Digging Deeper on the Food-Delivery Revolution

Ideas and Issues


            New Orleans      When researchers from Minnesota, Michigan, and Switzerland get together to study something they are calling the “food-delivery revolution” and publishing peer-reviewed articles about their findings and queries in Science, it’s time to stop simply swerving to avoid hitting a bike delivery driver and take it all more seriously.  Their argument in a nutshell is that the delivery thing is getting huge and is here to stay.  Their observations focus on the job itself, nutrition, and impact on the environment and climate change.

First, their case for the revolution.  Across the globe, led by Latin America with Africa trailing, food delivery revenue has gone from “2 to 7% in 2009 to 6 to 16% in 2019, and then a steep spike in 2021 to 13 to 27%.”  They found that “revenue for the online food delivery sector were about $90 billion in 2018, rose to $294 billion in 2021, and are expected to exceed $466 billion by 2026.”  Having never called in a food delivery in my life, this seems to be one revolution that I can honestly say has passed me by.

I have followed what’s happened to workers and the level of precarity involved in their jobs as deliveers, both here and abroad.  One of our affiliates, ReAct Transnational has in the past organized meetings between fledgling driver associations and established unions from countries across the globe.  Our concerns are shared by the researchers.  They note that in rich countries many of these jobs are taken by migrant, immigrant, and undocumented workers.  In low-income countries they found that these jobs are often taken by migrants from rural to urban areas where the “food delivery and broader food-services sector help absorb the ‘youth bulge’” from higher fertility rates.  They join in calling for greater regulatory efforts and protections for these workers, but doubt that lower income countries have the capacity to offer real enforcement.  The examples of “reforms” they site from Australia, Germany, and Switzerland on safety equipment, bike maintenance, and the like seem trivial, and ignore the costs and wages predicament that shackles both consumers and workers in this revolution.

Nutrition and environmental concerns leave them with more questions than conclusions.   Proportions they fear are larger.  Food waste from over-ordering to reduce unit costs of delivery, they suspect will increase.  They aren’t sure that delivery makes nutrition worse than in-restaurant and fast-food dining, since they find both are worse than home cooking, so it’s essentially a dog pile.  On nutrition, they speculate that taxes and education might make a difference, but that seems a pretty weak slap at what might be a big public health issue.  They are convinced that packaging is an even bigger problem in delivery, since recycling lags everywhere, especially in lower-income countries.  In general, they can tell all of this is a hot mess, but as scientists, think more research is needed.

Hopefully that happens soon, because this isn’t a case of the cow being exactly out of the barn already, but the bikes, motorcycles, and cars are rolling fast and furious from commercial kitchens to residential front doors in growing numbers, and we need to get our arms around this quickly for the sake of the workers and the consumers.