Technology Feeds Hope in Food Deserts

There is positive step occurring in Americans’ access to food. In a recent report released by Brookings Institution, it was found that about 93% of Americans have access to either prepared foods or fresh groceries through at least one of the major food delivery apps – Amazon (Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market), Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart. The data analysis provided from these food delivery platforms shows their delivery zone mapping to overlap into some Food Deserts. “Food Deserts” are generally low-income areas with low to very limited access to grocery and retail stores that sell groceries and fresh produce. Though the COVID-19 pandemic was catastrophic in almost all ways, there might be one good thing to come of it: the mainstream rise and expansion of grocery home delivery. According to the report findings, 90% of those living in Food Deserts have access groceries via the delivery apps.

Now policymakers have this new leverage and recent evidence in their fight against 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 Brookings Institution researcher and report co-author, Caroline George. “So, we have to make sure that it serves everyone in a fair way.”

However, challenges in Food Deserts still exist and the problem is not readily resolved by knowledge of this new access. People living in Food Deserts still need resolve for grocery affordability and internet access (86% of Americans have household internet).

It’s suggested by the report authors, Caroline George and Adie Tomer, that permitting those with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, colloquially known as food stamps, to buy via food delivery is a possible solution, including delivery fees and tips.

The SNAP director for the Food Research & Action Center, Ellen Vollinger, concurs with including food delivery for SNAP recipients but is against using the funds for tip and delivery fees. She maintains that SNAP should be exclusively for food and that including tip and delivery would take food out of mouths in need.

“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,” said Vollinger. Vollinger’s offers the solution that if people in Food Deserts have financial assistance in internet access, perhaps the money not spent on it, can be rerouted to tip and delivery. Positive step forward, indeed.