.” Others commented on the price increases. Previously it cost $59 for two meals and a snack, with enough food for four adults. The new family plan is $74 each week, requires a subscription, and does not include a snack or dessert.
Overall, meal-delivery services have been lauded for making it easier for people to cook healthy food at home and reduce waste. Yet the similar models come with similar problems: Single-service packing may not waste as much food, but it requires more packaging, which has to be painstakingly recycled. The expense is also too high for many to afford; meal delivery is simply making it easier for those who could already eat healthy to continue doing so.
“They’re serving a niche audience and not really taking into consideration people that need access to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables,” Lauren Ornelas, founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project, told Eater. The meal-delivery model has capitalized on food movement pillars such as working directly with local farmers, cooking at home, using unprocessed ingredients, avoiding GMOs, and more.
The question is not only whether Bittman can use The Purple Carrot to champion the food issues he’s written about but whether that model can bring about significant change in the world. Food-delivery services can make it easier for subscribers to make healthy, environmentally sound eating decisions, but as long as the businesses only serve families of a certain class, they will remain a niche service. Bittman told Civil Eats that it was “a shame that not everyone will be able to afford it.” So far, he’s made or is planning to make changes at The Purple Carrot to pay fair wages and curb the excess packaging that plagues similar businesses. Yet there’s been no concrete talk of how or whether The Purple Carrot will make its model more accessible to people with lower incomes. For now, it’s simply out of reach.
Lowering the cost could definitely be accomplished but would likely be less profitable for The Purple Carrot. Instead of beautiful produce arriving in carefully packaged boxes, families could receive “ugly” or misshapen produce for lower costs, along with some recipe cards. Or customers could be given the option of buying staple accompaniments such as rice or potatoes in bulk rather than per-meal packages.
It’s up to Bittman and The Purple Carrot to decide whether they want to put profitability or philosophy first. Not every company can or should operate like a nonprofit, and maybe the small changes they’re making are enough to make a difference somewhere.
But perhaps as these services saturate the markets of people who can afford them, companies will branch out in new directions. Reaching the people who could benefit most from cooking better and faster is truly putting ideals into action.