Amazon sends drivers to deliver from food banks for free during coronavirus emergency

food delivery
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When the coronavirus crisis hit, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank supplied 275 food pantries across two counties. A week later, 100 of them had shut their doors. They turned to volunteers to drive food to people sheltering in place, especially seniors.

Then the bank's vice president for , Barbara Abbott, got a call from Amazon. Seema Ramchandani works on the company's disaster relief team and had helped the food bank get overstock food from nearby Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores.

"Tell me what you're doing that's new and tell me how Amazon may be able to help," Ramchandani told Abbott.

Food banks are facing unprecedented need just as shelter in place orders have kept the hungry from coming in to pick up groceries. Since mid-March, Amazon has been quietly working with in seven cities to make use of its formidable logistics network to pick up and deliver boxes and bags of food straight to the doorsteps of people in need.

In San Francisco, the began April 1 when the food bank created an encrypted list of 9,885 seniors who used to pick up their monthly food boxes at various sites but now needed to stay at home.

Getting them their food was a job tailor-made for Amazon.

"We specialize in ultra-fast delivery and we're known for being able to scale," Ramchandani said dryly.

The project started with a quick test at Seattle's Rainier Valley Food Bank before it was rolled out in San Francisco.

San Francisco is now getting 10,000 boxes of shelf-stable food a month out to its seniors, with more to come.

"Starting on Thursday we'll also be using them to send out 750 bags of fresh groceries a day. We've got volunteers packing them in a tent in our parking lot and the Amazon Flex drivers will take them to people who would have come to our fresh produce pantries but can't now," said Abbott.

Amazon Flex is a program the company launched in 2015. On-demand drivers sign up to work two- or four-hour shifts doing same-day package delivery using their own cars. In the cities where the food bank programs are underway, they can now sign up to do food bank runs instead.

In San Francisco, volunteers had stepped up to deliver the bags, but of the 2,000 a day that should have been going out there was still a shortfall of 750 that Amazon filled. "It's allowed us to scale right up. We were stuck at 1,200," said Abbott.

The drivers come to the food bank, pick up a load of anywhere between five and 15 boxes or bags and drive them straight to the senior's doorstep. The cost is picked up entirely by Amazon. The company has faced criticism for not supporting its warehouse workers and others sufficiently during the COVID-19 crisis, a charge the company has denied.

COVID means food insecurity is up

In Nashville, Tennessee, the demand at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee has increased by 50%, said president Nancy Keil.

"Early on we started getting calls at the front desk from people who needed to self-isolate. We were hand-delivering them food. But it was clear we were going to need more," she said.

Last week Amazon started off doing 70 deliveries a day. "This week we're just shy of 200. They tell us they'll be able to do up to 2,000 a week. That's a big number," she said.

The boxes include shelf-stable food such as soup, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, rice, tuna and beans. "When you open the box there's what you need to prepare a meal. So there's spaghetti noddles and spaghetti sauce. There's rice and there's chunk chicken," Keil said. It's meant to supplement a family's food for the month.

Amazon expects its Flex drivers to deliver six million meals through the end of June.

In Washington D.C., they are picking up and delivering an average of 150 bags of groceries a day, a number that's expected to grow, said George Jones, executive director of Bread for the City, a food pantry in Washington D.C.

"Our typical model was 90% of our people came to our community centers and picked up their groceries. Then the COVID crisis hit," he said.

An ad hoc group of volunteers created mutual aid societies that delivered groceries to people's homes, but the need was more than they could handle.

"Then I got a call from the folks at Amazon who were trying to figure out how to be a part of the solution," said Jones.

Now about half of the pantry's food is delivered by the mutual aid societies and half by Amazon drivers. "The need is so pressing," said Jones. "I had three ladies show up today, one after the other. One was in a wheelchair. One was deaf and we communicated by writing notes."

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank is using Amazon to get a week to a week and a half's worth of food to its senior clients, said president Michael Flood. They started delivering in late March.

The 35-pound boxes include fruit, vegetables, dried beans, rice and other foods that are meant to be enough for 30 meals. "We try to make it as well-rounded as possible," he said.

California Governor Newsom said seniors should self-isolate and not go out, "so we needed to figure out how we could get these food packages delivered to their homes," he said.

Amazon is now delivering about 3,000 of the boxes a day. "These are what's called no-contact deliveries. We don't want any personal interaction to keep everyone safe," he said.

Amazon is ready to scale even further, said Bettina Stix, senior manager for Amazon disaster relief.

"We can be in 25 cities as soon as they need us," she said. "Right now transportation is the missing link for people sheltering in place. We can do that."

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