Upgrading the Grocery Store

The last mile of food delivery is often the most challenging, especially when it comes to ensuring reliable access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. “We can develop great technologies to improve growing and harvesting in agriculture,” notes independent grocer Jimmy Wright of Wright’s Markets in Opelika, Alabama, “but my wholesale supply partners are facing tremendous challenges in being able to hire warehouse workers to select and load orders, and truck drivers to deliver those orders.” 23.5 million Americans27 live in food insecure communities where access to nutritious food is unreliable, making these communities more vulnerable to hunger, obesity, and associated health risks.28 Scores of supermarkets29 are filing for bankruptcy,30 leaving communities with even fewer options for buying fresh foods as consumers buy more of their food online.31

While the shift to online grocery shopping32 has contributed to the decline of brick and mortar supermarkets, there could also be a silver lining. Some researchers33 suggest that virtual stores like FreshDirect may help to deliver fresh produce and healthful foods to places34 where people are otherwise forced to rely on local 99 cent stores or gas stations for their groceries. But in order for this optimistic vision to bear fruit (and vegetables), online grocers must first consider the impact of enhanced pricing, delivery fees, internet access, and the needs of their community, among other food access issues.

Online grocers can’t yet promise a gleaming future where fresh food is delivered to doorsteps everywhere, but recent developments provide reason for optimism. In 2017, the USDA’s Online Purchasing Pilot35 for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) teamed up with online grocers in select regions, providing healthful foods to those who wouldn’t normally have access to them. Wright’s Market, in rural Alabama, recently spearheaded their own online ordering services, while FreshDirect is reaching into underserved communities in the Bronx, delivering fresh and healthy food right to customers’ doors.

Meanwhile, new food tech startups are building machine learning tools to rescue a chunk of the staggering 30-40% of the nation’s food supply that goes to waste.36 “Farm to fridge” company Farmstead developed its own machine learning algorithm, called FreshAI, that helps the company source the highest quality foods, keep its inventory fresh, and reduce the amount of food that goes uneaten.37 These innovations are also helping to increase the availability of fresh, healthy food through user-friendly platforms and apps that make tech friendlier to newbies.

From soil to supper, this report explores how technology, including AI and machine learning, could accelerate the creation of a more sustainable, scalable, and equitable food system. Leveraging technology to improve our food system will require working across sectors, finding pathways to both harness and protect data, and devising new policies and workforce training. But tackling these issues could ensure that healthier food makes its way down our entire food chain and reaches more of the folks who need it most.

  1. USDA, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” USDA.gov, April 25th, 2018.
  2. Jesse Rhodes, “New tool maps food deserts in the U.S,” Smithsonian.com, May 12, 2011.
  3. Jayna Dave, Angela Hilmers, David C. Hilmers, “Neighborhood Disparities in Access to Healthy Foods and Their Effects on Environmental Justice,” Am J Public Health, volume 102, number 9, September 2012.
  4. Hayley Peterson, “The retail apocalypse is heading straight for Kroger, Whole Foods, and Aldi,” BusinessInsider.com, August 5, 2017.
  5. Craig Giammona, “Supermarket bankruptcies are beginning to pile up,” Bloomberg.com, March 19, 2018.
  6. Adele Peters, “How Closing Grocery Stores Perpetuate Food Deserts Long After They’re Gone,” Bloomberg.com, November 27, 2017.
  7. Becca Stanek, “Is the digital economy going to eat grocery stores?” The Week, November 16, 2017.
  8. Jack Karsten and Darrell West, “How the Amazon-Whole Foods merger shrinks food deserts,” Brookings.edu, August 29, 2017.
  9. Andrew Jakabovics, “Let’s be smarter about getting food to low-income people,” Huffington Post, November 24, 2014.
  10. USDA Food and Nutrition Service, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” Fns.Usda.gov, October 30, 2017.
  11. USDA, “FAQ,” Usda.gov.
  12. Cirrus Wood, “Farmstead, a new online grocery delivery service, wants to combat inefficiency and food waste,” BerkeleySide.com, April 23, 2018.


The USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities. SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net.