Food Delivery in times of Covid-19: the MADRID pilot

November 17, 2020
Reading Time
7 min

by Andrés Kinstein, Gianni Rondinella and Floridea Di Ciommo – cambiaMO | changing MObility


Exploring the MADRID pilot, INDIMO is trying to improve inclusivity of Food Delivery Services, especially in times of Covid-19. Food delivery service providers are trying to meet the needs of socially isolated people, temporary COVID-19 confined people or people who for any reason already encountered barriers before the pandemics hit.

In the recent years, digital technology and mobile apps allowed for a higher integration across mobility and logistics, resulting in the emergence of a wide array of customized, on-demand services. Despite the success of such services, there are new issues to consider:

  • Who’s left behind?
  • Are there people who cannot access these services because the digital skills required are not inclusive?
  • Are services too expensive for lower income people?
  • Are there people who can’t access services due to low readability of texts on small screens?

The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemics has remarked more than ever the daily issues of a large number of vulnerable people to access new digital mobility services. The INDIMO project core objective is that of extending the potential benefits of digital services to those groups that currently face barriers to access them. From a more human-centred perspective, ideally all people should  feel included while using these services, regardless of their condition. To this end, one of the documents delivered in the INDIMO Digital Mobility Toolbox will be a Universal Design manual. The manual will offer guidance for the inclusive design of mobility and delivery digital services, considering the needs of vulnerable-to-exclusion people. It will be conceived by end-users teamed up in workshops with developers, stakeholders, experts in social studies and policy makers.



The MADRID pilot: first insights from interviews with vulnerable users

In this context, the Madrid Pilot deals with the food delivery service provided through the cooperative platform La Pajara.coopcycle.  Its objective is to understand feelings, limitations and perceived potential of such service among specific vulnerable-to-exclusion groups. This pilot focuses on the needs of lower-income people, impaired people with reduced vision and mobility, non-connected and socially isolated people (condition exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemics allowing for reduced or zero daily trips). To this end, between September and October 2020, a qualitative survey has been deployed through semi-structured interviews among users and non-users. Meanwhile the local Community of learning by Practices was  launched  and started its online meetings to enable direct  understanding of the unsatisfied needs of vulnerable users by all stakeholders involved (i.e. developers, policy makers and delivery service providers.

During the COVID19, the everyday needs of lower income, socially isolated and impaired people became harsher.  Especially regarding provision of food and other essential goods, complexity increased: the lockdown imposed social distancing, and with it the subsequent restrictions on collective and individual mobility. For example, minimizing contacts with family and friends implied a reduced assistance to thepeople with vision and mobility impairments. Also, it is worth to mention the mutual lack of emotional support.

In this context, La Pajara.coopcycle delivery food service has the potential of improving the quality of life of these people by facilitating their access to healthy food on-demand, while also ensuring safety measures against the virus spread. The first question that arose since the beginning was how familiar these groups were with mobile apps and what factors were keeping them away from exploring food delivery options.


Perception of digital delivery services by impaired people

From interviews analysed so far, respondents from different groups have shown strong variability in their answers. The pursuit for autonomy is a common theme for the physically and visually impaired. Visually impaired people, for instance, recognized that COVID crisis made their personal autonomy worse. As an example, when entering any shop they needed to ask for support to meet the social distancing requirements. People with reduced mobility also expressed the relevance of full autonomy, as a mean of personal realization and feeling of overcoming adversity. All people experiencing the above issues may consider the food delivery services as an alternative assistance that undermines their ability to do things by themselves. Situated on a different spot, the COVID-confined segment appreciated the possibility of receiving help with the shopping, as many of them already phased in similar services before the pandemics (not necessarily digital purchases, rather asking store employees to deliver their shopping bags home). This opens a singular opportunity for new inclusive approaches where the digital delivery services (DDS) may play a significant role.

Quote #1: “My couple went shopping for me during COVID lockdown, I would have taken longer. It would have been difficult to maintain safety distances and so on” –  Carmen (fictitious name), impaired person with reduced vision, Non-user, age 42 –


A focus on COVID-19 confined people

Going back to the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemics in europe, we can’t avoid recalling the great uncertainty that surrounded the issue, the lack of information and the misleading data that circulated in the public opinion. Since disorientation was tangible at that moment, the responses collected in our interviews to the availability of DDS were also diverse and contradictory.  Some respondents in our study recognized DDS as essential during COVID-19 lockdown. Others admitted that, because of the restrictions to individual mobility, they increased their online purchases.

For many people, ordering food increased the overall amount of digital orders. Few others mentioned the potential use of DDS as couriers to receive items from relatives who responsibly tried to avoid contacts. Nevertheless, other respondents explained that during forced lockdowns they had more spare time to devote to cooking while also being more worried about personal economic stability. The two combined factors led them to prepare their own meals instead of ordering them. Also, from the perspective of goods purchase, for some respondents the DDS  mitigated the risks related with contacting the virus in the premises and lines of a supermarket. For  others a similar issue was related with  the hygiene conditions of the products delivered by DDS. Several respondents were worried about the health of the riders and were inclined to minimize the use of DDS to prevent them going around cities in such harsh times.

In conclusion, COVID-19 lockdowns have been both a cause for an increased and decreased use of food delivery platforms. Such figure characterises very well the diversity of responses concerning the use of DDS in times of COVID-19.


Quote #2 “The first attitude is `This is out of my reach’. Many of them have spare time and do not have money. These apps tend to be useful for people that have money and lack time” – Nuria, Stakeholder working closely with women living in unwanted loneliness conditions.


Barriers to the use of digital applications for food delivery

There is another group of respondents for which ordering food through an app is “out of question”, meaning that they do not even figure the possibility of using such a service. Respondents selected among the lower income people, for example, declared that even though they could understand the benefits of delivery in times of pandemics, they associate the whole DDS with expensive products out of their reach. Older people instead declared they had problems with novelty: they do not trust food they haven’t tasted before because of their health and nourishment requirements, and they rely very much on the word-of-mouth before trying new services. Also digital skills issues should be tackled with care: the elderly and the disconnected people array of skills are limited to those apps they already use with their relatives (mainly Whatsapp) and this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are willing to explore new tools and digital opportunities. Food delivery services platforms aiming at inclusivity need to deal with these barriers. A solution is to design and propose alternative digital and analogical channels to reach out for all otherwise excluded people. The INDIMO project Toolbox will definitely be a major supporting instrument to address their unmet needs.


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