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Uber needs a win. It could start by helping people in ‘food deserts’ access healthy foods.

Imagine if Uber could say, “We enabled one million food-shopping trips for low-income Americans who lacked good transportation options.”


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

It was a week of contrasts here in Boston. On the one hand, we saw the launch of UberEats, where well-heeled Bostonians can now have everything from donuts to sushi delivered to their doorstep within 30 minutes. Then a Boston Globe article, “Want Healthy Food? In Much of Mass., It’s Hard To Get,” pointed out that in Springfield, the state’s third-largest city, “It’s not hard to find a McDonald’s in the Mason Square section of Springfield. Liz O’Gilvie has counted 10 within a mile and three-quarters of her home. But the nearest full-service grocery store, with plump apples and curly kale? That’s two miles away, and going that distance on public transit requires a two-hour trek on three buses.”

Which got me thinking — here’s a possible “win-win” opportunity for Uber, which has come under criticism for some of its practices and the poor behavior of some of its executives. A large number of low-income Americans don’t have a car and/or live in so-called “food deserts,” relying on fast food or overpriced packaged food from local convenience stores. There are now initiatives in Massachusetts and several other states to develop creative financing mechanisms to help fund the development of grocery stores and others means of “food access” in low-income areas. There are also several government options, from food stamps to vouchers, and “food trust” programs that provide reduced prices for groceries — if you can get there.

Perhaps there is a way to put some of this funding into helping people get to places where they can buy healthier food at reasonable prices. Many food deserts are in areas where there is inadequate public transportation and taxis either don’t exist or are very expensive. Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft could provide a better option.

Imagine if Uber, using data gained from these rides, could say, “In 2017, we enabled one million food-shopping trips for low-income Americans who lacked good transportation options.”

This wouldn’t be all that hard to implement. In certain geographies, for a trip to a grocery store that’s more than a mile away, Uber or Lyft could add a discount code or some other option, such as a pop-up “Groceries” icon, to enable a free or reduced-price trip. The app could be smart enough to work for trips to a specified set of grocery stores in an area.

I am sure Uber could work with the federal government and local agencies to help subsidize or provide some funding for some of these programs in return for a tax break or other incentives. This might end up being cheaper for the government and local transportation agencies than some of the programs in place today that seem to be perpetually on the chopping block. Plus, it’s likely that a healthy percentage of the drivers participating in this proposed program would come from the local community, so there’s a benefit there, too.

Perhaps we could get some of the larger grocery retailers or big-box chains such as Costco or Walmart to participate, as well. Let’s say a round trip to the local grocery store costs $15. Perhaps the user kicks in $5, with the remaining two-thirds covered by a combination of the ride-sharing company, public funding and the retailer. With the apps, data and proliferation of payment options/services, implementing such a program would, logistically, be far easier to accomplish than even 10 years ago.

Doing some good wouldn’t hurt Uber’s image, either. Imagine if Uber, using data gained from these rides, could say, “In 2017, we enabled one million food-shopping trips for low-income Americans who lacked good transportation options.”

While I’m all for Instacart, UberEats and other services that deliver groceries and meals to your office or home, let’s face it, these services are urban-centric, priced at a premium, and are generally for the well-heeled and/or super-busy. If we put half the energy into helping people living in food deserts get to food as we have into apps that get food to affluent folks living in “food oases,” we could enable healthier eating and cost savings to millions of people.

A leading wireless industry analyst and consultant, Mark Lowenstein is the managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Most recently, Lowenstein was a member of the senior leadership team at Verizon Wireless, where as vice president of strategy he led the company’s efforts in product and business planning, market segmentation, national pricing and customer intelligence for both consumer and enterprise markets. Reach him @marklowenstein.

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