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Food Delivery Apps Now Have Expansive Reach in Food Deserts

Delivery services could fill gaps in many low-income parts of the U.S. without a grocery store nearby — if they’re affordable. 

Amazon Fresh trucks at a warehouse in Inglewood, California. 

Amazon Fresh trucks at a warehouse in Inglewood, California. 

Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Policymakers now have one more tool for addressing food insecurity, according to a new study that shows the vast majority of Americans now have access to online food delivery services.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution found that about 93% of Americans have access to either prepared foods or fresh groceries through at least one of four major online food delivery platforms, according to analysis of data shared by the companies. That includes 90% of people living in so-called “food deserts”  — low-income areas with limited access to brick-and -mortar grocery and food stores. Americans who live in food deserts have historically found it difficult to access fresh, healthy foods at affordable prices within a reasonable distance from their homes. 

Delivery platforms got a big boost when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down restaurant dining and upended the service industry. The Brookings analysis finds that the expansion of delivery services for both restaurants and grocery stores during the pandemic has created an opportunity for these platforms to aid efforts to address food insecurity.

“We can't afford to treat this [digital food services] as something just new and shiny anymore because it's here and I think it's here to stay,” said Caroline George, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a coauthor of the report.  “So we have to make sure that it serves everyone in a fair way.”

Maps included in the analysis shed light on the platforms’ expansive reach and how they overlap with food deserts. Researchers collected delivery zone data from Amazon (including both Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods), Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart. They found that delivery options tend to be most concentrated in metropolitan areas, creating some relative disadvantage for residents in areas with lower population density. But in some regions with very high delivery coverage  — such as the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area — the maps show that grocery apps could get fresh and prepared foods to households in need.

Yet these maps are only theoretical, the study notes. The ability to deliver food is only one piece of the puzzle, as it does not guarantee access to these services. Affordability for lower-income customers is another issue, especially as inflation raises food prices higher. Access to a broadband connection is yet another barrier. The national rate of household broadband adoption is 86%, lower than the delivery access rate, according to the report. 

Still, the massive reach of delivery platforms presents an opening for policy solutions, said Adie Tomer, coauthor of the report and researcher at Brookings Institution. In the report, Tomer and George suggest that expanding programs allowing people with SNAP benefits to order food online  — perhaps to cover any delivery fees and tips — would be one way to expand food access.

Ellen Vollinger, the SNAP director for the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit that works to fight against poverty-related hunger in the U.S., sees food delivery apps as an enhancement in the fight to get food in people’s hands, as long as it is coupled with other adequate resources like mobility assistance and digital access. Vollinger is, however, against the use of funding meant for food through the SNAP programs on deliveries and tips as she considers them not enough for food.

“The food benefits should remain for that because the need is very great and there’s just no extra room in that context of benefit to start paying for delivery fees,” Vollinger said.

However, she said as more individuals get more help with their internet payments through recent federal assistance programs and have reliable digital access, they may find it worthwhile to use other parts of their household budgets to pay for delivery fees, if they have significant transportation issues.