Delivery has reduced food deserts in the US

The aisle of a grocery store.

Written by James Shea

The growth of online ordering and delivery has transformed the food economy over the last two years. Delivery is no longer for people to order Domino’s pizza or get an Amazon order.

One of the most profound ways that delivery has helped people is by increasing access to quality fruits and vegetables and reducing food deserts, according to a new report from the Brookings Institute. Called “Delivering to deserts: New data reveals the geography of digital access to food in the U.S.,” the report analyzed government data and delivery coverage across the country.

“Food now meets people where they are,” according to authors Caroline George and Adie Tomer.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area where a large grocery store is more than a mile away. The agency estimates that 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert. Most of these people live in low-income urban areas or rural areas of the country.

The report argues that food delivery is a “game-changer” for people who live in food deserts because it expands access to quality food. Transportation is often a major barrier for people who live in food deserts.

“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.

Now, 93% of Americans have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and prepared foods through delivery. Half of the country live in zip codes where Amazon through Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods, Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart operate.

“We found that 90% of people living in low-income, low-access tracts have at least one digital food access option—and the service rate exceeds 95% in food deserts within metropolitan areas,” according to the authors. “Yet these service maps still leave nearly 4.5 million food desert residents outside of delivery zones—the majority of whom live in rural areas.”

Increased use of SNAP benefits

A key component of the increased use of delivery in food deserts is the growth of SNAP benefit, often called food stamps, for online ordering. In 2014, Congress passed the Farm Bill, which allowed the use of SNAP payments for online transactions. Two years later, the government started a pilot project to test the program. Amazon, Dash’s Market, Fresh Direct, Hy-Vee, Inc., Safeway, ShopRite, Walmart Stores Inc. and Wright’s Markets participated in the pilot. Now SNAP payments are allowed in all 50 states.

Instacart, for example, expanded the SNAP program in 2020 and began accepting SNAP payments at ALDI, Food Lion Now, GIANT Instant Delivery, Giant Food Convenience, Hannaford Now and MARTIN’s.

“We believe grocery delivery and pickup shouldn’t be a luxury for some – they should be accessible to everyone,” said Fidji Simo, CEO of Instacart.

Less reliance on brick and mortar

The other big change for food deserts is the reduced dependence on brick-and-mortar stores. Walmart, Krogers, GoPuff and others are focusing on a hub-and-spoke model. Micro-fulfillment centers are being constructed in communities across the country and can serve as a way for food desert communities to have access to quality food.

That model has expanded the delivery footprint of grocery stores. People no longer need to rely on ordering from a grocery store near their house. They can order from a centralized location and have it delivered.

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

However, this trend does not help rural areas of the country. The hub-and-spoke model works great in dense, urban areas but the huge distances in rural parts of the country can be a major barrier to delivery.

“Places with very low population densities—large portions of South Dakota and Alaska, for instance—tend to have poor delivery coverage,” according to the report.

Food pantries use food delivery

Besides SNAP, another way that delivery has helped low-income individuals is through food pantries. Food pantries across the country have utilized third-party delivery to get food boxes to needy individuals.

DoorDash, for example, has been working with food pantries across the country. The company reported in the summer of 2021 that it has provided 900,000 food pantry deliveries in 900 cities.

Tiffany Twohig, executive director at Moonridge Foundation, a food pantry in Las Vegas, Nevada, says DoorDash has been a valuable tool for the pantry during the pandemic.

“DoorDash has been an amazing partner for Delivering with Dignity, allowing us to get meals delivered directly to our client’s homes,” she said. “Having the reliability of DoorDash has allowed our organization to focus funds on nutritious food for the most vulnerable who shouldn’t be leaving their homes due to the risks of COVID.”

Lack of access to broadband

A key challenge for people living in food deserts is the lack of access to broadband. Internet access costs money, and many people in food desert communities are low-income. Without access to broadband, people can have a difficult time ordering food online.

The study found that 17 million Americans do not have access to broadband or high-speed mobile internet. Rural areas are the most pronounced.

“The mix of broadband and digital food gaps does create two types of neighborhoods that are under-resourced, with low broadband adoption,” according to the authors. “The most extreme are places with low delivery coverage and low broadband adoption, which are frequently neighborhoods with lower population densities. In these places, the extended distances between housing units increase the per-mile cost of delivering both broadband and food.”

The authors conclude that while digital technology solves some of the problems of access to food, it does not solve the income and poverty challenges associated with food insecurity. Delivery can be expensive, especially in certain areas, and that can create problems for people on limited budgets.

“Food delivery adds value for many consumers, but higher prices will only put delivery further out of reach for many food-insecure households,” the reports states.


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