The Painful Digitization of Food Service in the Time of Coronavirus

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

How applying to a food delivery job led me to the realization that all the elements of sharing and working with food have started to feel more robotic than ever before.

Farmer's Market produce in Olympia, WA.

Over the years I’ve worked many food service jobs, I’ve shucked oysters, harvested organic vegetables, pressed fresh juice, fried falafel, and even made artisanal granola where I was required to break up walnuts in a Ziploc bag using a hammer to get them to the exact desired size. Yes, that happened. But through all of these jobs there has always been a sense of camaraderie, a sense of pride in my ability to use my hands to bring this food to my community. And not only that, but there have been the smells, tastes, and sounds in the kitchen that make working with food such a soul satisfying sensory experience.

This summer as I was in-between jobs I was given a tip from a friend to look into working for a produce delivery service. It was flexible I heard, it paid well at $2 per box and there were even generous tips. Making an easy extra $50 a week sounded appealing. I like being around food and I liked the idea of driving around my neighborhood listening to music and walking up to people’s doorsteps with a box of fresh veggies in hand.

I wanted to be a part of getting fresh local produce direct to consumers. With the closing or limited staff at many restaurants these days, produce delivery was beginning to look like the only way I could find a job working with food.

After a short phone interview, I agreed immediately to a weekly route not far from my house. I would pick up 12-15 boxes in the parking lot of a Presbyterian Church.

Quickly, however, the job started to sound a lot less like I would be working with food and more like I would be face to face with a computer. Before starting work I had to navigate my way through a series of 7 PowerPoint presentations. As I clicked through the PowerPoints, harvesting the answers to the mandatory quiz, I felt like I was back in Driver’s Education, not taking in any information that would stay in my brain, just absentmindedly pointing and clicking.

A few days later, I spent 40 minutes on a Zoom call where a woman named Katie talked me through the steps of produce delivery, the tedious details of what to do if a moldy cucumber makes its way into someone’s box. She shared her screen with me and clicked through the customer database. There were so many numbers and charts I was starting to feel unqualified for the job. I’m not good with Excel.

Some demands of the job seemed like they were put unnecessarily on the employees. She pointed out that on some days I may need to bring as many as 4 coolers to make sure I could keep the items like meat and cheese cold. I don’t even own one cooler. I couldn’t understand why the company couldn’t provide coolers to delivery drivers.

Employees were being asked to provide not only their own vehicle, smartphone, and car insurance but also simple items like printed sheets of paper and ice chests. My monthly car insurance costs more than a shift’s pay.

After the Zoom call I looked at the list of tasks I was being asked to do; make a detailed account, download the App, go over the sheet of new deliveries, order myself a shirt and matching bag with the company logo for delivery day. Where was the feeling of washing fresh picked peppers or slicing lemons and smelling dill? Everything that I loved about working with food had been removed from my job description.

I scrolled through the database where other drivers reported issues with deliveries, moldy blackberries, a missing loaf of bread. I realized I would be so disconnected from the food itself. I wouldn’t be growing the food, I wouldn’t even be consuming the food, I would be moving boxes and filling out spreadsheets.

The truth is I miss interacting with food and community and somehow, I thought working with produce delivery would ease that loss. I was wrong.

I understand that food delivery has become and will continue to be essential for so many and I am grateful for those making this a possibility. The company I applied to work for has grown by three times since the pandemic started. NPR’s The Salt reported in 2019 on the way’s food delivery could be beneficial to improve the quality of food available to SNAP recipients in food deserts.

But selfishly, I don’t want to order my food from a computer screen. I want to stand idly in front of my farmers and ask about the growing season. I want to touch every avocado at the supermarket before I find the one that’s perfect for me. I know, I know I’m gross.

I miss loitering at my neighborhood bakery until the boy behind the counter gives me a gingerbread sample. I miss walking the farmers market stalls up and down, buying a thing or two from as many vendors as possible, convinced that somehow, I’m spreading the love. Now I arrive at the market with a mask over my face and hurriedly buy from one vendor before quickly heading out.

I began to think about all of the hours outside of delivery time that would be spent tending to this job, including a mandatory virtual check-in meeting every Friday. I thought about all the miles that would be put on my car and all the time I would spend in my car. Somehow it began to not seem worth it. I had the luxury and privilege to inform the company that the job would not be a good fit for me. If I had been desperate for cash I would have had no choice but to stay on.

Some say that this virus will change the way people shop for food forever. Both as employee and consumer, I hope that isn’t true. We’re already more disconnected from our food sources than ever before. Sharing food and knowing where it comes from is one of things that makes me feel most human. I can’t wait for the day I am offered a sample of a fresh peach on a toothpick and convinced to buy enough to bake a pie.

I began to think about all of the hours outside of delivery time that would be spent tending to this job, including a mandatory virtual check-in meeting every Friday. I thought about all the miles that would be put on my car and all the time I would spend in my car. Somehow it began to not seem worth it.

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