“Pandemic as a portal”: a reflection on COVID-19 and the food-delivery industry

Ana Carolina Nunes
Oregon State University

I live on the second floor of an apartment complex. The two big windows in my living room and kitchen give me a privileged view of the life that happens outside. Through my windows, I observe many workers delivering food to other people living in the apartments right in front of mine. Just yesterday, I noticed a lady with white hair leaving her car, an old Corolla, with a DoorDash catering bag. I observed as she went upstairs to deliver food to a neighbor and then returned to her car with a seemingly lighter bag, probably getting ready for her next job. That image followed me till the end of the day, as I was curious to know what had led that lady—part of a demographic considered vulnerable to COVID-19 due to her age—to become a delivery driver during a global pandemic. When my partner got home from work, I told him about the scene I had seen earlier. My partner is also a food industry worker, one of the lucky ones who hasn’t lost his job due to the pandemic. 

DoorDash Catering Bag

I’m a Ph.D. student in Applied Anthropology. I research digital technologies, but because of my partner’s job, I’ve become closer to the topic of food chain workers in a time when digital technologies occupy every minute of people’s lives. The food delivery industry isn’t a given or stable object, and I’ve chosen to look at it through the lenses of hope, hope that the pandemic can work as a portal to transform it.

I first heard about this metaphor from Ruha Benjamin when she cited Arundhati Roy’s The pandemic is a portal essay, in which she writes:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Following Arundhati Roy and Benjamin’s steps, I also want to see the pandemic as a portal. This portal can lead to changes in the structure of a capitalistic system that exploits essential but devalued food workers.

The tech companies and the food delivery industry

At the beginning of the pandemic, many people became enthusiastic about cooking at home, even baking loaves of bread that looked beautiful on Instagram pictures that I vividly remember seeing during several hours of doom scrolling. But as there is no end in sight, and the situation has been going on for a while, some people are getting tired of cooking, and that’s when the food delivery system becomes an option. 

Many tech companies portray the uberization of the food industry as a desirable future. You can look at your phone with any culinary craving in the world, and a few minutes later, the food conveniently arrives at your door, even during a global pandemic. For those who own the technology, CEOs and tech venture firms, and for those who occupy the top positions in such companies, the service-oriented platforms are the best thing that happened to food. Yet behind the apps is a world of unsustainable exploitation in desperate need of governmental regulation.  

Gig work is not a new invention from Silicon Valley, but a practice that has kept temporary workers doing a significant amount of the American industry jobs for a long time. This working system took off in the period following World War II. It was developed to help companies when their permanent employees could not work for short periods; it has also altered America’s corporate culture throughout time. Uberization is, however, a recent invention, and its story traces back to the beginning of the transportation service company, Uber. 

Uber started as UberCab, offering a luxury transportation service in 2009. The innovative factor behind Uber was the idea of paying individual contractors through an app. Companies win because they don’t have full-time employees, only independent contractors. Uber moved into the food industry in 2014, when it launched its UberEats. Amazon has also gotten into the food system, and it now owns Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh, a 2-hour delivery service for Prime members in selected cities. At the same time, Walmart has partnered with Instacart to compete with Amazon’s Whole Foods. Even before the pandemic, some restaurants were making more money from food eaten outside the restaurants than inside it. Take Grub Hub, now a giant in this market, as an example. The company started its operation on a local scale in Chicago in 2004 and was already processing more than 500,000 transactions per day in February before COVID 19’s social isolation measures were implemented. Since then, the market for food delivery through apps has become a billion-dollar industry in the US. 

The money tech companies now make through their platforms for food delivery doesn’t translate into better pay for the people actually delivering the food. Nor, does it bring much benefit to small restaurants that make the food since they have to pay as much as 25% of every order they receive to such platforms; restaurants also lose important consumer data, and have to pay extra toa search optimization engine,which means that if you want your restaurant to have higher visibility on a website, you need to pay more for it. Otherwise, your restaurant will appear at the end of the list, invisible to clients.

As for the deliverers, they need to use their own vehicles for deliveries and sometimes buy their own equipment, such as thermal bags, with the delivery service logo. Since they’re individual contractors and not employees, they don’t have social security, health insurance, insurance of any kind, no sick pay, no holiday pay, and no vacations. In offering the platform/technology that connects seller, buyer, and delivery, tech companies present their products as an opportunity for the driver to be their own boss, deciding their working hours and living a good life afterwards. But in the end, gig-workers aren’t making $400 a day. Instead, most people get into these precarious jobs because they don’t have another option.

Uberization of work is a form of capitalism that fragilizes labor laws as it favors company shareholders and leads to increasing precariousness of work. From an economic and social perspective, it’s a massive movement backward in time to what researcher Adam Arvidsson calls a feudalization of digital capitalism. That can be illustrated with the case of prop 22, a ballot measure passed in California at the beginning of November, allowing tech platform companies to hire drivers as independent contractors. Scholars and activists have raised concerns over this measure, highlighting that gig companies invested over $205 million into propaganda that misled voters. The fragility and vulnerability of workers in the gig industry is a worldwide phenomenon. However, the good news is that there are examples of workers developing their own workers-owned technology, also called platform cooperativism, and organizing to subvert the order imposed by the gig-economy.

Entregadores no Brasil

Antifascists Couriers: I don’t want cattle (mindless workers). I want to train thinking deliverers.” Screenshot from an interview from A Publica with Paulo Lima

In Brazil, a movement formed by delivery workers has received national attention as the cases of COVID-19 soared worldwide. They claim living wages, better working conditions, and demand to be seen as workers. The crucial moment was June of 2020, when a delivery worker’s moving and emotional video gave rise to this movement. In the video, Paulo Lima, who became a leading voice of Entregadores Antifascistas, denounced mistreatment and precarious working conditions. On July 1st, delivery workers went on strike. Another strike on July 25th (Breque dos Apps) brought attention to inequality and exploitation. As a consequence, there are now several bills in the Brazilian Congress that, if approved, will improve the lives of delivery workers. There are other local bills throughout Brazil trying to address this matter, as there are also discussions about platform cooperativism in the country. 

Conclusion—Pandemic as a portal 

I started reading about how some companies use lay-offs due to COVID as a pretext for age discrimination. It made me think about the case of the white-haired woman that opened this text. In fact, a relative of mine who had worked for years in a company was fired without notice just a few months ago. That person is seriously considering joining the food-delivery industry, as they don’t see any other option in sight. I also talked to an older lady in the dog park last Sunday and she was telling me that she lost her job due to the pandemic, and that as she was looking for new job options on Craigslist. She only found jobs with Grub Hub, and Munchies, a local delivery service operating in Oregon and Florida. 

If app-based food delivery is the future, we need to make sure it benefits all people involved in it. The delivery of food, sometimes taken for granted, is a complex process, resulting in food produced in a restaurant kitchen appearing almost “magically” at your door. As said by Benjamin, a portal can lead us to good or bad, and I wish the pandemic could function as a portal to transform working conditions and bring equality and fair salaries to essential, but devalued, food workers. That would involve, of course, listening to delivery workers’ demands and a collective effort to dismantle systems of oppression currently in place. Platform cooperativism and spontaneous movements organized and led by delivery workers worldwide also point in that direction. 

Ana Carolina Nunes is a PhD student in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.

Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice, Part II

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The Intercultural Learning Community at the vegan restaurant, Quinoa, operated by one of our own members, Luz Zaruma

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

Just as our fall term was wrapping up at Oregon State University, the Intercultural Learning Community headed to Ecuador to complete the second part of this experiential program. To read about the first part in Oregon click here.

Before covering some of the highlights of this trip, let me give a shout out to Claudia García who drew on her deep knowledge of Ecuador’s food systems and connections around the country to organize a rich and enjoyable trip, and to the EkoRural Foundation that served as our Ecuadorian financial sponsor. We began our trip with a visit to the highly integrated Atuk Farm outside of Quito run by the Dammer sisters. Sixty of the ninety hectares they own are in forest. The chickens live in large teepee-shaped tractors and clean the pastures of parasites à la Salatin. They had a clever way of turning the compost down a hill and a lovely outdoor kitchen where they served us a farm lunch. After lunch we retired to a hand-made mud brick building where Javier Carrera talked to us about the Seed Savers Network. The Guardianes de Semillas have been in existence since 1998 and includes 110 families in 15 Ecuadorian counties, though they also do seed exchanges in Colombia and Bolivia. The point goes beyond saving seeds to sharing ancestral knowledge about nutrition and promoting social change. He gave an historical overview of settlement and soils in Ecuador, emphasizing the migrations of food crops as well as the ways in which indigenous peoples in different ecosystems fed themselves. Moving to more recent times, he talked about the 2008 national constitution which protects the rights of nature and food sovereignty. Despite this progressive legal framework encouraged by indigenous groups and agrifood activists, implementation is more difficult and there is constant pressure to conform to the industrial food system. Mandatory pasteurization and slaughter in state approved facilities put small farmers at a disadvantage, just like in the US. Saraguro women were told that they had to deliver their milk warm to be pasteurized, but the facility was two hours away. They went on strike and several of the women were put in jail. Carrera said that 30% of the farms in Ecuador are small, family farms and they produce 70% of what Ecuador eats. They are fighting to keep a separate system for small farmers in order to ensure future food sovereignty. He shared with us several successful experiments in permaculture around the country.

The following two days were focused on metropolitan Quito. With 2,500,000 people pressed between two volcanoes high in the Andes and a poverty rate of 12.8%, the challenges of keeping people well fed are great. Add to that, over 300,000 recent migrants from Colombia and Venezuela. Other numbers that Alexandra Rodriguez cited were that 71% of food consumed in the city was eaten outside of the home and 63% of the population was overweight or obese. Since 2002 Rodriguez has been working with a participatory urban agriculture program (AGRUPAR) to expand urban and peri-urban agriculture in Quito. They now have 1400 gardens, involving 5000 people. 57% of the produce goes to home consumption and the remainder is sold. We visited one of the oldest farms and saw a variety of food grown in 1500 m2. We bought some for our own dinner that evening that we prepared under the direction of chef/group member Santiago Rosero at the Gastronomic Laboratory.

Quito’s food bank delivers to 77 institutions and 655 families, working almost entirely with volunteers and no federal support. Their main source of food is leftovers from the markets and supermarkets. They do not receive a tax break for donations, but it does relieve them of having to dispose of food they can’t sell. We visited two of the markets in the old center of Quito, San Roque and Central. At San Roque we heard from anthropologist Anahí Macaroff who has been doing research on the markets of Quito. She explained how they were all connected and should be defended against the growth of supermarkets. She cited several instances where supermarkets opened very near the older markets and lowered their prices for as long as it took to put the market out of business and then raised their prices.

Talking to people from the food bank and markets rounded out our picture of the urban food system. Farm-direct, agroecological markets are growing, but serve a small percentage of the population. This year Quito approved an Agrifood Strategy and a Climate Action Plan. This is a good start, but, as always, the proof is in the implementation. We stopped at a small recycling center that wasn’t quite operating yet. Its main purpose was to teach people how to recycle, but without access to designated receptacles it’s going to take a while.

We heard about several social justice-oriented projects. First, we heard from a group of multidisciplinary researchers from the Catholic University who have been working on nutrition projects in the province of Cotopaxi where a large number of children suffer from malnutrition. Then, we heard about the FUEGOS project to bring a culinary school and food tourism to the province of Manabi that was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 2016. Finally, Marcelo Aziaga told us about feeding anti-austerity protesters. An estimated 20,000 people marched on Quito in October, closing the Panamerican highway and shutting down the capital city. The Catholic University, the Salesiana University, and the Casa de la Cultura housed several thousand people and chefs and food activists set up kitchens to feed them. The police dismantled the kitchens every night, which were then re-set up daily. Food arrived from various places. Volunteers organized food lines, dish washing and waste disposal. Medical students treated people who were wounded by the police, and also the police. Austerity measures were temporarily rolled back, but could re-emerge after the holidays. Later in our trip, we spoke with some indigenous leaders who recounted how they organized their participation through loudspeakers after the government shut down communications.

Driving north from Quito, we visited a biodiverse farm in the Andean dry forest that belongs to two of our group participants, Lucia and Fabian. We tasted four of the over 20 types of avocados that they grow and a variety of passion fruits and chirimoya. (I have to say, the Nacional avocado was to die for.) For lunch, Lucia made us a variety of Andean tubers, plantains and an excellent locro de zambo or squash soup. From there we continued north to Ibarra where we were hosted by MESSE, the Ecuadorian Movement for a Social and Solidarity Economy. Jorge García explained the Abya Yala Paradigm that reigned in the Americas before colonization. The four axioms are 1. Everything is alive; 2. Nothing is the same as something else and diversity generates life; 3. Everything is related to everything; 4. We are all of the cosmos and of the earth. He contrasted these with imported European beliefs about ownership and the primacy of humans that have led to environmental disaster. He gave examples of how the four elements: oxygen, fire, water and earth are the foundations of cooking.

Steve Sherwood outlined for us the relationship between agroecology and solidarity economies. Both share a focus on intersubjectivity between humans and between humans and non-humans, harking back to the axioms that everything is alive and connected. He encouraged us to focus on existence, rather than resistance, as we work to construct new ways of being through our own practices. He explained how food activists in Ecuador connected through various types of encounters that take place all around the country in a de-centralized fashion. This allowed food activists to come together during the strike and set up kitchens to feed people while the food industry called on the government to violently crush the strike, so that they could continue their businesses.

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A pambamesa offered to us at MESSE’s Kuricancha in Ibarra

In nearby El Chota, Luzmila Bolaños also spoke of the four elements as she explained the history and foodways of the Afroecuadorian population of the Chota Valley. She spoke frankly about discrimination and said that the mestizo Ecuadorians had a lot to unlearn before they could learn. She talked about local foods that are part of the local diet, non-local foods that are part of the local diet and local foods that are not part of the local diet. In the latter group are prickly pear cactus which came from Mexico. They are starting to sell the fruit in Ecuadorian supermarkets now, but there is still no local market for the tender young leaves or nopalitos. She and her friend made a salad out of them for our lunch along with a delicious soup.

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Luzmila’s cousin and his prickly pear plantation near El Chota, waiting for a market.
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Both in Ecuador and the US, it is difficult to make a living by farming. Agritourism is one way that families have been able to stay on the farm, so we spent the rest of our time in Ecuador supporting these efforts. The MESSE activists are new to this, so our students served as guinea pigs. (Oops, they eat guinea pigs.)

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The students had a variety of experiences: helping with farming, cooking and marketing and living without potable running water and indoor plumbing for two nights. One host woke up at 5am to walk 45 minutes to milk cows, then made cheese for the rest of the morning. The next four nights were spent with a more experienced community tourism group in Cotacachi. These indigenous women have been hosting tourists in their homes for 20 years and knew the importance of private bedrooms and bathrooms. They also let Claudia know that when stays are booked through the website, the money never leaves the men’s group, so we booked directly through the women’s committee. The women’s committee is focused on health and central to that are indigenous foodways. Discrimination and migration damaged ancestral farming and cooking traditions, and they are working to valorize these health-generating practices. They shared their knowledge about multiple varieties of corn and their uses, demonstrating the traditional preparation of chicha. They spoke to us about their process of stabilizing the recipe for the industrial production of chicha for sale.

The highlight of the Cotacachi stay was the preparation and eating of a pachamanka. Don Enrique had a huge bonfire going when we arrived in the morning, heating up the rocks that were used to line the hole making an earthen oven. Meat and vegetables were wrapped in leaves and placed in the hole which was covered up with leaves and sod and left to cook for about 2 and a half hours. The food had a delicious, smoky flavor and we enjoyed eating it together.

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Loading up the Pachamanka
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Eating the Pachamanka

Our final stay was at Pambiliño Reserve run by one of our past participants, Emilia Arcos and her husband, Oliver. As we descended through the cloud forest, the air grew hot and humid and vegetation turned thick and tropical. Emi and Oliver self-identify as neo-campesinos or new farmers who are passionate about environmental education. Together with friends and family, they are re-creating food forests on land that was once dominated by cattle-raising and mono-cultures. On our last day there, we broke into groups and went foraging in the surrounding forest, bringing back cacao and macambo pods, different types of plantains and bananas, cardamom, oranges, lemons, yuca, guayabilla fruit, edible flowers and various herbs for teas. We made a wonderful lunch, using only very few staples from the kitchen.

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Luz, Camilo and Lisa foraging for their lunch at Pambiliño Reserve

Reading about similarities and differences in agrifood systems and conversing with people from other countries and other ecosystems who share your interest in creating more equitable and environmentally sustainable food systems are wonderful activities. What a privilege, though, to be able to see, hear, feel, taste and smell what people living different kinds of life experience.

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“It tastes like ginger”

Intercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice

Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms
Group photo at Oregon Food Bank Farms

Joan Gross
Oregon State University

I spent two very intense weeks at the end of September leading the lntercultural Learning Community on Food, Culture and Social Justice (ILC) through various interesting sites of food production and consumption in Oregon. In December we will visit parallel sites in Ecuador. The ILC was developed jointly by food activists in Ecuador and Oregon in 2013 to de-colonize the typical study abroad program. We do this by forming an international, multicultural group of people from both Oregon and Ecuador who are invested in some aspect of the food system and feel that humankind can do better. We look for ways in which the practice of sustainable foodways can address some of today’s most pressing concerns, such as environmental degradation, climate change, the proliferation of ill health and marginalization of people. Through cross-cultural dialogue, collaboration, and experiential learning, participants further develop their knowledge, social networks and their capacity for engaging with food practices as global citizens, rooted in local realities.

We have an excellent group of participants this year, including professional chefs, farmers, food activists, and multidisciplinary graduate and undergraduate students. We began the tour in Portland with a visit to the Oregon Food Bank (OFB). The OFB is at the forefront of state food banks in taking a food systems approach to hunger, but they are still a dumping site for commodity goods that recent tariffs have left without a foreign market. OFB advocates for changes that address the root causes of hunger and they work hard at building community-based food systems. We saw evidence of this in the farms next to the warehouse where we spoke with Latina, African American and Native American farmers who were given plots of land to plant to grow culturally important foods that they share with their communities. Later in the trip, we spent time at the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde reservations and learned of their efforts to revitalize traditional foodways on land that was already full of invasive species. We also spent a morning with Latinx activists and heard about the challenges and successes of forming the farmworkers union in the Northwest. Later, we had a conversation in Spanish with the women’s field crew at a local organic farm. Twelve hour work days seemed abusive to many of the group members, but the women explained that they had to leave their children back home in Mexico and Guatemala and appreciated every extra hour that they could work.

We spent a fair amount of time visiting various OSU agrifood research sites (naked barley; whey vodka; black tomatoes; bacon-flavored algae) and also talked to breeders who are adapting Andean crops to the Willamette Valley (quinoa, amaranth, mashua, oca, melloco, uvilla, achoccha). We also spoke to an extension agent working with SNAP outreach. She showed us a photograph of a school lunch tray with a bag of Doritos on it. We were all shocked to see a branded product on the tray and even more shocked to find out that industries altered their products to meet the latest requirements and then bid to have their branded products included in the school lunch program, but that it was illegal to sell branded products in school vending machines in Oregon. An even stranger incident came to light later at the capitol in our discussion about the Farm to School program. We asked about culturally appropriate foods and were told a story about a Latina mother who wanted to get tamales into the school lunch program. She was told that any grain product had to be at least 50% whole grain and since the corn for masa is treated with lime or lye to make it more digestible (and nutritious) it is no longer considered whole grain. Several of our group members spoke up about the ancient technique of nixtamalization that made niacin available to corn eaters and prevented pellagra, but rules are rules, even when ethnocentric and lacking in historical perspective. Luckily the administrator was able to work with the mother to come up with a tamale that fit the requirements. We wonder how it tastes. (While on the topic of ethnocentrism, we could also mention the “American Grown” label, which the Ecuadorians were told meant that it was grown in the USA, not anywhere else in the Americas.)

As we drove around the verdant countryside, favoring agroecological, diverse production sites, we whizzed past giant fields of monocultures —not the corn and soybeans of the Midwest, but hazelnuts (now that OSU has developed a blight resistant variety), wine grapes (as California gets too hot and dry) and the recently legalized hemp. It has been called marijuana’s no-buzz cousin and has created a gold rush (or shall we say “green rush”) among farmers. But every silver cloud has a toxic lining. The original gold rush left arsenic in the land; the pollen from industrial hemp threatens to infect not only its increasingly designer high cousin, but also the taste of neighboring wine grapes.

Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner
Dessert preparation at the Ecuadorian Dinner

One of the aims of the ILC is to engage physically as well as intellectually with the food system. We did this in the course of many meals made by local chefs with local ingredients, but we also lent our 34 hands to the Linn Benton Food Share to pack food boxes for hospital patients; to the OSU Organic Growers’ Club to weed the brassicas, and to the Food for Lane County Youth Farm to trim harvested garlic. In addition, we cooked an excellent Ecuadorian meal for Slow Food Corvallis and several of our presenters and host families. We were lucky to have two professional chefs in our group and they coordinated beforehand to bring ingredients like lupin beans (chochos) tostados, chifles, and a rare white cacao-like bean called macambo.

Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market
Interviewing at the Corvallis Farmers Market

It’s difficult to find the time for people to pursue individual research interests in such a packed agenda, but we managed to do so at the Corvallis Farmers Market. We first had an introduction to the market on Friday by its manager. Then we discussed questions we were interested in asking vendors and buyers at the market. We formed pairs of researchers and spent the next day wandering the market, observing, and asking questions. We got back together after lunch to discuss what we had learned. First of all, the Ecuadorians were very impressed with the Corvallis market. Several of them who sell at markets talked about ideas that they would try to implement back home. One pair documented ways in which vendors brought people into their booths. Another interviewed women producers about challenges they have faced in this work. Land access was another topic and one pair focused on Latinx shoppers asking what drew them to the market. Everyone was impressed with the number of times that “community” arose in their conversations. Here are some things that surprised the Ecuadorians: that the meat stands were so neat and sterile, no sign of whole animals either dead or alive; that amaranth was being used as a flower in bouquets; that the prices were fixed and posted; that most of the vendors had finished college; that some vendors had photographs of their farms; that there was a booth for children to be occupied while their parents shopped; that there were musicians and artists making the market an attractive place to be.

The trip left us satisfied and exhausted and ready to explore similar themes in Ecuador in December.