I’ve written about the downsides of companies that deliver groceries or ready-to-eat food to our door, such as Instacart and Uber Eats. App-based fresh food delivery takes a toll on our neighborhoods and impose punitive demands on workers.
But today I want to focus on a positive aspect of delivery apps. Newly published research from the Brookings Institution has found that app companies are making fresh food available to millions of low-income Americans who cannot easily purchase it in person.
While the researchers acknowledge problems with food delivery apps, two analyzes published Wednesday largely contradicts the idea that these services are primarily ways for relatively wealthy people to save time and avoid hassle, while at the same time adding significant costs to our communities. Delivery apps may be, but they also democratize both access to and purchase of fresh food.
Broadly speaking, Brookings’ research is a confirmation of the idea that technological change can bring good, and a call to action to shape emerging technologies to better serve all Americans.
Let’s get into the details. Research’s biggest takeaway from 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 surveyed in the survey. A food desert is usually defined as a lower-income neighborhood where some residents live more than a short walk or 20-mile drive from a grocery store.
“We’re not Pollyanna here, but these four services deserve credit,” Tomer told me. “These services are borderline everywhere, and where they aren’t, it’s more of a geography story than income, race, or other demographics.”
The survey looked at fresh food deliveries from Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods, Instacart, Uber Eats and Amazon’s Walmart. (The New York Times chief executive, Meredith Kopit Levien, serves on Instacart’s board of directors.)
Living near a grocery store or having an Instacart shopper available by app doesn’t help if the food is unaffordable, which is a cause of hunger in America.
But George and Tomer also found that lower-income households order food, and orders have risen in the past two years after the US government dramatically expanded the wealth of Americans taking advantage of welfare benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Program, or food coupons, to buy food online.
The Brookings researchers were also concerned about food delivery apps. People living in rural areas may live far from shops selling fresh food and have a much greater need for these services, but the analysis found that they are much less likely than city dwellers to have the option. A lack of internet access and a mistrust of the quality of food delivered by delivery services are also barriers to accessing food online.
It is not clear what will happen as these app services become more popular. The Brookings researchers said delivery apps could further add to the problems with the U.S. food system, in part because delivering food often costs more than buying fresh food from stores. Or delivery apps could be part of the solution.
The message of the study is that policymakers and the public should view these apps not as new curiosities, but as part of the American food system, a system that should serve all of us and consider our communities, our workforce, the environment and the economy.
“As the digital food system continues to mature, now is the ideal time to design policies that help leverage efficiency for the common good,” the researchers wrote.
Their policy suggestions include allowing food stamps to cover delivery costs and other additional costs of ordering online, expanding pilot programs for other government food benefits to include online purchases, and experimenting with government subsidies for Internet services so that more people could access them.
The Brookings analysis also said more research is needed to understand the systemic effects of all types of digital change, including delivery apps, automation in agriculture and food warehouses, food safety tracking technology and checkout computers in supermarkets.
It’s a helpful message. Technological change is not something that just happens to us. It requires smart and effective policies to harness and use technology to achieve what we collectively want.