11/24/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Let's Be Smarter About Getting Food to Low-Income People

images by Tang Ming Tung via Getty Images

In most metropolitan areas, getting groceries is as easy as going online. Peapod, Instacart, Amazon Fresh and Fresh Direct are among a growing number of companies looking to make food shopping faster and easier. While for most of their current customers, the service they provide is a convenience, for the 30 million people living in areas with limited access to healthy food options, these services could be game changing.

Getting smarter about getting food to those in need would have tremendous impact on the 49 million people in the U.S. suffering from food insecurity. Many of these people are also counted among the nearly 47 million renters paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. And research has shown that when people are affordably housed, they spend an average of $133 more on food every month.

For families who are housing and food insecure, taking advantage of grocery delivery services isn't easy. They might not have reliable internet access at home or at work. Or, because of irregular work hours, they can't be at home to accept deliveries. Lower-income people might not meet membership or minimum purchase requirements, or encounter technical challenges to using SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) or other EBT-based payment systems.

But there are ways to overcome those barriers, and low-income housing providers can play an important role. They can ensure and encourage computer access in common areas. Resident service coordinators or other staff can facilitate grocery delivery to the site, accepting deliveries on behalf of residents during business hours.

Residents could authorize building staff to let delivery personnel into their apartments or give building staff permission to put groceries in their apartments themselves. In larger developments, an alternative could be to set aside some space for lockers to hold groceries until residents return home. Changes to SNAP/EBT payment rules would also provide the opportunity to bring these programs to scale.

Moreover, housing providers don't have to do this alone. Rather, they can serve as a crucial conduit for providing low-income families with access to healthy foods and fostering healthy eating by tapping into existing programs and best practices in place to address the nutritional needs of low-income communities. Among the programs they can facilitate and leverage (in addition to grocery delivery) are:

  • Expand on-site access to healthy foods by partnering with local food assistance programs (such as food banks and food pantries).
  • Serve as a resource for more economical collective/bulk purchasing.
  • Craft and coordinate educational efforts in partnership with schools, public health organizations and other entities that also provide nutritional information.
  • Utilize resident services and common space to reinforce messages from other institutions to fill key gaps in outreach and promote a culture of healthy eating in everyday life.
  • Connect families to healthy foods by encouraging mixed-use development, expanding transit, and adopting housing-based solutions.

Community developers and affordable housing providers can play a pivotal role in providing access to both nutritious food and the information necessary to guide healthy dietary decisions. Facilitating grocery delivery is a simple step that can be the basis for shrinking food deserts and demonstrates how affordable housing is the stable platform upon which healthy lives can be built.

Andrew Jakabovics is senior director, Policy Development and Research at Enterprise Community Partners. Find Andrew, Enterprise Community Partners and the Enterprise Policy team on Twitter.