In a pinch, I can’t help but reach for my phone to order some food on a delivery app. It’s so convenient for so many reasons — no prep, cooking, cleaning or cramming meal-prep tupperwares into a fridge that I share with six roommates trying to do the same thing. As a student, there’s the added benefit that I can keep working without interruption and hopefully go to bed at a sane time. With lectures scattered chaotically early in the morning and late in the evening as well as deadlines throughout the week, a $7 delivery fee plus $2 tip for a $14 sandwich is almost justifiable. But unfortunately, the convenience offered by food delivery services in its current form is inseparable from its unsustainability for the health and well-being of its users, the environment and the community.
The first thing I see when I open these apps is a screen full of advertisements for popular restaurants in Isla Vista, mostly for fast food. Fast food is extremely popular on delivery services such as DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub. Fast-food companies are pouring money into marketing on these platforms. Marketing Brew reports that DoorDash made $3 billion in ad sales to merchants and Uber Eats is projecting $1 billion. Chain restaurant ad spending, according to Statista, shows the dominance of fast-food chains, which causes food delivery services’ ad platforms to create an incentive structure that benefits the fast-food industry the most.
Admittedly, my roommates and I frequently opt for fast food. However, according to a study published in 2014 from the Department of Health Policy & Management, Fielding School of Publi
c Health, UC Los Angeles, “[adults] exposed to food advertising chose 28% more unhealthy snacks than those exposed to non-food-advertising … with a total caloric value that was 65 kcal higher.” Food advertising is embedded into the home screen and search results of these platforms, so promotion of readily available fast food encourages people to eat more junk food.
The cost associated with food delivery services comes twofold. First, the consumer pays towards both a delivery fee and a tip in addition to the order subtotal. Second, food delivery apps markup their prices for nationwide chains like Panda Express and local restaurants.
Popular delivery platforms like DoorDash and Uber Eats have a 15-30% delivery commission depending on the tier the merchant subscribes to; a higher tier yields more perks like larger delivery areas, discoverability and access to “high-value” customers who pay for premium consumer experiences like DashPass and Uber One.
Ultimately, it’s a compromise between costs and customer reach. The sudden growth in popularity of food delivery services may have been a successful temporary stopgap during the height of the pandemic, but their continuing popularity is unsustainable for restaurants with fewer in-house diners due to the added costs of delivery. Food delivery in its current form is incompatible with the business model of many restaurants.
By addressing each of these issues, UC Santa Barbara can nurture and support community-driven initiatives to support affordable, convenient, healthy and sustainable ways to make food available for students — methods that are convenient for students and provide a realistic option for our busy schedules.
Food delivery companies can support local businesses and improve affordability by prioritizing local restaurants over nationally recognized chains, which can be done through promoting local restaurants in their search and promotion algorithms.
By prioritizing local, restaurants aren’t forced to adopt an unsustainable business model or risk driving customers away. We can also take inspiration from some communities that have developed competing platforms that prioritize supporting local businesses, such as the 937 Delivers restaurant cooperative that was active during the pandemic in Dayton, Ohio. The Candlestick Courier Collective is another delivery co-op that’s based in San Francisco, which is fully owned and operated by the bicyclists that deliver the food. “We are working with local businesses and only local businesses because the whole goal is to put the money back into our pockets, back into restaurant pockets, back into the community,” Tasha Rose, a co-owner, said in an interview.
However, making food delivery services more affordable doesn’t necessarily promote sustainable eating. To do that, we as a community need to support and expand initiatives to make sustainable grocery shopping accessible and affordable for UCSB students. We need to align sustainability and convenience for students.
Shopping local is an effective ecologically sustainable approach to grocery shopping. According to an article on Columbia Climate School from 2012, there are environmental, economic and social benefits of shopping for foods grown locally. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers used to grow feed in California may be sent abroad to livestock in New York. Cattle given this feed produce manure will be rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, which can contribute to nutrient pollution due to runoff containing the excess. Locally cycling nutrients, however, would not produce an excess in this way.
Shopping locally also keeps money flowing in the community and supports local businesses, keeping a local community thriving and prevents it from becoming a “ghost town” or “clone town.” These terms describe neighborhoods with no local businesses or one that looks generic sparsely occupied by big-box stores and chains. Shopping locally-grown groceries both provides a way for the student-dense population in Isla Vista to be conscious of our environment while supporting the community economically and protecting our identity.
Student-first initiatives can make getting locally and sustainably sourced groceries convenient in Isla Vista. UCSB Basic Needs leads several food and grocery assistance programs for students on and off campus. The Associated Students (A.S.) Food Bank is open five days a week on campus at the University Center and supports over 3,000 students weekly. Since they’re an A.S. initiative, they’re funded by our student fees and donations. CalFresh is another federally funded program that provides up to $281 per month to spend on groceries.
The Isla Vista Food Co-op is a food cooperative in I.V. that highlights its commitment to the community by supporting local farms and producers. Being a cooperative, students and other members of the community can even become owners and get directly involved. Since they’re not profit-driven, cooperatives can come short of accessing necessary capital for growth and require active involvement from the community for its operations. However, the I.V. Food Co-op showed how these limitations could be overcome from its inspiring story of purchasing the land they’re on through a completely community-driven fundraiser in 2012 for Project We Own It!
A new collaboration with local farms and on-campus sustainable food initiatives could create a student schedule friendly on-campus market for locally grown foods akin to the Columbia Sunday Greenmarket by Columbia University. Complementing the Santa Barbara Farmers Market in the Camino Real Marketplace in Goleta on the weekend, a market sourcing from local farms can operate weekly on campus at UCSB. Students can grab groceries during a break between classes instead of carving out an entire afternoon. This initiative can reinforce and strengthen the relationship between UCSB students, Isla Vista and the broader community of Santa Barbara.
To be able to see where the food I buy comes from, who grows it and support a local business are privileges that I would love to have as a member of this community. So the spirit of reflection as this academic year begins should be to consider how convenience is powerful and how we can leverage it to be encouraged to lead a sustainable lifestyle.
Arjun Vinod believes taking an initiative to make sustainable options for groceries and food more convenient can provide students of UCSB more accessible means to making environmentally conscious decisions.