Uber Eats Social: A Creative Policy Solution to Food Insecurity

by Harpreet Sahota

In the 2018 winter semester, nine SPPG students participated in a six-week intensive course jointly developed by the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance and Evergreen, a national charitable organization that connects with citizens and stakeholders to create sustainable cities. The course, “Making an Impact from the Outside,” was created and taught by Gabriel Eidelman, Associate Director for Teaching Innovation and Assistant Professor at SPPG, and Jo Flatt, Senior Project Manager at Evergreen and an SPPG alumna. I encourage you to read our weekly reflections to learn about our experience in the course.

The main assignment of this course was for students to come up with a strategic approach to affect change on a policy issue from outside of government. Sasha Gronsdahl, Alex Venuto, and I developed a community-centered solution to address the complex issue of food insecurity. Our proposed solution partners food banks with food distributors, immigrant service agencies, and Uber to decrease food insecurity by increasing access to food banks.

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity is defined as having inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints, which negatively effects the physical, mental and social health of children and adults. PROOF, a research team at the University of Toronto focused on household food insecurity in Canada, reports that 1 in 8 households in Canada is food insecure, but only about one quarter of food-insecure households use food banks.

While we often assume that food banks can address this issue, there are various barriers that prevent people from accessing food banks. The stigma associated with food bank use is arguably the main reason that food banks are not widely used; people don’t want to admit desperation. Consequently, those who are food insecure are not likely to identify themselves, making it challenging to understand the community’s needs. Throughout the course, we aimed to address the issue of food insecurity without imposing our beliefs or making assumptions about the community.

Who is food insecure?

A 2017 report by Daily Bread Food Bank suggests that overall food bank use in Toronto has increased over the last ten years. Recent newcomers and immigrants account for a large percentage of users and their population has been growing in Toronto’s inner suburbs (North York, North Etobicoke and Scarborough).

The barriers that affect these populations include: poor transportation, inconvenient hours of operation and a lack culturally appropriate food. Eliminating the stigma of food bank use is a priority, but it is beyond the scope of our solution. Accordingly, our approach involved a community-based solution aimed at decreasing barriers to food bank use. 

Introducing: Uber Eats Social

People who are food insecure don’t want to or can’t go to food banks, so we propose that we bring the food to them. Our solution aims to accomplish two goals: first, to increase the supply and availability of culturally appropriate food in food banks; second, to deliver food to those who are food insecure, but don’t access food banks.

The idea is to get local retailers, grocers, and restaurants to donate culturally-appropriate food to food rescue organizations and food banks, such as Second Harvest, Daily Bread, and North York Harvest Food Bank. From there, an Uber Eats Social driver would pick up food from the designated food rescue organization to be delivered to the client’s doorstep. These efforts could effectively lower access barriers of transportation, location and hours of operation, and increase the availability of culturally appropriate food. In addition, the diversity among Uber drivers could increase the potential for Uber Eats Social drivers to be matched to clients who speak a common language.

Uber has been working with communities to address complex policy issues and has an interest in engaging in creative problem solving. The timing for an opportunity like this couldn’t be better, with Lyft (also known as the more woke version of Uber) entering the Toronto market and creating an incentive for Uber to seek innovative and socially responsible projects.

How would we pay for this?

Our proposal would be funded by both the Ontario government and Uber, as both have stated their support for innovative, community-based projects. We proposed a corporate partnership in which Uber could consider two options: either cover the cost of the service fee for the client, or eliminate the service fee entirely and allow Uber drivers to volunteer their services for this program.

Further funding would come from the Ontario government. The province’s Poverty Reduction Strategy includes a Local Poverty Reduction Fund that allocates up to $5 million to support community-based initiatives for food security related projects. This would cover some of the implementation and evaluation costs.

How would we communicate with the community?

Immigrant service agencies could inform all clients about Uber Eats Social. Relying on existing relationships between local agencies and the community could help us gain insights on the community’s needs. We would hope that this would promote an informal word of mouth campaign within the community, all while ensuring that people would not have to identify themselves as food insecure.

Why focus on the short-term?

Some would argue that food banks are a “bandage solution” because they fail to address the structural issues that lead to food insecurity. Eradicating food insecurity entirely would require a long-term strategy to create structural changes aimed to address the broader issue of poverty. Accordingly, the government has made some efforts to reduce the structural barriers associated with food insecurity through programs like the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy, Basic Income Pilot, and Affordable Housing Strategy. Structural changes and the ultimate outcomes of these government strategies will take years to materialize. In the meantime, our strategy focuses on addressing the immediate needs of those who are food insecure by increasing the accessibility of food bank use.

Harpreet Sahota is a second-year MPP candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Administrative Studies with Specialized Honours in Management from York University. She is passionate about social policy and her interests include diversity and anti-racism, equity and mental health awareness. She studied for a semester on exchange at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.