The Future of Food

When I was younger, my dream was to be a professional chef. This was driven partially by my aunt’s love of all things Paula Dean. I remember sitting in the living room next to my toy kitchen set, watching the Food Network for hours on end. Most of my childhood was either spent here or in the kitchen attempting to make something tasty out of whatever ingredients we had on hand (See below for a picture of 5-year-old Liv attempting to make some pie). Although my cooking skills did not evolve to be anything special, my interest in all things food has continued. I am a foodie at my core.

As technology continued to alter our world, food and grocery were the two industries that I never thought would be disrupted. How could you automize something that held such a significant place in our day to day lives? Somehow it just felt wrong to me and, to an extent, it still makes me a little uneasy. According to an Accenture study, the food industry as we know it is going to change more in the next ten years than it has in the past fifty. Every aspect will be altered including what we shop for, how we shop, and who (or what) actually does the shopping.

Several macro-level changes have attributed to this shift. The world population will continue to move away from rural areas into more urban areas, necessitating increased efficiency in the supply chain to compensate for decreased production. As wealth inequality continues to increase in the United States, consumers who are lacking access to healthy food are going to seek out more efficient ways to improve their diets. Climate change will lead to a change in growing seasons and crop production. New food businesses with new business models are popping up left and right with these problems in mind. These new platforms utilize big data, analytics, and AI in order to decrease inefficiencies and cater to modern, convenience-seeking consumers. (The chart below, created by Accenture, shows the different business models that can be adopted based on the consumers desired level of effort and convenience.)

Take meal prep kits and grocery delivery for instance. Startups in this category raised $781 million in funding in 2017 alone. Hello Fresh and Blue Apron make it easy to pick your meals ahead of time, and all the ingredients get shipped directly to your door. Instacart allows you to shop from a variety of different grocers at once and then select a delivery time that is most convenient for you. Both platforms analyze your personal shopping habits, selecting meals and sending coupons to create an extremely personalized shopping experience. Personal assistant services like these are expected to continue to grow, grabbing more market share as customers become increasingly dependent on a high level of convenience.

As much as grocery delivery has altered the marketplace for food, there is no match for the impact AI will have on the industry. AI bots will continue to increase in intelligence and number, connecting industries throughout the health and wellness landscape. This is where I think the future of food gets interesting. For example, let’s say ten years down the line your health care provider or nutritionist recommends you follow a specific diet. They upload the required caloric information to your health and wellness app on your phone. This app is also linked to the local grocery stores in your area. The local grocer’s AI bot will run your nutritional recommendations against the food items they have in stock and provide you with a number of different pre-made meal options and recipes. You approve which meals you would like for that week and the grocer’s AI bot compiles a list of ingredients. This list is then sent to your smart fridge and smart pantry where those bots double check the ingredients you already have on hand, preventing double purchases. The double-checked list is then sent to the grocer’s warehouse, where all the fresh ingredients are picked, packed, and delivered to your door by Sunday afternoon.

I don’t know if I will ever be completely okay with that level of disconnect from the food I eat every day. However, the level of efficiency and convenience that AI brings to the table is unmatched, and it has the ability to solve a number of problems within the food industry. Double-checking for needed ingredients and delivery of pre-portioned amounts will lead to a decrease in food waste. Assuming that technological advances will eventually drive down the costs of these services, the automated delivery system will allow for increased access to healthy food for people living in food deserts.

While it may always be a little creepy, I’m interested to see where the future of food is headed and the kind of impact it will have on our society. I was once convinced that the food industry was undisruptable, but I’ve come to realize that the disruption is just getting started.

11 comments

  1. This is a really interesting take on AI and how it relates to food. I believe there is certainly value in the some of the ways this technology could be used to help shoppers, such as those who are a new recommended diet. When I was first required to go gluten free by my doctor I would have loved a grocery cart to just appear with everything I needed. I am skeptical and agree with you that there is a human element that should never be removed from food or the shopping experience, at the end of the day computers are only as smart as what we put into them. Is a machine really going to understand when you say you want your mom’s home cooked meal?

  2. dilillomelissa · ·

    I am also a big foodie and love the art of cooking. I am such a fan of the meal prep services like Home Chef or Blue Apron, for instance. I’ve actually never ordered my groceries online because I like the peaceful time during my week where I can head to the grocery store by myself and pick out ingredients. With that being said, there are many individuals that do not have the option to leave their home easily or the stores are extremely far from them. I can absolutely see how convenience factors would be high on their importance list and using technology could get them there. I’ve been doing a lot of research on industry disruptors in a couple classes and I’ve been seeing the idea of these AI bots more and more. I agree with you that these ideas do seem to be borderline creepy at this point, but I’m sure we’ll feel differently once a lot of this technology is implemented and we can see the hopefully positive impacts.

  3. I really liked the personal connection you have to this topic and I can relate to the discomfort you feel by being disconnect to the food you consume. The graphic you included that details how much you want to work and where you want to get your food nicely lays out the options we currently have. I particularly liked the example you outlined about a robot picking out groceries for you based on your nutritionist’s recommendations, because this example is not too far from reality. Great take on the food industry and its potential!!

  4. This is a really interesting industry to discuss innovation in, specifically because it is so personal to so many of us. Even if you’re not a foodie, most people care to some degree about what they eat and where it’s coming from. I too have always been a little uncomfortable with grocery delivery services — I like to carefully pick what I’m buying, especially fruits, vegetables, and meat. I hate the idea of someone picking out a bruised apple, when I could just go pick a perfect one out on my own! It reminds me a little of what I wrote last week about the fashion industry. Like fashion, there is something about food that seems to be a fundamental mismatch with the online model. But you raise a great point about efficiency and convenience. When the health and wellness advantages of a technology-enabled process, like AI fulfillment of a nutritionist’s recommendations, so far outweigh the disadvantages of a the possibility of bruised apple, it’s probably time to give these innovations a more honest look. I think this is might be an area of slower adoption, but we’ll all probably get used to the integration of technology into the food industry over time!

  5. I agree that I am unsure of the feeling of disconnect from the food I eat. There’s a certain pride about heading to the supermarket, prepping lunches for the week, and cooking new meals. But as you wrote about, Blue Apron and companies alike are there to assist you in crafting new meals if someone desires to. I ordered Blue Apron last year for a few weeks and it was amazing the different flavors each meal contained…and it was so easy to order on their app, view nutritional information and peek ahead to upcoming menus. I see AI playing a huge role in how folks shop in the next three to five years as so many people that live in the city tend to shift towards a delivery service for their groceries. Stop and Shop is working on rolling out a driverless car in the next year to bring basic groceries to neighborhood cities…folks can simply walk outside, grab some groceries, and the technology will charge them immediately. Should be interesting to see how this pans out! https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2019/01/17/stop-and-shop-self-driving-driverless/

  6. I really enjoyed this post. As a consumer who strongly identifies with the “Traditional In-Store Shopping” section of the Accenture chart, I also never thought too much about the grocery industry being disrupted (and the effect any disruption might have on me). Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of InstaCart and (more recently) Prime Now shoppers that have made my local Whole Foods even more crowded at peak times. While I happen to enjoy going to the store and picking out items myself before coming home to meal-prep for the week, I do appreciate how these services are able to make grocery shopping more convenient for those who are in a different situation. Your thoughts on AI taking the food industry to a new level were really interesting – I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of letting technology take over an errand that I enjoy doing “by hand,” but maybe in 10 years I’ll have a totally different opinion! With that said, I appreciated reading about the positive features that AI could bring to the industry in terms of reducing food waste and increasing accessibility for people who could benefit from it. It will be interesting to see what happens!

  7. Definitely crazy to see how industries once thought to stay the same forever are also at risk for major disruption from technology and AI. No industry is safe. I also love food and cooking, and I completely agree with your discomfort on that level of disconnect. In my Product Planning and Strategy class the other day we were just talking about grocery delivery services and how, while people certainly use them, they have not taken off nearly as fast as many projected they would. We determined that this was largely because services like this take away the experience and visual cues we all experience when we physically go into a grocery store, and a lot of shoppers aren’t ready to give that up. However, while what you described may make a lot of us uncomfortable now, who knows what we will be okay with in a few years time. Technology has made so many people gradually push their boundaries about what they are comfortable with, ending a few years out being okay with things we never would have tolerated a few years before.

  8. I really think you’re on to something with the example you give about using AI to help people with dietary restrictions pick out groceries. When I first read the title of this post, I assumed that it was going to be about Instagram food accounts and influencers who deal with food, but I was pleasantly surprised. Another interesting topic to write about if you’re a big foodie would be the effects of services like Grubhub and Uber Eats on the restaurant industry. I have yet to try out the meal kit delivery concept, but these takeout services have definitely been game-changers for both me and the restaurants I love.

  9. I am definitely a self proclaimed foodie and can foresee a shortage of production given the influx of people moving to more urban areas, take Boston for example. I haven’t tried the meal kit concept yet, but to me it seems like they appeal to the audience that does not have enough time to go shopping on a regular basis, or can’t decide on what to make. I think that market is quite saturated and these companies running on a subscription based model are competing neck to neck to close that customer. The problem is most of these companies offer some sort of discount or free trial for a period of time and that system can be abused if someone decides to rotate between all the meal prep kit companies. In your future scenario, I think that disconnect would certainly make me feel uneasy, not because everything is done for me, but more so because I wouldn’t be involved in that process. I think going grocery shopping and taking your time to browse around trumps convenience, but then again we as busy bodies don’t always have all the time in the world to buy our groceries for the week. It will be interesting to see really how long until AI becomes a huge part of the food industry.

  10. Great topic & relevant especially with the war between companies you are seeing in this space. There is so much competition with meal kit companies, retailers continuously facilitating in home delivery, and food delivery services (Grubhub/UberEats). I’ve been using Blue Apron for half a year now and although I didn’t think it would be a service I needed in my life, the ease of not having to grocery shop or meal prep for some portion of the week has been a convenience that I have been ok with paying premium for. A related article I read in the #IS6621 tag highlighted how Instagram’s trend of food sharing and tagging has made new cuisines more accessible and appealing for people that might not have been interested in trying these out in the past. The ability to share these new ways to both source and consume different cuisines probably have had an effect on how much more open we as a society have become with letting bloggers, or in the case of this post companies, make decisions for us.

  11. Seeing the food industry take off through online options shows just how far our society has come. At one point it was hard to trust the quality of food you would receive through these delivery services, but as we have become more comfortable with online shopping these transactions feel ever more natural. I like the thought that these services can help distribute food to areas where it is traditionally unaccessible. On a different note, services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh can help build appreciation for different types of cuisine and culture through user experimentations with meal options. I wonder if this can help build a more inclusive society with better appreciation for those around us…

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