Diversity & Inclusion
Cybersecurity / Technical.ly

Could robots eliminate DC’s food deserts?

An Estonian company is piloting its food delivery bots in the District. We explore how the new technology might tackle an old problem.

Yvonne Smith making a salad in her Washington Heights home. (Photo by Liz Mayes)
For longtime D.C. resident Yvonne Smith, buying and eating fresh, healthy foods had always been not only convenient and affordable, but automatic.

The Capitol Hill apartment that she lived in for 25 years was a convenient two block stroll from a full-service grocery store and a short walk from an array of restaurant choices on H Street. But in 2007, when she was in her mid-fifties, all of this changed: as a younger, more affluent crowd moved into her neighborhood, she found herself pressured out of her home by a landlord eager to renovate it and increase the rent.

After a period of homelessness, and with limited finances, Smith was able to find a condo with the money she obtained in the settlement agreement and her savings. Her new home was east of the Anacostia River in Washington Highlands — a residential neighborhood in Ward 8 on the D.C.-Maryland border. Although affordable and a home of her own, her new condo was in one of the most economically depressed areas in the city.

Relatedly, her new neighborhood also had no grocery stores from which to buy fresh food.

Where fresh produce could be found nearby, the costs were much steeper, often prohibitively so for Smith. As a result, her diet suffered, and without a car, she found herself eating more and more packaged or processed foods, which were the most readily available in her neighborhood.

All of this came to a head two years ago, when Smith was diagnosed with diabetes, a development which she believes is related to the food options in her neighborhood.

An all-too-common issue

Unfortunately, Smith, now 65, is far from alone here in the District. Many of D.C.’s residents east of the Anacostia River live in what are called food deserts — urban areas in which there is a dearth of supermarkets or stores from which to buy affordable and good-quality fresh food.

All around the nation, food deserts are linked to issues such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity — and D.C.’s food deserts are no exception. Lillie Rosen, Policy and Strategy Director at the food access, education and policy nonprofit DC Greens, explained in an email how this dynamic is playing out here in Washington: Ward 8 — one of the lowest-income areas of the city — has just a single grocery store for 78,000 people, while Ward 3 — which encompasses several leafy, affluent neighborhoods in the northwest quadrant of the city — has nine grocery stores for every 78,000 people.

The impact on resident health is astonishing: a resident of Ward 8 is five times more likely than a resident of Ward 3 to suffer from diabetes, a disease that can lead to kidney failure, adult-onset blindness, loss of limbs and early death.

Enter: food bots

Here’s where the robots come in. Perhaps you’ll be familiar with food bots, which we’ve been covering for the last few months. But if not, here’s the deal: an Estonian startup called Starship Technologies, which manufactures autonomous food delivery bots, has recently begun a pilot operation here in the District. The bots operate out of a central hub from which they will deploy to autonomously complete food orders within a two-mile radius.

If the pilot is successful  —  and similar pilots have been successful in Switzerland, Germany and England — the bots could rival popular delivery options like UberEATS or homegrown offering Galley, offering delivery costs 10 to 15 times less than comparable delivery transport options available. Eventually, the company hopes to bring the cost of delivery to $1 or less.

And it is because of this  —  the eye-popping affordability of bot delivery  —  that there may be a very unexpected application for the bots: helping to penetrate food deserts in Washington.

The food bots are coming to D.C.

Starship Technologies’s bots in D.C. (Courtesy of Starship Technologies)

A delivery-shaped hole in the market

Smith explained that most of her neighbors without cars tend to shop for food where it is available  —  which often means corner stores that sell packaged foods high in fat and sugar and offering little nutritional value.

Without a car, the trek from a food desert to a grocery store can be time-consuming, limiting the number of grocery store trips that are feasible per month. This, Smith says, tends to lead people to purchase more shelf-stable foods — packaged, and often unhealthy — that can last throughout the month. She knows this firsthand: this is how she used to shop when she developed diabetes.

For those on a tight budget, food delivery has not traditionally been an option, either. But with the incredibly affordable delivery rates that autonomous bots could offer, Starship could make a dent on food deserts through a largely untapped hole in the market: food delivery.

Could it work?

When I told Smith about the autonomous food delivery bots that could eventually deliver orders for as little as just a dollar, she was initially cautious, citing poor sidewalk conditions for the bots to travel on and security concerns. (She’s not the only one who is concerned about food bot safety in D.C.)

But after some thought, she said, “You know, I’d try the bots. I mean, who would have believed Zipcar would work?”

For Smith, it could be worth a shot: the food bots could make her life significantly easier. Since developing diabetes, she has set out on a journey to heal herself , purely by changing her diet. She threw out most of her packaged items and began making it a central focus each week to hunt for the affordable, healthy foods that her body requires.

She says the process of shopping for food each week is “time-consuming” and that she spends up to five hours per week on the endeavor; operating on a tight budget, she uses public transportation to make visits to several different stores weekly to find the best deals for various items on her shopping list, like kale, tomatoes, broccoli and apples. Although it is a constant project, the upshot is remarkable: according to Smith, her doctors say that she’s been able to effectively cure herself of diabetes through diet alone.

Smith, with no children at home, says she is quite sure she is unusual. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time and energy to devote to a time-intensive process of gathering food.

Currently, the food bots are only available within a two-mile radius of the hub, which is located between Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, well out of range of any of the city’s food deserts. But as the program expands over time, it is likely that the bots may eventually be available to wider swaths of the city, including neighborhoods east of the Anacostia. Time, and cold-hard economics, will tell. In order to increase its presence in these neighborhoods and even potentially offer subsidized delivery on produce to these areas, it is likely that Starship would be eligible for a grant.

Pam Hess, executive director of the food access nonprofit Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, is open to seeing if food bots could serve a useful purpose in the ecosystem of food access support organizations in D.C.

Hess, whose organization runs a portable farm stand that sells fresh produce to neighborhoods east of Anacostia, is quick to note that while the food bots could fill a need for affordable local delivery, they could not replace farmer’s markets or portable farm stands. These, she says, serve as cultural meeting places and introduce folks to new healthy foods by providing samples of fruits and vegetables.

Starship could take a leaf out of Arcadia’s book by partnering with local urban farms or food banks, and by offering its patrons a similar benefit to one that Hess’ does  —  doubling food stamp dollars on purchases of produce and other healthy foods.

A dog carefully observes a food delivery bot in Germany

Could this bot delivery fresh produce to a food desert? (Courtesy of Starship Technologies)

But will Starship prioritize food access?

The question remains: will Starship actually pursue the objective of inserting itself into the food access delivery ecosystem?  After all, despite the compelling social benefits that Starship could provide in food deserts, the company is a business, not a charity.

Henry Harris-Burland, marketing and communications chief at Starship, was receptive to the idea during our conversation, commenting that the company is “definitely open to partnering with local food organizations to deliver food to food deserts,” and indicating that the company would be interested in investigating possible strategies to do so.

In this matter, Starship would be wise to look to recent trends that have made it increasingly clear that corporate social responsibility is good for business: one study by the global marketing and communications group Havas Media showed that 53 percent of consumers would pay a 10 percent premium for products from companies that they see as “responsible,” whether socially or environmentally.

It should be noted, however, that the bots can only be part of the solution: the existence of food deserts is intimately interwoven with systemic issues like poverty that have no simple fix.

Affordable and convenient delivery is a great step, but many experts working on these issues in the District agree that one of the most impactful solutions to the problem will be getting grocery stores to open in some of the most underserved sections of the city. As Hess put it: “There is a great deal of emphasis on nutrition education and telling people to make the ‘healthy choice.’ But if there is no healthy food to choose from — or the barriers to accessing it too high — that’s a moot point.”

This is an issue that the city’s food access advocates are tirelessly working on. But for now, R2-D2 look-alikes providing weekly produce deliveries for an affordable price seems as good a place as any to start.


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