A KitcheNet box of food staples

You can get a meal kit for just about anything these days: unusual flavors, new cooking techniques, strictly vegan dishes. But despite the variety, meal-kit services tend to all wind up in the same category: they’re a luxury. Sometimes it’s the cost; sometimes it’s time required to create a recipe. Often it’s both, which means if you don’t have disposable hours or income, a meal kit will not make your life easier the way companies claim it can.

But now, a startup in Chicago called KitcheNet wants to drive—literally—the meal kit in a new direction by combining it with the buyer-club concept to get fresher, healthier food into food-insecure areas. It’s estimated that 42.2 million Americans live in these areas—also called food deserts—where access to food is inconsistent and uncertain, to say nothing of the quality. (This handy map has more information about where and why this happens.)

Even those not living in food deserts see cost as a barrier. In a recent Nielsen survey, 46 percent of respondents said they would be “more likely to purchase a meal kit if it were less expensive.”

Clearly there’s a market for fresher, more convenient food at affordable prices, and there are some startups putting price before exotic side dishes. Dinnerly, for example, calls itself “the most affordable meal service delivery,” and it is—for some. But asking many families to drop around $70 on three meals per week remains unrealistic. These are the people KitcheNet wants to reach.

KitcheNet began as a delivery service for prepared foods in 2016, winning third place in the University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenges contest that year. The team of entrepreneurs behind the project soon realized a meal-kit-like service was a more efficient way to get food into the hands of folks living in food deserts. At the moment, you can purchase meal kits via regular payment methods. At some point in the future, the company wants to be able to accept payments from those using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other assistance programs. Ultimately, those are the people KitcheNet wants to reach most.

Consumers can choose from one of three kits each week: $22 for a single adult, $38 for two adults and two children, and $62 for a five-person family. Each kit is constructed based on the USDA MyPlate portion. The goal is to make those staples cheaper than they would be at the local shop.

One difference from other meal kit services is that KitcheNet uses pickup locations, rather than delivering to doorsteps. “We have noticed that in communities like Englewood, many families spend a significant amount of time at the community centers,” cofounder and CEO Trista Li explained to me. “Bringing our KitcheNet kit to locations where they already go could save [those people] time, as well as simplify our logistics to support the affordable price of our product.”

Right now, KitcheNet operates in parts of Chicago’s Southside, and its immediate focus for growth is throughout that part of the city. From there, the service will head to the west side of Chicago.

“The meal/grocery kit delivery market is still a very new market in general, and there are definitely gaps that could be filled,” says Li.

We can only hope that means an eventual KitcheNet expansion will unfold across the country, leading the new wave of meal services and getting real food to the folks who need it most.

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated KitcheNet offers subscription services. KitcheNet does not and has never provided such services.

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