Online food delivery during the Covid-19 pandemic

As we are urged to maintain physical distancing and stay home during this Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a surge of demand for food delivery services.

With the decline of business through dining in and with the availability of good internet access and high smartphone ownership, many food outlets provide online order and delivery. There are also third-party apps that allow consumers to view menus, make orders, and receive food delivered directly to their doorstep.

We are spoilt for choice as we can order from a variety of menus through a single app. The varieties available also allow us to try out new food every day. Food delivery provides convenience for individuals who choose to maintain physical distancing by not eating out or those with no time to shop, prepare or cook food.

As people start working from home amid the Covid-19 pandemic, busy workers can order food without leaving their desks or interrupting their work. However, prices of food from food delivery can be 10 to 30 percent higher than buying directly from the eateries.

Sometimes, consumers are forced to buy additional side dishes or purchase a minimum amount for a delivery which may result in over-consumption or food wastage. In addition, there is usually a delivery charge to be paid. The delivered food may also generate more packaging waste which contributes negatively to the environment.

On the other hand, online food delivery has provided employment opportunities to many who lost their livelihood due to the pandemic. However, delivery workers may have higher risk of accidents when they race against the clock to meet deadlines as they fail to abide by traffic rules.

They may also face higher risks of Covid-19 infection as they are exposed to many people.
When considering the increasing rates of obesity, the effects of online food delivery could be a great concern. Due to the diverse and competing food delivery platforms, consumers have the potential to select unhealthy options when opting to use digital ordering.

Consumers are also at greater risks of ordering extra portions when discounts are given if the order exceeds a certain amount. The convenience may present a great risk to adverse health outcomes such as being overweight/obese or non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Therefore, all parties concerned namely the consumers, online food providers, and policymakers should take action to ensure healthy, delicious, and reasonably priced food are provided to maintain consumers’ good health and the food providers’ survival and sustainability, in addition to protecting the environment.

Consumers should order wisely by selecting healthy choices with appropriate portions, not to get influenced by discounts that come with larger portions. This will avoid the negative health outcomes associated with overconsumption, reduce the chance of wasting money or food that is not consumed, and providing both economic and health benefits.

In order to provide informed choices to the consumers for healthier food options, online food providers should provide nutritional information on the menus or label food options as healthy, based on nutritional content.

Through the application of technology, accessibility to healthier food could be improved. This can be implemented using choice architecture; where the online system encourages or ‘nudges’ consumers towards healthier choices during the order process.

For example, when presented with available menu options, choice architecture techniques include setting healthy items as defaults, restructuring the menu to highlight healthier options using methods such as promotional tagging, or recommending a healthier alternative to a previously ordered meal to encourage healthy options.

These changes could be implemented with relative ease and may work in promoting healthy choices among consumers. The potential for online food delivery platforms as the channel to improve diet-related health outcomes should be explored.

To improve economic sustainability, online platform food providers could help to tackle the food waste problem by exploring ways to better communicate with their consumers about appropriate portion sizes and to avoid pressuring or unduly incentivising consumers to over purchase.

With regard to environmental sustainability, online food providers should consider working with packaging producers and the restaurant sector to explore developing and using more sustainable packaging materials.

Policymakers should consider how to better regulate to ensure appropriate working conditions for delivery workers for their safety and economic sustainability. Policymakers could raise public awareness of sustainability and healthy eating habits through education.

Regarding environmental sustainability, policymakers could encourage the packaging industry to develop new packaging material through incentives, such as taxation, subsidies, and industrial support.

During this Covid-19 pandemic, the popular and widely-used online food delivery will impact the population’s health greatly. All relevant parties should work together to improve the accessibility of healthy food, provide economic and environmental sustainability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations.

The letter was written by Professor Dr Moy Foong Ming to Malaysiakini and was published on the 10 December 2020.

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