Baby food isn’t as simple as mashed bananas.
That’s what private equity firm director Angela Sutherland discovered while pregnant with her first child in 2013. When she wasn’t working 10-hour days, she was researching what a baby should consume during the first 1,000 days. Proper nutrition at the start of a child’s life, she had read, is fundamental to health and development.
“Everything you feed them goes straight to their brain,” says Sutherland, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker.
Sutherland recalls how the baby nutrition category seemed, to her, inefficient and overwhelming. If she tried to learn everything about baby nutrition to feed her child, where would she find the time for all that peeling, cutting, steaming, and puréeing? Her options were either spending hours each week in the kitchen or grabbing a jar off the supermarket shelf that, as she describes, “was sometimes older than my baby.”
Or, in some cases, loaded with sugar, additives, and preservatives. Roughly 90% of America’s babies are fed mass-produced food, according to food historian Amy Bentley, author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet. And most options from major brands, including Gerber’s, are not even meant to be daily meal staples, but rather supplements. The University of Glasgow concluded that supermarket baby brands contain fewer nutrients than homemade meals and that babies would need to eat twice as much of the processed food to get the same energy and protein as home-cooked meals. The World Health Organization found that babies who eat homemade meals may learn to appreciate a wider variety of food types and be leaner than infants who eat store-bought products. And, as if all that weren’t scary enough, the Environmental Defense Fund recently announced that detectable levels of lead were found in 20% of 2,164 baby food samples.
There’s plenty there to cause parents concern. So where are the healthy, full-fledged meals for babies? And in this age of hyper convenience, why aren’t they being delivered to people’s doors?
Those were the questions Sutherland hoped to answer when, in late 2015, she teamed up with former Wall Street Journal journalist Evelyn Rusli to found Yumi, a meal delivery program for infants and toddlers that attempts to ensure a proper balance of nutrients.
Launched this month, the Los Angeles-based startup services greater California. Parents receive 6, 10, or 14 fresh, organic, low-sugar meals at their doorsteps for $45-$85 a week. And we’re not talking basic applesauce. These are recipes crafted by chefs and infused with the Yumi’s philosophy of “every ingredient has a purpose.” Think blueberry chia seed pudding mixed with quinoa, dates, and wheat germ oil, or puréed squash and kale with spirulina, nutritional yeast, and flax. The company caters to moms who want the very best for their little one–which might mean chopped dragon fruit.
It’s not the only service of its kind. In the last two years, nearly a dozen new companies have sprung up that present themselves as a healthy, convenient alternative to big brands like Gerber’s, which owns 61% of the market. With weekly prices for these services averaging about $45, the startups cater to affluent, health-conscious young parents who are familiar with services like Blue Apron and want an alternative to the standard jarred food model. Some of these companies specialize in fresh meals, some in frozen, and they vary in how they prepare and ship their products. But all are founded on the premise that there are no simple, healthy alternatives on market.
“The average supermarket-shelf baby food has about 12 grams of sugar, so if a baby is eating that three times a day, that’s equivalent to a can of Coke or more,” says Michelle Davenport, a registered dietician and cofounder of one of the new companies in this sector, Raised Real.
The bottom line, Yumi’s Sutherland says, is that feeding your child “shouldn’t be this onerous process. So our goal is: How do we make the parent worry-free?”
Baby Steps To Better Nutrition
In an era when even organic dog food has its own delivery startup, it’s no surprise baby food has received the Silicon Valley treatment. Mainstream attention to health and wellness has crept into nearly every product category, demographic, and age range.
Yumi cofounder Rusli says the well-heeled millennial moms she and Sutherland encounter, many of them in Los Angeles and New York, consider health their chief concern. As a recent Goldman Sachs report found, millennials, more than other generation, are increasingly opting for healthier food options. Just as traditional fast-food chains lost market share to slightly more nutritious establishments like Panera Bread, the pattern could make its way to toddler menus.
Jill Castle, a pediatric nutritionist and the author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, says that baby nutrition is as important as all these startups stress. It’s not just a helicopter mom’s anxiety. “It is one of the most important stages in a child’s life, in terms of setting the foundation for growth and development–not just body growth, but brain development,” she says.
Gerber’s does have an organic baby food line. For $1.29, parents can purchase a pouch of fruits and veggies made with no preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or artificial flavors. An average serving has 4g of sugar, on par with its organic competitors and about 3-8g less than a similar product from the company’s only slightly cheaper conventional line. But even the organic pouch isn’t meant to be consumed three to five times a day, says Gerber CMO Aileen Stocks.
“We acknowledge, that yes, our products play a role [in a daily diet], but so do fresh fruit and veggies,” she says. “We do fully support having a varied and healthy diet, which includes our products and homemade food.”
Yumi, on the other hand, is meant to be a comprehensive meal plan for babies—and a de-stresser for anxious new parents. The company’s “holistic approach,” Rusli says, provides all of a child’s nutritional needs for each week. If one meal is high in iron, the other might be rich in Vitamin C. To create menus, the cofounders partnered with several registered physicians and nutrition experts, including Dr. Nicole Avena, author of the upcoming What to Feed Your Baby.
Another company, Thistle, was born of similar intentions. Three months ago, Shiri Avnery and her husband, Ashwin Cheriyan, launched a startup that, for $45 a week, delivers 21 flash-frozen, organic plant-based baby-food meal kits to parents in California and Nevada. Avnery says each meal is crafted with herbs, spices, and superfoods to “develop babies’ palates” for healthier food. “Little Green Machine” is made of broccoli, asparagus, green beans, pears, and tarragon—all peeled, chopped, measured, and ready to steam and purée.
Raised Real, which started shipping to a handful of states in April, offers a similar biweekly formula with a Juicero-like twist. In addition to 20 meals a month for $95, customers can purchase a $99 Meal Maker, a blender that steams and purées—just like the many other machines that have been on the market for years, including the Beaba Babycook. For a limited time, the Meal Maker comes free with a monthly subscription.
Another April arrival, Little Spoon, considers itself a response to the trend of pouch-packaging, which some nutritionists deem detrimental to babies developing proper chewing and biting skills. Each plastic meal cup of puréed organic fruits and veggies comes with a kid-friendly spoon.
A Healthy Market For Healthy Baby Food?
While investors have thrown their support behind these startups—the multibillion-dollar Schwan Food Company invested $1 million in Raised Real, for instance—that doesn’t necessarily mean that the companies will scale successfully. The on-demand food startup sector is marked by plenty of struggling newcomers that fail to profit off the industry’s small margins. Sprig, SpoonRocket, and Maple are just a few meal delivery services that ceased operations of late.
Currently, the meal kit sector is “a very small market,” says Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for market research company The NPD Group. Only 5% of of adults say that they have tried one, and of those who haven’t, 20% said they are interested, reports the group. Most leave the service for cost reasons, Seifer says.
The market is also crowded. “It seems to be mirroring what we saw in the late ’90s with all the dot-coms jockeying for market shares, and then it whittled to a few big ones, like Amazon,” he says. On the plus side, however, the core customer base is a coveted one. “[Millennials] are driving new habits. They grew up knowing they can order basically anything on the internet,” Seifer says. “[Baby food meal kits] has legs to it, based on who will be the main consumers in the future.”
But are affluent millennials enough to keep these companies afloat? While Yumi and others do offer free recipes and nutrition information on their websites, that’s about as close as lower-income parents will likely every get to the luxury of delivered gourmet baby meals. And these are the very people who need fresh, nutritious food the most, since poorer neighborhoods tend to lack full grocery stores that stock a variety of fruits and vegetables. In these “food deserts,” cash-strapped families depend on convenience stores with limited produce, according to the nonprofit Food Resource and Action Center. And when there are decent supermarkets, healthier products are almost always more expensive than processed ones.
Little Spoon cofounder and CMO Lisa Barnett says that, in the long run, she doesn’t intend for her company to only cater to the one percent in coastal cities. She says her company plans to go national in the coming year and is creating a supply chain that can “just as easily ship to Kentucky as it can ship to New York.” Cost-wise, these startups hope that once they secure more customers, they can lower prices. Just how low, however, is unclear.
Of course, there’s also the question of just how useful these services are. Is it really that difficult to prepare fresh produce to be steamed and puréed? How much time are these services actually saving parents? The handful of mothers I spoke had mixed responses.
Taskrabbit founder Leah Busque, a self-described “crazy busy working mom” in San Francisco, started using Raised Real after the birth of her second child. “I feel so much freer this time and not so overwhelmed,” she says. “I love that [my baby] is getting introduced to interesting ingredients so early. This is the time when their taste buds are developing.”
Halie Geller, on the other hand, doesn’t see the point. “I don’t see why it’s so difficult to take a fork and mash up a sweet potato or banana,” says Geller, an attorney from Huntington, New York. “My toddler is a picky eater, so the idea of paying a small fortune for her to spit out or throw her organically grown, freshly prepared, mashed-up food seems ridiculous.”
Allegra Marino Shmulevsky, an adjunct lecturer at New York’s Pratt Institute, is also unlikely to sign up for any of the services anytime soon. When it’s time for her son to eat, she simply purées a portion of whatever is on the menu for the entire family. It’s called child-led weaning and it’s what her pediatrician recommended. “I give [my baby] soft things to eat and he sort of figures it out himself,” she says. “Part of my hesitance to do purées made just for him, rather than just blending what we were eating, is that that sounds really time-consuming.”
To grow beyond the 1%, these companies have their work cut out for them. But Little Spoon’s Barnett isn’t worried. The service is still invite-only, but she says there are 3,000 people on the waiting list.
And she sees another promising sign: parents who have grown so fond of the meal packets that they use them for their own use—in a morning smoothie, for instance. “Hopefully by the time Little Spoon is national,” Barnett says, “it will no longer be, ‘I’m not trying the baby food, but ‘Hey, I hope there’s some left over for me.”