It’s just about every day now that some news outlet covers the quickly growing online grocery industry. There are a ton of companies experimenting and leading the growth of food ecommerce: Blue Apron, Plated, Fresh Direct, Instacart, and so many others.

But something that no one seems to be talking about is why online grocery matters. Who is even using online grocery? Is this immense growth in digital food for the suburban family, the urban yuppie, or perhaps for those who have the least access to low cost, fresh foods?

Right now there are over 5,000 food deserts in America. The USDA describes food deserts as places where “a substantial share of residents live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

Food deserts present a huge issue (especially given that the NRDC reports that over 40% of food in the US is thrown away each year), yet it remains a problem that has not received the attention it deserves. The grocery industry and digital food companies are basically silent on the issue. Why isn’t there more talk about how we can use these rapidly expanding tools to help those Americans that can’t get access to healthy food?

Here are a few thoughts about online grocery and why it really matters--not just to that 20-something hipster in Brooklyn who can now get his organic Lacinato kale delivered, but to Americans that need our help the most.

Virtual Supermarkets

Some cities are working to provide innovative services like Baltimore’s Virtual Supermarket to actively combat the existence of food deserts throughout the city. This program offers the ease of online grocery to community members without any of the fees, and delivers items to a central location where folks can pick up their orders.

For those who don't have access to a computer or internet, the program also provides access to computers at pick-up sites and volunteers are there to assist those who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with placing orders online. By offering these services, individuals have access to a wider range of products than they might at a local grocery store.

Online Grocery Vouchers

Tech companies should also continue to take on the brunt of testing and new initiatives to better understand the needs of those living in our country's food deserts. For example, an initiative by a group of researchers and funded by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children granted "caregivers residing in a documented Chicago food desert" with vouchers to buy groceries via an internet grocery service. The study found that when buying online, these participants mostly purchased fruits and vegetables. Not only could speedy online grocery tools bring great products to our country's food deserts, but they could also lead to overall healthier diets.

Online Grocery + SNAP

We also love that some leading online grocers, like Fresh Direct, are actively reaching out to low-income communities and allowing consumers to use EBT credits for purchases of SNAP-eligible products.

Online grocery certainly isn’t a silver bullet for the problem of food deserts, but at least it’s a start and something that, with enough time and energy, could help solve this serious problem. So, the next time you read some article on <em>Forbes</em> about Blue Apron or Amazon Fresh just remember that there’s more to this story than growth metrics or investor speculation. Online grocery is slowly moving towards something more meaningful than boardroom metrics.

The future is looking delicious… and at Chicory we’re glad that we’re going to be a part of it.

Photo via American Nutrition Association