Grocery Delivery Is Changing the Way We Shop — But It's Leaving Many People Behind, Too
Grocery delivery may be fast and easy, but for those living with food insecurity, it can come at a heavy price.
Grocery delivery has proven to be one of the most convenient and fastest growing trends in the United States. Companies like Peapod, Instacart, Fresh Direct, Shipt, and AmazonFresh are just a few of the major offerings across the country, bringing groceries to those hoping to eliminate one more task on their weekly to-do list.
For some, ordering groceries online directly to their doorstep is an essential amenity to get through a busy work week, but for those living in food deserts outside of delivery ranges or who have food insecurity, grocery delivery could be a near impossibility.
Food Insecurity Rarely Affords Food Luxuries
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 11.1 percent of households in the United States experienced food insecurity in 2018, including 4.3 percent that experienced very low food security. These rates are highest for single mother households and households with incomes below the poverty line.
"Food insecurity is an enormous drain on people's time and energy — the hard work that goes into getting food when access is limited is largely invisible to us as a society," says Megan Elias, Director and Associate Professor of the Gastronomy Program at Boston University, as well as a cultural historian of the United States with a focus on 19th and 20th century foodways. "It creates anxiety and can also make it hard for kids to focus in school and for adults to focus at work. The stress of not knowing where the next meal is coming from in a society where abundance is constantly on display can be really distressing."
This lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle can often be attributed to living in poverty or living in a "food desert"--an area that has limited access to affordable and fresh food. Limited vehicle availability to drive to a supermarket outside of one's residential area is also closely related to poverty.
And this is where grocery delivery, if it were more accessible, could really shine. According to a representative from Instacart, the company's customers are 82 percent women, and nearly 50 percent of them are moms and busy heads of households. This means that grocery delivery could significantly benefit those single mother households that face the highest rates of food insecurity, not to mention limited time and childcare.
"I don't consider these as viable options for the food insecure since they tend to require access to technology and time — you create your order online and you need to be at home for deliveries," says Elias. "In addition, they don't provide opportunities to haggle, discuss, or to use coupons, which are important ways for people to negotiate prices in markets. Just as an example, at a butcher shop it is often possible to buy scraps for cheaper than whole pieces and if you interact with the butcher yourself you get that opportunity. Bakeries often sell goods at reduced prices at the end of the day, which can be really helpful if your budget is limited. Online groceries eliminate these chances to negotiate your price."
Grocery Delivery Cuts Out Cost-Saving Measures
On top of customers not being able to negotiate or use coupons, grocery delivery also comes at an additional price. Delivery fees are an inescapable reality and can vary drastically based on requested delivery time and whether minimum order cost is reached. Instacart delivery starts at $3.99 for same-day orders over $35, and an Instacart Express membership — costing $99/year or $9.99/month — allows customers to receive unlimited delivery fee-free orders over $35.
Instacart recently announced a new pickup option — marketed as having greater flexibility and affordability — which works similarly to their grocery delivery service but still charges a fee as low as $1.99 per order. While this is seemingly more affordable, it still calls into question whether a family can access the pickup point or manage to spend additional money to have someone else select their groceries. A few dollars could mean the difference between buying fresh produce or considering a more affordable canned or processed option that may not offer the same nutrient value.
Elias notes that large scale changes must be made within communities to increase accessibility to fresh food. She says that communal kitchens and freezers could be valuable resources, as well as communal gardens and farms on which people grow for the community and not just themselves.
"Ultimately," says Elias, "our society needs to change its attitude towards food so that it is something everyone has a right to — not something you can only have if you have enough money and time."
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