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How to get groceries when delivery services are slammed

Consider reaching out to local markets, wholesale suppliers, or mutual aid organizations for grocery help if you can’t leave the house.

Bags of groceries. Getty Images

In recent weeks, customers across the US have reported serious issues with getting their groceries delivered to their homes. Finding a delivery slot through services like Instacart or FreshDirect seems nearly impossible as shoppers compete for a dwindling number of available times. And in instances when they’re able to place an order, some report that their groceries were canceled, incomplete, or never arrived during the scheduled timeframe. While stores and delivery platforms are struggling to meet this surge in demand, workers are raising concerns about their own safety, to the point of going on strike to get companies’ attention.

For those running low on food and options to get groceries, it’s a stressful time. Grocery delivery is an essential service for customers who are immunocompromised, elderly, sick, or self-isolating due to contact with a sick person. Many states have issued stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus, advising citizens not to go out unless it’s for something essential, like medicine or food. The White House doubled down on this message on April 5, telling people not to head to the grocery store or pharmacy for the next two weeks if possible, as the number of Covid-19 cases nears its peak in the US.

During this 14-day period, it’s inevitable that some people are going to run out of food. In some locales like New York City, securing a grocery delivery slot is highly competitive, especially from popular grocers themselves or from high-demand services like FreshDirect, Instacart, Peapod, and Shipt.

The problem appears to vary in some areas by neighborhood, but nationwide, the demand for online groceries has surged. According to data from Rakuten Intelligence, the number of grocery orders between March 12 and March 15 increased by 150 percent compared to the same period of time in 2019. These grocery delivery platforms were also not built to withstand a pandemic; they function best handling a small percentage of orders for people who can afford the convenience. Now, some customers are so desperate that they’ve woken up in the middle of the night or set early-morning alarms to secure a delivery slot, Eater reported.

Instacart advises customers to frequently check delivery times, select replacements in case their preferred items run out of stock, and order with a neighbor or family member through the “group cart” option. The service recently introduced new delivery functions that match a customer’s order to the first-available shopper and allow people to schedule orders up to two weeks ahead of time.

Yet in many cities, it still seems difficult for an average shopper to schedule a delivery, and many have experienced complications receiving their virtual order. FreshDirect published a statement on April 6 saying that it’s struggling to open enough delivery time slots since fewer employees are working due to the coronavirus, but the company is “aggressively hiring” and streamlining its inventory for faster orders.

Edward Kakembo, an Instacart employee, makes a delivery in Boston.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Grocery retailers and delivery services are trying to add thousands of temporary employees to their workforce to meet demand: Walmart, the largest grocer in the US, is hiring 150,000 workers through May; Instacart plans to hire 300,000 shoppers over the next three months in US and Canada; and Amazon will bring on 100,000 workers to assist with online deliveries. Peapod and Shipt, Target’s delivery service, are also looking to hire thousands more workers.

Meanwhile, it appears that fewer workers are willing to take on shifts as more news of coronavirus-related grocery employee deaths emerge. Supermarket analyst Phil Lempert told the Washington Post that grocery stores didn’t take enough precautions earlier on to protect workers and allow them to wear masks or gloves.

”[Supermarkets are] starting to become proactive now, but it’s still going to be much tougher to hire hundreds of thousands of new workers,” he said. “We’re going to start seeing people say, ‘I’ll just stay unemployed instead of risking my life for a temporary job.’” Some workers, like those at Instacart, Shipt, and Whole Foods, have also gone on strike, participating in walkouts or sick-outs to protest for higher pay, better sick leave, and access to personal protective equipment as more employees fall ill on the job.

There are, thankfully, a few ways you can purchase groceries virtually without crossing a picket line or disrupting your sleep schedule. Local supermarkets are offering same-day delivery within a certain area, with some carving out special hours in the morning for elderly or immunocompromised customers to shop.

Across the country, local restaurants have also turned into makeshift grocery stores, selling meal kits, pantry staples, and even toilet paper that can be delivered. If you’re looking to order food in bulk or share an order with a neighbor, many restaurant wholesale sellers or farm-based suppliers have started selling to the public and will deliver to your house.

In some communities, volunteers have also set up mutual aid organizations designed to help those who aren’t able to leave their homes or who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. These groups, which are devoted to helping meet the needs of particular groups, have volunteers willing to help out with errands and grocery deliveries. In Washington, DC, for example, there are more than a dozen groups divided by neighborhood, each containing points of contact for those who can help.

A group of young, able-bodied New Yorkers formed the volunteer group Invisible Hands to deliver supplies to at-risk residents in the greater New York area and parts of New Jersey. And in Los Angeles County, local officials launched a “critical delivery service” program for seniors and people with disabilities to get groceries delivered 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While it can be frustrating trying to figure out the safest and most efficient way to get groceries, especially as the number of Covid-19 cases grows, there are options beyond the delivery services that many Americans are accustomed to. In fact, with some workers continuing to strike against companies like Instacart and Amazon, turning to local businesses for delivery might be the more ethical thing to do. The pandemic could significantly alter the way we buy groceries, even after the outbreak is under control in the US.

For now, it’s best to plan ahead to fill up your pantry and fridge, as health officials say the next two weeks will be a crucial turning point for curbing the coronavirus in the US.