Serving America’s Food Deserts

Sola Lawal
Jul 15 · 6 min read

If you live at the intersection of Holman and St. Charles Streets in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, you’re just around the corner from iconic landmarks like Emancipation Park, built for Juneteenth celebrations in 1872, and the El Dorado ballroom, the historic heart of Houston’s blues scene. This community has a rich history and is the hub of the city’s Black culture.

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But if you want to pick up groceries, the nearest supermarket is about two miles away, which means you’d need to cross over sixteen lanes of highway, or walk half a mile to the nearest bus stop if you don’t have a car.

In this part of the Third Ward, it’s a lot easier to pick up fast food than fresh greens for a salad. There’s a burger place and two convenience stores nearby, but it’s a 45 minute round trip to the grocery store by bus.

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This kind of neighborhood is known as a “food desert,” a low-income area without a nearby supermarket. And like most food deserts, it’s a predominantly minority neighborhood.

From our conversations with Houston’s Health Department, we know that there is an 8 year gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest neighborhoods in Houston. They also identified that access to healthy food and medical care are two major drivers in this gap.

More than 20 million low-income people in America live in food deserts.¹ They have to choose between local mini marts, which have higher prices and fewer healthy, fresh options, or traveling to other neighborhoods to get the week’s groceries. This extra burden falls on those who are less able to afford the higher costs, are less likely to own a car, and suffer from higher rates of obesity and heart disease. The situation has worsened during the present pandemic, as more than 25 million people across the United States have become food insecure and public transportation services have been reduced due to COVID-19.

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Self-driving delivery vehicles can provide affordable and convenient access to healthy foods for those living in food deserts. At Nuro, we’re building a self-driving vehicle designed to deliver groceries, prescription drugs, and other local products on demand. While existing grocery delivery services add $10–20 to the cost of an order, our goal is to reduce this delivery cost to $0, providing people living on fixed or low incomes the same convenient and affordable access to fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, or meat as those who live in food-rich areas.

How can we bring the delivery cost down to $0? Nuro is building an entirely new, electric, delivery-only vehicle that will cost less to build, maintain, and deploy at scale than a traditional, gas-powered car typically used for delivery.

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Pictured here is the Nuro R2, packed with groceries. As you can see, R2 is designed to carry goods but no people, and it will complete trips from the store to your door autonomously. Customers will order groceries online from one of our partner stores, items will be picked and packed in the store and brought curbside to a waiting R2, and the vehicle will promptly make its way to your home. R2 will let you know by text message when it has arrived. Once you have unloaded your groceries, simply tap done and it will drive on to the next customer.

How Self-Driving Delivery Could Have National Impact

We wanted to understand how many people in food deserts could benefit if this technology were deployed nationwide. To do this, we calculated how many homes we could reach within 30 minutes from all major supermarkets with a self-driving delivery vehicle operating at speeds up to 45 mph, and compared that to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) data on food desert locations.

We found that Nuro could reach 14 million low-income households in food deserts nationwide, or 70% of the total low-income population in food deserts. That’s more people than live in Pennsylvania, the fifth most populous state. In Houston alone, we estimate that self-driving delivery services could reach 350,000 low-income people who live in food deserts.

Food Equity in Houston

Using self-driving technology to make the convenience of on-demand services available to everyone — regardless of income or geography — is core to why Nuro was founded, and why we focused on local commerce. A year ago, we chose Houston as the first place to build a city scale autonomous delivery service in part because it is the most diverse city in the United States, with 1 in 4 residents born abroad and a Black population of 1.2 million people.

When we launched in Houston, we opened our first depot in the Gulfton Complete Community, identified by the city as one of Houston’s most under-resourced neighborhoods. Since then, our local service has already created over a hundred new jobs in the city, both at Nuro’s depots and in our partners’ stores, picking and packing orders.

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Nuro is at the beginning of deploying this new technology, and as we expand, we will work to do more to serve these communities. When Nuro began delivering with the Houston Food Bank, we expanded our service area to reach more people in food deserts, including in the Third Ward. Recently, we committed to deliberately including more communities whose residents are predominantly Black Americans and underrepresented populations in our future deployment decisions. These communities frequently overlap with food deserts: one study found there are half as many chain supermarkets in Black neighborhoods compared to White ones with similar income levels.

The issues that have given rise to unequal food access will require communities to address long standing problems that go well beyond tech, from acknowledging historic decisions on land use and investment, to addressing disparities in transportation access and the legacy of redlining. Across our country, individuals and families, companies and communities, are recognizing and reckoning with inequality. Nuro’s engagement with this issue is part of our ongoing commitment to meet our communities and customers where they are. In our own neighborhood, we are proud to see that Mayor Turner and the Houston City Council are working to address food deserts, an effort that is beginning to bear fruit in the Third Ward.

¹ USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tracts where a significant number (at least 500 people) or share (at least 33 percent) of the population is greater than 1.0 mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store for an urban area or greater than 10 miles for a rural area. A low-income tract has a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, or median family income that is less than or equal to 80 percent of the State’s or metropolitan area’s median family income. USDA reports that 32M people live in census tracts that contain food deserts, but for this analysis we focused on the number of low-income Americans that themselves live far from grocery stores, as they are the ones that experience the greatest impact.

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