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Can Money Buy You the Perfect Diet?

I tested out a meal delivery service touted by Lena Dunham, Victoria's Secret models, and a bunch of Wall Street execs to see if money could "fix" my diet.

For the past 15 years—around the time I started making conscious choices about what to eat—food has been a source of stress, joy and medicine.

Like 30 million other people in the US, I struggled with an eating disorder when I was growing up. I spent years counting calories and miles, and watching my weight drop and rise drastically on the scale. There are months I don't remember because I was starving, and others where I succumbed to out-of-control hunger. My quest for the perfect diet—one that was both nourishing and ethical—felt far out of reach.

I've always thought that some of this disconnect came from living an urban life, far from the food system. Even back in the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as will not offend the imagination." So he moved from Concord, Massachusetts to rural Walden and grew everything he ate himself. Clean eating was not invented by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Plated Sakara meals. Image: Ankita Rao

But in cities like New York—between Instagramming our prettiest meals and finding the cheapest brand of quinoa—we can't necessarily do that. I'm surrounded by markets, restaurants and knowledge, but not always the time or money to choose the foods that nutritionists promise will make me thrive.

The only people who can do that might be the wealthy, who can pay for private chefs, or one of the many high-end meal planning services, to circumvent the decision fatigue that hits me at the grocery store. So after years of dissecting this relationship between my plate, body, and the environment, I decided to outsource my internal conflict: by paying someone to give me organic, locally grown, customized meals.

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Choosing a meal service is harder than picking a movie on Netflix. The food industry continues to reinvent ways to save time, populating the spectrum between fast food and a personal chef.

After a few days of research, I settled on Sakara, a service that has been applauded by the likes of Lena Dunham, Victoria's Secret models, and apparently, men on Wall Street. People just like me.

The website, splashy and white, promised locally sourced, plant-based meals, and it cost $420 for five days, about four times as much as I spend on my weekly meals. It was clear to me that I wasn't just subscribing to a food service, I was signing up for a lifestyle, an aesthetic.

Meeting the founders of Sakara, Whitney Tingle and Danielle DuBoise, at their headquarters in SoHo was further confirmation—they're both vibrant and trendy, accustomed to picture-perfect poses with plates of their food. The two friends from Sedona, Arizona started the company in 2012. Tingle was exhausted from her unhealthy life working on Wall Street. And DuBoise, who went to nutrition school while modeling and acting on the side, had struggled with body image issues for years. "One extreme is birthday cake in the office, and drinks after work, and the other is water fasting," Tingle said.

DuBoise and Tingle at the Sakara office in SoHo. Image: Ankita Rao

On the Sunday night before my week of Sakara started, I got a branded refrigerated bag delivered to my door with two days of the mostly vegan meals. I also got a little bottle of "night water" and "morning water" each day, infused with "superfoods" like chlorella and rose. I was officially, as the company calls it, "on Sakara".

The timing of my trial was impeccable—I had just moved into a new apartment and had yet to buy a pot, let alone a fork. When I opened the first meal, a dairy-free yogurt with dried fruit compote, I had to scoop it out with my fingertips. (No silver spoon here.)

Almost all of the Sakara lunches and dinners were technically salads, some with accompaniments like zaatar bread and hummus. And almost all of them were delicious—the soba noodle salad with kimchi is astringent perfection, and the dark chocolate granola is the stuff of addiction.

Meanwhile, I was digesting the company's Cosmo-mag messaging. Most Sakara meals were inscribed with words like "sexy" and "young" listed on the label like ingredients. Youth, I knew, was something rich people have taken on as a hobby. But equating nourishment with beauty was suspect.

"Sexy is like a code word for powerful," Tingle explained. "What surprises me the most is that most people don't even know what that feels like."

I'm not sure if I felt sexy or powerful eating Sakara meals, though I did feel relieved. Having fresh, pristine vegetables delivered to my door, without needing to chop, store and get mad when my spinach wilts, was a beautiful thing. And Sakara sources from farmers in the region, so I didn't feel terrible that it all came in plastic (compostable) boxes.

Sakara meals come in individual boxes and jars. Image: Courtesy of Sakara

But I did hit some technical difficulties. For one, I wasn't full. I snack a lot normally, but these meals did not stick to my bones. I asked DuBoise and Tingle whether all of their clients—from the Victoria's Secret models to 6-foot-tall finance guys—got the same amount of food, and they assured me it was enough.

"My husband and I eat this and we're both full," DuBoise told me. "The difference in the amount of calories we need, from male to female, is so small and incremental." (It's actually about 130 calories more for every 10 pounds of body weight).

I also felt uncomfortable with the pre-determined meal plan. I wanted this service to take the guesswork and stress out of my daily decisions, but the food I wanted to eat didn't always coincide with what was in front of me. And the lack of choice was compounded by my once-threatened relationship with food. When you're recovering from years of feeling guilty about food, any hint of rules or restrictions are a trigger.

Sakara, I was told repeatedly, is not a diet but a lifestyle. And for DuBoise, who struggled with disordered eating for years, it's a lifestyle that has helped her heal. But for me, having three sealed, plastic boxes of meals every day, felt like giving the keys of my body to a stranger. And I wasn't sure why people, regardless of their wealth, or the quality of the program, were willing to give that up in exchange for more time.

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"No superfood is going to save you from anything," said Krishnendu Ray, author and chair of the food studies department at New York University.

After my week of Sakara I was back in my normal cooking routine (i.e. make a huge amount of food on Sunday and get sick of it by Thursday), and spending less than $100 on a week of groceries. But my normal diet felt inadequate now that I knew what all the beautiful people were eating, and I wondered if I needed to go foraging for some edible flowers.

Ray put an end to that. An expert on the intersection of food and culture, he said that wealthy Americans are obsessed with longevity, and the perfect diet. "It creates a massive individualization, an absurd search for another form of narcissism of 'how can I live well forever,'" he said.

Ray, on the far left, preparing food during a course with his students in Sydney, Australia. Image: Courtesy of Krishnendu Ray

That narcissism can take a toll on our entire food system. Ray said the conceptual problem with high-end food services, like Sakara or Provenance Meals, is that the consumers who can afford to spend $100 a day on healthy, fresh and environmentally-conscious food feel less responsibility to demand that all of our food should fit these guidelines. Our policies then suffer, and we continue to rely on imported and processed food, which has made us less healthy and less food secure. He calls it a "social eating disorder."

"There's hyperconsciousness about what I eat, and no concern about what others are forced to eat," he said. Think of food deserts, the low-resource neighborhoods bereft of fresh produce. Or the dismal state of our public school lunches.

"The ugly side about this consciousness about good food is leading the upper class to be obsessed about what they eat—kale, quinoa—almost like a magical thing they want to surround themselves with to be healthy and protect themselves," Ray said.

Low access food areas. Image: USDA

There's also the question of outsourcing the entire process of selecting your food. Tingle and DuBoise spent a lot of time studying food and cooking meals until they figured out a balance that worked for them. They went to workshops in ayurveda, an ancient Indian science that views food as medicine, and DuBoise has a degree in nutrition. And they're capitalizing on what I feel: that not everyone has the time or energy to do that legwork.

But maybe, Ray said, there's a compromise. Maybe, instead of stressing ourselves out about antioxidants and the perfect diet, we need to raise people in a society that places inherent value on understanding our place in the food cycle. And what better place to do that, he said, than the public school system.

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On a sunny Wednesday morning, right on the cusp of fall, I visited a particularly aromatic classroom in Harlem to see how this could work. Two teachers, Leonisa Johnson and Jen Holder, were preparing whole grain pasta and vegetables at PS7.

This is Edible Schoolyard NYC, a non-profit program that runs in six schools across New York. The programming, which includes gardening, cooking and community farmers markets, reaches about 2,800 children across the city, most of whom live in low-income neighborhoods.

"We want the kids to be open tasters, open minded," Holder told me as she divvied up bell peppers. "It helps give students options when they're older."

A few minutes later, a dozen eighth graders tumbled into the classroom in typical middle schooler fashion. A girl with a big, sweeping ponytail laughed about a kid who had cried in an earlier class. A couple of self-conscious boys in sweatshirts stood quietly around their workstations.

The garden at PS7. Image: Julian Hibbard/Edible Schoolyard NYC

Johnson and Holder got to work teaching the lesson: a tomato sauce with summer vegetables. And the next half an hour was a flurry of grating tomatoes, chopping garlic, heating up saucepans and stirring, stirring, and stirring.

At the end of the lesson the students spread out tablecloths and ladled the pasta and sauce into their plates. One of the boys put a flowery table setting in front of the girls, while a girl pulled out her phone and sent a Snapchat photo of the meal to a friend.

As they were eating, I asked the kids a little bit about what they were learning, and how it translated at home. "I'm the only one in my house who cooks breakfast," said a boy named Zack. Another student, Jalen, said he didn't like some vegetables before he made them in the classroom.

After the classroom, I walked through the garden, where kids help plant seeds and grow vegetables and herbs. Later that day there would be a farm stand, where kids helped organize and sell the produce.

Edible Schoolyard NYC is clearly exposing kids to both a skill, and a food cycle, that they might not otherwise learn amid the concrete jungle. And an independent analysis from Columbia University's Teachers College proved that it impacts the kids' food choices for the better. As Ray hypothesized, this is exactly what could combat the disconnect that I grew up with regarding food. But education isn't immune to financial constraints.

Teachers explain the lessons to students in small groups. Image: Julian Hibbard/Edible Schoolyard NYC

"Food is central to this community, but not everyone has the time to cook and eat together," said Annette Slonim, the coordinator of PS7's Edible Schoolyard NYC program. She told me that some of the kids at the school came from unstable homes, sometimes living in homeless shelters, or with parents who worked long hours.

It struck me that this idea of not having enough time was all-pervasive, sneaking its way through every socioeconomic class, and threatening the time we would normally use to prepare food. The difference was that one class could afford to pay their way out of the dilemma.

"We're in a time famine," Ray agreed. "And what you need for good attention to food is a little more time."

That solution could come through a combination of policy and culture. On the one hand, Ray pointed out, we could have better labor regulations that incentivize people to only work a certain number hours a day. In Austria, for example, people get 35 days off of work every year, compared to 16 here in the US.

So we're not fighting for access to good food, but we're also not fighting for more time to cook it ourselves.

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Which brings me to the simple act of cooking.

Shortly after my week of Sakara I was cooking in my new kitchen. I cut up tomatoes, onions, ginger and garlic. I soaked dried kidney beans, and then boiled them and drained them. I added garam masala, red chili powder, salt, turmeric and coriander seeds from this round, steel box that my aunt brought me when she came to visit my new apartment. And I put it all in a slow cooker and let it steep overnight.

From the turmeric under my fingernails, to the scent of the rajma cooking in my kitchen, I instantly felt at home. I was raised in a household where eating was communal, and had the luxury of eating with my family every night. And while I've been on my own, or on the road, for the past 10 years, I've always been drawn to the home-cooked meal, even if that home isn't my own.

My spice box. Image: Ankita Rao

Ray takes this one step further. For him, cooking has been transformative. He told me that when he moved to the US from India, he was also moving away from a lifestyle where the women at home cooked all the meals, which is par for the course across the world, including the US. As a single father in New York he now cooks almost every day with his son.

"Cooking is caregiving," he said. "I have to take care of someone's life. His good health depends on me."

When we outsource all of our meals to someone else, even if that someone else knows more about nutrition than we do, we might lose something more important than time. We might lose our connection to the people around us. Or the connection to the earth that grows our food. And that's something we carry within our bodies, our social and personal eating disorders.

Tingle and DuBoise, having spent so much time cooking themselves, seem to know that. And Sakara reflects the depth of their knowledge. DuBoise said she doesn't want Sakara to be a crutch, but rather a reference point for people who don't know what, or how, to eat.

But I'm not sure when that knowledge was actually lost. Maybe somewhere between industrialization, and our endless ambition, and Snapchatting avocado toast at brunch. Or maybe it is just about how we spend our time, whether it's in our hands or dictated by our work and culture.

And I know that for me, there won't be a replacement, or a shortcut, for choosing, or cooking my own food. Because even though my diet is far less ideal than one that experts can make for me, it's a reflection of this imperfect journey with my body. And we've made it this far intact.

Luxury Week is a series about our evolving views of what constitutes luxury. Follow along here.

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