I have written about the downsides of companies that bring groceries or ready meals to our doorstep like Instacart and Uber Eats. Applying new feed based on apps is hurting our neighborhoods and imposing punitive demands on workers.
But today I want to focus on the positive aspect of delivery apps. A newly published study by the Brookings Institution shows that app companies are making new food available to millions of low-income Americans who can’t easily afford it.
While researchers acknowledge the problems with food delivery apps, two analyzes published on Wednesday largely contradict the notion that these services are primarily a way for relatively wealthy people to save time and avoid inconvenience while incurring high costs for our communities. Delivery apps may be it, but they also democratize access to and purchase of new food.
In general, Brookings’s research confirms the view that goodness can come from technological change and a call to action to shape emerging technologies to better serve all Americans.
Let’s delve into the details. Biggest Survey by Caroline George and Adi Tomer: About 90 percent of Americans living in “food deserts” have access to at least one of the four digital food delivery services surveyed. The food desert is usually defined as a low-income area where some residents live farther away than on foot from a supermarket or a 20-mile drive.
“We are not Polyana here, but these four services deserve credit,” Tomer told me. “These services are bordering everywhere, and where they are not, it’s more a matter of geography than of income, race or other demographic conditions.”
The study looked at new food supplies from Amazon Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods, Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart. (The New York Times CEO, Meredith Kopit Levien, is a member of the Board of Directors of Instacart.)
Living close to a supermarket or having a grocery store on Instacart will not help if food is unavailable, which is a major cause of hunger in America.
But George and Tomer also found that low-income families ordered food supplies and that orders increased over the past two years after the U.S. government dramatically expanded the capabilities of Americans who use aid such as supplemental food assistance. A program, or food stamps, to buy food online.
Brookings’s researchers also had some concerns about food delivery apps. People living in rural areas may live far from the shops where fresh food is sold and need these services more, but analysis has shown that they have a much lower chance than urban residents have a choice. Lack of internet access and distrust of the quality of food provided by delivery services are also barriers to internet access.
It is unclear what will happen if these app services become more popular. Brookings’s researchers said delivery apps could further contribute to US food system problems, in part because food delivery is often more expensive than buying fresh food in stores. Or, delivery apps can be part of the solution.
The message of the research is that policymakers and the public should view these apps not as new curiosities, but as part of a US food system that should serve everyone and take into account our community, our workforce, our environment and our economy.
“Because the digital food system is still evolving, now is an ideal time to develop policies that will help use efficiency for the public good,” the researchers wrote.
Their policy proposals included authorizing food stamps to cover shipping costs and other additional costs of online ordering, expanding pilot programs for government food concessions to include online purchases, and experimenting with state-subsidized Internet services to give more people access.
Brookings analysis also said that more research is needed to understand the systemic effects of all kinds of digital change, including delivery applications, automation in agriculture and food warehouses, technology tracking, and computer grocery stores.
It is a useful message. Technological change is not something that only happens to us. It requires smart and effective policies to use technology and use it to achieve what we collectively want.