May 12, 2022 - Economy

Food delivery needs tech support in some neighborhoods

An illustration of a bag of groceries covered by a giant cursor all against a yellow background.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios Visuals

Internet-based food delivery services have the potential to transform the lives of people who live in "food deserts" — but only if broadband becomes more widely available there, according to a new Brookings Institution report.

Why it matters: Access to healthy food is closely tied to economic security and public health. And while lots of low-income neighborhoods don't have great local supermarkets, they do have access to the four most prominent food delivery platforms: AmazonFresh/Whole Foods, Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart.

What's happening: Brookings found that 93% of Americans have access to "rapidly-delivered fresh groceries or prepared foods" through at least one of the four providers, including 90% of food desert residents.

  • But the services — which could be life-changing — tend to be costly.
  • And without reliable broadband service and the skills and devices to order food online, many people are unable to use them.

"Delivery services are not a panacea," Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, tells Axios.

  • Rather, the potential for these services to improve the lives of low-income people should "push policymakers to modernize their approach to a whole range of related issues, from the price of delivery services and broadband to measuring how well small businesses can compete on digital platforms."

Details: The mismatch between access to food delivery and broadband coverage is most acute in certain urban areas.

  • In one Chicago neighborhood where delivery is readily available, only 30.2% of households have broadband subscriptions, Brookings found.
  • In all, 863,000 Chicagoans could have better access to food if they had mobile or broadband service, the researchers said.
  • In Detroit, food insecurity could be addressed for nearly 600,000 people with better broadband service; in Atlanta, it's more than 1 million.

Methodology: Researchers studied data on the delivery zones shared by the "big four" delivery platforms to map the availability of online ordering.

They compared those delivery zones to 10,126 low-income census tracts that the U.S.D.A identifies as "food deserts" because residents live far from supermarkets or don't have transportation.

  • Roughly 44.3 million people — 13.6% of the country’s population — live in those food-challenged neighborhoods.
  • While 90% of them have at least one option for food delivery, the household broadband adoption rate across the U.S. is only 86%.
  • Before the pandemic, roughly 17 million American households did not have mobile or in-home broadband service, according to Brookings.
  • At the same time — in 2019 — more than one-tenth of all U.S. households and 8.3% of households with an elderly individual faced food insecurity.

The bottom line: The pandemic changed how Americans shop for food in the digital age. Food comes to us — but only if we have a broadband connection, a smartphone or computer, digital literacy skills and the money to pay for it all.

Go deeper: How the pandemic changed how we eat

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