I’ve written about the downsides of companies that bring groceries or prepared food to our doors, like Instacart and Uber Eats. App-based fresh food deliveries take a toll on our neighborhoods and impose punishing demands on workers.
But today I want to focus on a positive aspect of delivery apps. Newly published research from the Brookings Institution found that app companies are making fresh food available to millions of lower-income Americans who can’t easily buy it in person.
While the researchers acknowledge problems with food delivery apps, the two analyzes published Wednesday are largely a counterpoint to the notion that these services are mainly ways for relatively affluent people to save time and avoid hassle while inflicting a high cost on our communities. Delivery apps may be that, but they are also democratizing both access to and purchases of fresh food.
Broadly, the Brookings research is a validation of the notion that good can come from technological change, and a call to action to shape emerging technologies to better serve all Americans.
Let’s dig into the details. The biggest takeaway from the research by Caroline George and Adie Tomer: About 90 percent of Americans living in what are sometimes called “food deserts” have access to at least one of the four digital food delivery services examined in the research. A food desert is typically defined as a lower-income neighborhood where some residents live further than a short walk or 20-mile drive from a supermarket.
“We’re not Pollyanna here, but these four services deserve credit,” Tomer told me. “These services are borderline everywhere, and where they are not is more of a story of geography rather than income, race or other demographic conditions.”
The research looked at fresh food deliveries from Amazon’s Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods, Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart. (The chief executive of The New York Times, Meredith Kopit Levien, is a member of Instacart’s board of directors.)
Living near a supermarket or having an Instacart grocery shopper available by app doesn’t help if the food is unaffordable, which is a root cause of hunger in America.
But George and Tomer also found that lower-income households are ordering food deliveries, and that an upswing in orders has occurred in the past two years, after the US government dramatically expanded the ability of Americans who use assistance benefits, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Program, or food stamps, to buy food online.
The Brookings researchers had some concerns about food delivery apps, too. People who live in rural areas may live far from stores selling fresh food and are much more in need of these services, but the analysis found that they’re much less likely than city residents to have the option. A lack of internet access and a mistrust of the quality of food provided by delivery services are also barriers to accessing food online.
It’s not clear what will happen if these app services grow more popular. The Brookings researchers said delivery apps could further contribute to the problems with America’s food system, partly because food delivery often costs more than buying fresh food in stores. Or, delivery apps could be part of the solution.
The message from the research is that policymakers and the public should treat these apps not as novel curiosities, but as a part of the US food system, one which should serve all of us and take into consideration our communities, our workforces, the environment and the economy.
“Since the digital food system is still maturing, now is the ideal time to design policies that help harness efficiencies for the public good,” the researchers wrote.
Their policy suggestions included permitting food stamps to cover delivery fees and other added costs of online ordering, expanding pilot programs for other government food benefits to include online purchasing and experimenting with government subsidies for internet service, so that more people could have access.
The Brookings analysis also said that more research is needed to understand the systemic effects of all types of digital change, including delivery apps, automation in agriculture and food warehouses, technology for tracking food safety and checkout computers in grocery stores.
It’s a useful message. Technological change is not something that just happens to us. It requires smart and effective policy to harness technology and use it to achieve what we collectively want.