Can Amazon's grocery service help poor neighborhoods?
"Food deserts" are places in urban areas where people have limited access to healthy, fresh, and reasonably-priced food. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., food deserts tend to be in low-income neighborhoods or suburbs where many residents rely on transit service or foot-power. (Think parts of northeast Portland or Seattle's South Park, for example.)
Without ready access to decent grocery stores, residents end up over-spending or buying food with limited nutritional value or both. Fresh fruits and vegetables -- so important for a healthy diet -- are in short supply, if they exist at all. And you can forget about local and organic food. So food deserts can result in poor health, tight budgets for those who can least afford it, or long cumbersome bus trips to other neighborhoods. Worse, the problem of grocery access is most severe for the elderly, single parents, and the disabled. It's not just an urban land use issue: it's a problem with profound social justice implications.
To date, there haven't been many satisfactory solutions. It's tough to get grocers to locate to low-income neighborhoods for basic economic reasons. Compounding matters, perverse zoning laws and misguided advocacy often restrict or prevent the large-scale commercial development grocery stores look for. In recent years, some neighborhood activists have championed weekly farmer's markets, backyard gardens, or city "pea patches." For all the merit these local food ideas have, they're patchwork solutions that can't provide year-round reliable groceries to people with limited time and income. But there may yet be a solution at hand.
In a previous post on this subject, frequent commenter Matt the Engineer hit on an idea that I think is sheer genius. Why not take advantage of the grocery delivery services that are popping up all over? The Northwest is rich with Community Supported Agriculture programs that provide weekly delivery of seasonal local food. Larger in scale is British Columbia-based Spud (nee Pioneer Organics), a delivery service that specializes in both local and organic food, serves Portland and Seattle, as well as large swaths of territory in and around Vancouver and Victoria. Spud's current clientele is largely well-heeled, but there are more quotidian grocery delivery services too, including Safeway. Even Amazon is getting into the game with AmazonFresh, currently serving only a handful of Seattle-area zip codes but expanding quickly.
So we've got low-income neighborhoods without access to healthy affordable food. And we've got grocery delivery trucks rumbling past on their way to tonier precincts. Why can't we connect the dots?
The idea is not, as you may expect, for vulnerable low-income populations to buy laptops, get high-speed wifi, and order heathful groceries. Even if the tools of the Internet Age were widely available and affordable -- and they're not yet -- they wouldn't be of much use to the elderly, immigrants with limited English, or folks who don't have a credit card or bank account. But there's no good reason why policymakers can't intervene.
It's easy to imagine residents of low-income neighborhoods getting grocery delivery service in some lower-tech fashion. Social workers, community centers, or food banks could provide quick checklists for weekly delivery of free (or subsidized) fresh produce. Perhaps the efforts would be funded with public money or by nonprofit food banks. Or perhaps Amazon or Safeway would see low-income delivery service as an opportunity for good corporate citizenship. It needn't start all at once, but one can imagine Seattle-based Amazon adding a low-income zip code next and then reaching out to community service agencies to find ways to deliver fresh food cheaply to those who really need it.
Of course, the best long-term solution to food deserts may be to turn them green. We should be promoting compact walkable communities that support local businesses and grocers -- and especially so in low-income areas. Having ready access to affordable healthy food shouldn't be a luxury of the upper classes, it should be a basic building block of all city neighborhoods.
This piece originally appeared on the Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Blog.
I would say that these guys have a pretty solid model of how to start the process: