: Gig companies pledge to help end hunger in the U.S. Some of their workers can’t afford the food they deliver.


President Joe Biden’s strategy for ending hunger in the U.S. by 2030 is being funded in part by companies whose own workers sometimes can’t afford to buy food.

The Biden administration’s national plan to eliminate hunger and reduce diet-related diseases includes $8 billion in “new commitments” from more than 30 businesses, nonprofits and philanthropies. The commitments include companies pledging to donate meals and cash to food banks and community groups, or promising to make the food they sell to Americans healthier, among other actions. 

Some observers have questioned why the list of companies participating in the anti-hunger strategy includes some whose business practices, in their view, contribute to America’s hunger problem. Namely, three gig-economy companies — DoorDash, which delivers mainly restaurant meals; Shipt, an app for arranging home delivery of groceries and other items; and Instacart, another grocery-delivery service — are among those pledging assistance in the administration’s war on hunger. 

“It is profoundly unsettling that companies like DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt, which refuse to pay their workers a minimum wage floor and overtime, [and] refuse to provide health insurance and workers’ compensation, get cover under an initiative like this,” said Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, a fellow at Stanford University and an advocate for gig workers. “They get to pretend they care about hunger and poverty when, in fact, their firm practices exacerbate hunger and poverty.”

Gig-economy companies say they provide flexibility and independence to workers, who can set their own schedules and work as little or as much as they want. But drivers for delivery apps like DoorDash
Instacart and Target-owned

Shipt are not classified as employees; they’re independent contractors. That means they don’t receive the protections and benefits that employees are legally required to have, like a guaranteed minimum wage, paid time off and unemployment insurance.

‘It’s not right that I can’t afford the food I deliver’

There is evidence that gig workers are more likely than other service-sector workers to experience hunger firsthand. In spring 2020, nearly one in five (19%) gig workers went hungry, compared to 14% of other service-sector workers, according to a national study by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Twice the rate of gig workers (30%) as W-2 employees in the service sector (15%) relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the public benefit once known as food stamps — within a month of the survey, according to the study. (W-2 refers to the tax form employees use to report their income.)

Steady, an app that helps mostly low-income gig workers, self-employed individuals and part-time workers navigate work opportunities, compare pay rates and more, conducted a public-benefits survey among its users in early October. The survey, which had more than 3,500 respondents from across the country, found that about 42% of workers with at least one month of gig income receive SNAP benefits — slightly higher than the 40% of those who have only W-2, or employee, income.

Cardell Calloway, a 68-year-old DoorDash delivery worker from Lancaster, Calif., who said he has been living in his car for about a month after his RV was towed away, relies on SNAP benefits. When his church was offering food, he would also go there, he said.

Calloway does deliveries eight to 12 hours a day at least five days a week and makes about $500 a week, he said.

“It’s not right that I can’t afford the food I deliver,” Calloway said. Asked what he thinks about DoorDash partnering with the White House on the hunger initiative, he said, “I have to be skeptical about anything DoorDash comes up with.” 

“ ‘It is profoundly unsettling that companies like DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt, which refuse to pay their workers a minimum wage floor and overtime, [and] refuse to provide health insurance and workers’ compensation, get cover under an initiative like this.’”

— Veena Dubal, law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law

Dubal said her research showed that during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, gig workers had “no financial safety net” and were going to food banks.That jibes with a study by the UCLA Labor Center and the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, which found in the summer of 2020 that one-third of California gig workers they surveyed did not have enough money to buy groceries, and that 39% came close to not having enough money for food.

Overall in the U.S., nearly 4% of households experienced “very low food security” in 2021, meaning they routinely skipped meals or cut their food intake because they could not afford more food, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report found. About one in 10 households experienced “food insecurity” that year, meaning they “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources.”

Estimates of gig workers’ earnings vary widely

Estimates of how much income gig workers take home can range quite a bit. Spokespeople for DoorDash, Shipt and Instacart said their delivery workers make an average hourly wage of about $25 to $35.

But some studies suggest much lower wages because they take into account all the costs borne by gig workers. Drivers and delivery workers must use their own vehicles, pay for their own gas, in most cases buy their own healthcare coverage and more. A study from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center and a recent one backed by gig workers suggest hourly wages — which are based on the time when a worker is actively engaged on the app and do not include total working time — could be as low as under $10. 

Gig companies have repeatedly pointed to their own studies and other research backed by gig companies that show much higher wages for gig workers, whom they say choose the work because of the flexibility it provides. Spokespeople for DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt did not respond directly to questions about studies suggesting gig workers are more likely to experience food insecurity than W-2 service-sector workers.

A DoorDash spokesperson said the company has launched financial literacy and financial coaching programs to help Dashers “save, invest and grow their supplemental earnings.” An Instacart spokesperson said the company is transparent with workers about how much they’ll earn from a given assignment, so workers can decide whether it’s worth taking.

‘The top problem is low wages’

Livable wages, not donations to food banks, should be first on the list of remedies to solve hunger in the U.S., said Joel Berg, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Hunger Free America. 

The public has a skewed vision of charity’s role in addressing food insecurity, he says, because “much of the way the media covers this is backwards, implying that the top problem is not enough charity and the top solution is more charity. The top problem is low wages and high cost of living, and then the second issue is the safety net,” Berg said. 

“The countries of the planet that have far less hunger than the United States don’t have it because they have more charity; they have it because their economy functions better, they have higher wages and they have a more robust safety net, which in most places is basically cash,” Berg added. 

Charities like food banks can and should fill in the gaps, Berg said, but in his view, expanding the number of people signed up for SNAP; WIC, a program that provides food benefits and nutrition education for low-income mothers and young children; and other benefits is the most effective solution to hunger. It’s a view he acknowledges is self-interested, because Hunger Free America exists in part to sign people up for these programs. (He also noted that Hunger Free America has received funding from two of the companies involved in the Biden administration effort, Albertsons

and Chobani.)

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