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We Should Nationalize Food Delivery Apps and Turn Them Into a Public Food Service

Faced with the coronavirus shutdown, more people are getting meals delivered straight to their homes. At a time of mass panic buying, the state should step in to guarantee a smooth food supply — and start by turning platforms like Uber Eats and Grubhub into a public service.

Carla Estefani, 21, poses for a portrait on March 24, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has been working as an app delivery courier for two months. Bruna Prado / Getty

On Monday, the Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey called for the British government to set up a national food service as a means to deal with food poverty in the current COVID-19 crisis. Amid widespread panic buying and a general economic slowdown, many citizens are anxious about disruption to supplies — or even about the consequences of leaving their homes.

Over in Denmark, social-democratic prime minister Mette Frederiksen put her own spin on this question by saying it might be better for Danes to purchase takeout rather than go to supermarkets. The Danish government has been admirably swift in its response to COVID-19 — and, as a courier for the food platform Wolt in Copenhagen, I was struck by her comments.

But for mass food deliveries to be workable, we need a more coordinated response — with the creation of a national food service as a new branch of social care. As Callum Cant’s writing on Deliveroo suggests, we have part of the basis for this already, in the technology behind existing food platforms. But first, this technology needs to be taken into public ownership — and made to work for all of us, not for private profit.

Working for Wolt

I work as a Wolt “courier partner” in Copenhagen. A kind of Grubhub with Danish characteristics, Wolt’s algorithmic system allows partners to work in a highly efficient manner, such as was never possible before this technology was developed. Wolt uses big data to train and retrain its algorithmic machines to provide the most up-to-date information, thus allowing the algorithm to speed up all interactions — from the courier picking up the food from a restaurant to the delivery to the customer.

In the space of just a few years, Wolt has revolutionized food delivery in most major cities in Denmark by guaranteeing fast service at a cheaper price than many other food delivery services. However, while Wolt is cheaper than these other services, it is still far more expensive to order a delivery than making a meal yourself. Many of the immunocompromised — such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and those on lower incomes — would not be able to afford its services on a regular basis.

As the largest food delivery service in many Danish cities, Wolt is the prime benefactor of the prime minister’s comments — and will likely see a surge in profits. Yet this profit motive is one of the reasons why a private firm won’t be adequate in providing a public service during this time of crisis. Given its near-monopolistic status in some cities, the company may even use this situation to raise the cost of deliveries further.

Another problem concerns its workers’ status. Like food-platform companies in other countries, Wolt considers its “partners” to be independent contractors rather than employees, meaning that they don’t receive benefits associated with employment, such as sick pay. Wolt has offered some assistance to couriers, such as a 50kr ($7) discount on hand sanitizer and a form of partial sick pay if they are proven to have contracted COVID-19 — although, currently, Denmark is only testing those with severe symptoms. In other words, these precarious workers aren’t being given the same assurances that employees receive. Such measures thus seem unlikely to stop them risking themselves on the streets in order to pay for their means of subsistence — even if they do have symptoms.

Mutual Aid

In his book about the food-platform company Deliveroo, Callum Cant suggests that platform expropriation under the control of workers could provide an alternative to the business model under which these platforms currently operate. Cant writes that “a platform-based worker-run ‘meals on wheels’ service could begin to provide the needs of an ageing population and expand the support available to those with additional temporary or permanent care needs.” An idea such as this could be adopted in Denmark by bringing Wolt into public ownership, in order for it to act as a fourth emergency service: the National Food Service.

Rather than having to fear the expense of using a service such as Wolt, immunocompromised people could have food delivered to their door, subsidized by the state. These people can be identified through links with social services, community mutual care networks that are being established, and the knowledge of charities such as the Red Cross. The development of these informal networks could be useful for algorithmic technology to continue to be improved, in the interest of both workers and users.

As well as this, Wolt partners could be given new contracts and unionized with the union 3F, which has been organizing them, meaning that if they start to develop COVID-19 symptoms, they have protection to stay at home for the safety of themselves and others. If nationalized, the possibilities of the technology developed by Wolt could help provide Denmark with a highly advanced social care model.

As the world continues to be affected by coronavirus, the Right are on the march, increasing their rhetoric against migrants, bashing low-income workers for continuing to use public transit, and relishing in the deaths of those who are immunocompromised. The Left needs to be creative in our response, and an idea such as a national food service that meets the needs of many could gain traction and become an important part of our vision of a post-COVID-19 world.

We can’t afford to wait for this to be given to us — it’s something we can sow the seeds of for now by reaching out to our neighbors, getting engaged in mutual aid groups, and supporting food-platform workers in their unionization initiatives. Above all, we need a plan to respond to this fundamental crisis of capitalism — and restructuring our relationship with food is a vital part of that.