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Digital food delivery services reach 90% of people in food deserts

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Most Americans have access to a delivery service like DoorDash or Grubhub, even in communities far from brick-and-mortar grocery stores.

Most Americans have access to a digital food delivery service, which researchers contend could help mediate the issues imposed by “food deserts” in the country.  

Food deserts are areas where large portions of the population face limited access to a grocery store—either because the nearest grocery store is a long distance away, or because many people in the area lack the means to get to a grocery store (e.g., not having a car).  

According to the USDA Food Access Research Atlas, 10,126 census tracts in the U.S. lack sufficient access to grocery stores—comprising nearly 44.3 million people in the United States, about 13.6% of the population. Per USDA, these tracts include low-income census tracts where over 100 housing units don’t have access to a car and live more than a half-mile from the nearest grocery store, or where many residents are more than 20 miles from the nearest grocery store.  

Researchers of a new study by Brookings Metro explored how access to food delivery zones impacts food deserts by tapping USDA’s data and analyzing it against independent data collected from four of the most popular food delivery companies—Amazon (Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods), Instacart, Uber Eats and Walmart. 

For the study, the four food delivery services provided the ZIP codes where they delivered fresh or prepared food in Q3 2021.  

According to the research, the vast majority (93%) of Americans have access to food through at least one of the four digital services. Half of Americans have service by all four companies, and one-third (32%) have access to service by three companies.  

Despite sweeping access to food delivery, the delivery zones of the four companies only cover about 30% of land area in the U.S., including in Alaska and Hawaii. Not surprisingly, delivery options are concentrated in densely populated places, like large metro areas, while less populated areas, such as large portions of South Dakota and Alaska, tend to have poor delivery coverage. 

In fact, 37% of people living in rural areas have access to even one of the four delivery services. More than 60% of rural dwellers have no access to a delivery service.  

In contrast, 99% of people living in large metro areas have access to food delivery, with 74% of this group having access to all four. In midsized metro areas, 96% of people have access to at least one food delivery option. In this group, the number of people who have access to all four delivery options dropped significantly to 24%. 

Looking at USDA’s food access data, researchers found that 90% of people living in low-income, low-access tracts have access to at least one of the four food delivery services, and 44% have access to all four services.  

Food deserts in large and midsized metropolitan areas are likely to benefit the most from delivery food services, as 99% and 96%, respectively, of people in food deserts in these areas have access to at least one delivery food service. However, 759 of the low-income, low-access tracts—which house more than 2.9 million people—have no access to a delivery food service. Most of these tracts with no delivery coverage (84%) are situated in rural and micropolitan areas. 

Researchers pointed to insufficient access to broadband—which has been adopted by 86% of U.S. households—as a barrier to food delivery services. This is especially true in certain metropolitan areas, where broadband adoption gaps are a “distinct geographic barrier to digital food access.”  

Inflation could impose another barrier to access, as recent data showed higher costs are driving a decline in online grocery store purchases.  

Rachel Adams joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products INSIDER, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. Adams left Informa Markets in 2019. 

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