Food people and busy people — or, in all likeliness, both — have all probably dabbled in meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Sun Basket, Needham-based Purple Carrot, or a CSA share.
Family Dinner, a food delivery service founded in 2017, mixes the best of both. You sign up online for the share size that is right for your family, or you can pick and choose from a selection of farm fresh and seasonal meats, fish, dairy, and locally produced vegan options. They e-mail you recipe ideas when your order is on the way, and it’s hand-delivered in a reusable bag that you give back the next time you order. Almost everything is wrapped in paper. It’s that simple.
“We wrote an e-mail . . . this sounds so silly and whimsical now,” co-founder Erin Baumgartner explained. “We wrote an e-mail to a few of our friends, and we said, ‘We have this idea. Would you let us pilot it on you? Would you let us bring you your groceries for three weeks?’ People would literally PayPal us money every week, and we would bring them a sort of beta version of Family Dinner. We would go to farmers markets and different venues, and we would shop, and we would deliver them to our friends’ houses.”
Baumgartner, who was assistant director of the MIT Senseable City Lab for several years, used this to cull feedback. She explained that the beta version, “Gave us all of the information that we needed to build a more cohesive system to launch to a broader audience, which we did in September of 2017.”
Both Baumgartner and her husband, Tim Fu (who went to MIT for grad school and currently works for an energy analytics firm), saw this as an opportunity to use their skills to create a better system.
“How do we use local food, how do we use local systems to improve upon what we see to be kind of a broken national food system? That sounds like a super lofty goal, but we know that if you can do better by supporting local farms and local families growing food the right way . . . we hope that that has eventually a ripple effect,” said Baumgartner. “We’ve even seen it with our tiny corner of this business, and everyone’s hoping that we’ve seen those improvements. It’s kind of this coin that has these two very different sounding sides. Farmers market delivery service, but it’s a business based on data and food supply chain.”
Jennifer Park, the owner of Forge Baking Co., Diesel, and Bloc cafes in Somerville, works with Family Dinner not only as a supplier of baked goods, but as a customer for her businesses, agrees, explaining, “What [Family Dinner] is doing is really being that distribution piece. Really solves a lot of the physical getting of the food, which is sometimes the biggest challenge in sourcing local produce. It’s just like, ‘How do we get it?’ Even though it’s so close.”
And with good reason, she says, “Being in the food industry, we’re always looking for windows to source local produce and find the best flavors of food. Anything that’s in season and locally sourced tends to taste the best.”
Local farmers and other food purveyors have been eager to work with Family Dinner as they’ve grown because the business is able to almost guarantee how much product they will buy from the supplier, based on past data. “They plant what we request they plant based on the numbers that we are suggesting with the confidence that it will sell,” explained Baumgartner, “and without having to go to farmers markets or other venues and not being sure that their product will move.”
And while Baumgartner sees the value of other meal delivery services as a way to get newbies into the kitchen and cooking, the Family Dinner team is proud to have culled much of the waste seen with other meal kits. The weekly share is hand delivered in a refrigerated bag that members give back the next week. The produce and dry goods are primarily packaged in paper and the meats in a minimum amount of plastic.
Everything in a Family Dinner order comes from farms and fisheries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which means the product is super fresh — and actually local — unlike many meal-kit services that make that claim. One of the biggest players in the meal-kit industry distributes all of its meals from centers in California, Texas, and New Jersey.
“Local to what? Right. Maybe local compared to Singapore, but that’s not local to New England, said Baumgartner. “That’s not local, when we have so many rich opportunities for growing and farming right around us.”
That commitment to local resonates. “I think there’s just a shared-love-for-the-community aspect of what we do and then, also, for the food,” said Park, ruminating on why she works with the Family Dinner team. “There’s a deep appreciation for the food that we receive, and also just a shared love of sharing that food, and that food experience.”
Tanya Edwards can be reached at edwardstanyalynn@