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New study maps digital access to food across the U.S., how delivery apps can help in food deserts

Study shows food delivery apps present possibility for food deserts
Posted at 9:55 AM, May 18, 2022

Natalie Espinoza and her team are packing up food boxes for delivery in a nearby community.

“On Mondays and Tuesdays, we build our no-cost grocery program boxes,” Natalie Espinoza, the associate director of the food access department at The GrowHaus, said. “There is no grocery store within walking distance.”

The area they mainly serve is known as a food desert, a place with limited access to affordable, nutritious food.

“We really strive to not just provide food, but to provide healthy, fresh food,” Espinoza said.

These boxes are taped up and sent off. The GrowHaus partners with delivery programs, including DoorDash, to get this food where it needs to go.

“We’ve known since the pandemic has hit that Americans' demand for delivery has skyrocketed, both in terms of groceries and fresh food,” Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. Brookings is a research group.

Tomer recently authored a study that found more than 93 percent of Americans live in neighborhoods where they are able to access at least one delivery service. This is based on data from four major providers – Walmart, Amazon, Instacart and Uber Eats.

“Over 90 percent of food desert residents are able to access at least one of these services,” Tomer said.

“There has been a drastic shift in the food and grocery industry since 2020. The pandemic forced a level of digitization and other innovation within two years that could have otherwise taken 5 to 10 years,” Maggie Brown, the CEO of Bondadosa, said. Bondadosa is a social venue that provides logistics and transportation to deliver food.

Brown said food delivery in food deserts has more benefits than downsides.

“For families that have one or both parents or guardians working, food delivery has been a huge help, especially relating to after-school meals,” Brown said.

While the idea of having food delivery in areas with little fresh food access seems promising, Tomer said there are some setbacks.

“It does not actually solve food access issues, which are often tied to lower incomes or other conditions. What it does mean is that the idea of just bringing fresh food into a neighborhood is not the only way to make sure houses actually have food on their proverbial table to eat every day,” he said.

Some of the barriers include the cost of delivery and broadband access.

“There are people who don't have access to the internet, there are people who don't have access to smartphones,” Espinoza said.

"The pandemic, I think, put a new lens on the fact that we need as many access points as possible because people are situated differently,” Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center, said.

She said even though food delivery has a ways to go to be an ideal solution for food deserts, she sees improvements.

“We hope that people will take some of the lessons learned from the pandemic and take another look at what to do about these things,” Vollinger said.