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When Delivery Is Not a Luxury

For people with chronic illnesses, having food delivered to their door can be a lifeline

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It's Delivery Week here at Eater. Today, an examination of how our view of delivery as a luxury for the lazy affects people for whom it's not an extravagance — it's a necessity.


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f I’m too nauseated and feverish to focus on eating, I chug a chocolate meal replacement before falling back into a delirious sleep; if I’m too dysfunctional to make food while my husband Chris is away, I might rely entirely on our stock of Ensure to make sure I don't starve. That is the worst-case scenario. But living with late-stage Lyme disease means that on most days, for at least part of the day, I suffer from symptoms that render me unable to read a book, write a paragraph, walk more than the length of a block, or cook — but allow me to perform simple tasks on my smartphone. After a few taps, a restaurant delivery service like GrubHub can have a savory crepe, plus sweet potato fries, to my door in 45 minutes. Even though I am ill, delivery allows me the joy of good food.

Prior to becoming sick, my most visceral memory of delivery was of a Thanksgiving dinner with my brother, with whom I ate dried-out chicken wings on the floor of my apartment

Like many modern conveniences, delivery is often seen as an extravagance — an indulgence for those craving a late-night pizza, or who find it easier to order a healthy dinners than to prepare it themselves. And, like so many of those conveniences, delivery can be a lifesaver for people living with chronic illness and disability. (This is not to say that these conveniences, even critical ones, are equally accessible: Taking an Uber or a taxi to one’s destination instead of using the subway or bus system, for example, is only available for those with the financial privilege to do so.)

Misconceptions about illness and disability, as well as popular narratives about "overcoming" disability, feed the notion that people with chronic illness are simply lazy — if we tried harder, surely we could do something as easy as preparing a meal. To healthy people, it may not seem difficult to, say, boil some pasta and heat up a jar of sauce, but to do so successfully makes a series of assumptions about what one has: the energy to spend fifteen minutes on an activity; the ability to open a box of noodles or a jar of sauce; the cognition and focus to follow a series of tasks. For many who are sick, none of those conditions are a given.

Chronic illnesses interfere with the simple act of feeding oneself in as many ways as there are sicknesses and symptoms. Amadi Lovelace, a disabled activist from Pittsburgh, has been diagnosed with severe arthritis and a neurological condition that causes dizziness and fatigue. For her, the arthritis and neurological condition mean that "cutting and mixing are difficult" and she "can only stand and walk around the kitchen for 2-3 minutes at a time." Dining out is just as, if not more, difficult — one needs to get to the restaurant, sit at a table, and endure sensory stimulation and possibly pain for an hour or more before traveling home. I once made it through a multi-course Italian meal with my family, only to lose the ability to lift my arms or walk during the 45-minute car ride home.

Restaurant-to-home delivery is the classic form of "delivery," in which the restaurant itself sends food to the waiting customer. Relying on this type of delivery typically means that you’re already familiar with the restaurant, and it often results in developing a relationship with the establishment. On the other hand, a centralized delivery service, such as Delivered Dish, Caviar, and Seamless — which merged with GrubHub in 2013 — makes it possible to repeatedly order from a restaurant without knowing what the physical establishment looks like or ever communicating directly with its employees.

Eating delivery, particularly restaurant-to-home delivery, can feel slapdash, and therefore depressing: The stereotype is of eating out of the container with plastic utensils, hunched in front of the computer or the TV, because getting food into the gullet is the primary objective. Prior to becoming sick, my most visceral memory of delivery was of a Thanksgiving dinner with my brother, with whom I ate dried-out chicken wings on the floor of my apartment.

These days, I depend primarily on Munchery, a meal delivery service founded in 2010 that offers a daily menu of meals, side dishes, and desserts for customers seeking a more "homemade" dining experience. Munchery provides me with a delicious dinner — not just food, but lovely food, prepared with nutritional balance, which arrives in a compostable brown container that resembles a rustic tray. On a night when the best "homemade" option was to eat corn kernels straight from the can, Munchery’s shrimp boil ($11.25) arrived with sausage, juicy shrimp, corn on the cob, and red potatoes, allowing me to enjoy a summery meal.

I’ve also used Sprig, a similar meal delivery service that provides warm meals. (A Munchery meal requires heating at home.) Sprig co-founder Neeraj Berry told me, "I wouldn’t say that we initially created it for people with debilitating illnesses." But, as a byproduct of trying to make it simple and user-friendly, such people have become drawn to the service.

I once made it through a multi-course Italian meal with my family, only to lose the ability to lift my arms or walk during the 45-minute car ride home

Transparency when it comes to talking about the food that Munchery and Sprig provide has been a crucial part of that ease of use, particularly for those with dietary concerns or food allergies. I developed a severe gluten intolerance when I first became sick with Lyme disease, and am grateful for Munchery’s use of "gluten-free" labels on its menus (they also note whether a dish is dairy-free, nut-free, or egg-free). Tri Tran, the CEO of Munchery, says, "We can’t possibly predict every possible allergic reaction to every possible ingredient, so it’s better for us to be transparent."

Sprig similarly lists all ingredients for all available meals in its app. If you’re interested in a dish of bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns, one tap will bring up a slew of information about the attractively photographed breakfast: It is gluten-free, contains 700 calories and 29g of protein; as a bit of bonus information, we are told that the "Never Ever Bacon" is from Coleman Natural Foods, who describe themselves as "a pioneer in organic and no-antibiotics-ever meats."

Despite its convenience, I don’t use delivery every day — the cost would be prohibitive — but it averages out to ordering delivery at least five times a week. Munchery’s ready-to-eat meals range from $8-$12, with a delivery charge of $3-$5. On average, a Sprig meal costs slightly more: A recent menu showed me meals that ran from $10-14, with a delivery charge of $2.75. (Munchery offers monthly memberships that would, with regular use, lower the average per-meal charge; you’d save money with a membership by ordering at least four main dishes per month.)

The cost of GrubHub, Seamless, Caviar, and other centralized delivery services primarily depends on the cost of the restaurants’ meals; a gluten-free burger I ordered through DoorDash cost $12.90 plus tax, plus a delivery fee of $4.99 (total: $21.70), while a meal for two with edamame, two kinds of sashimi, and hamachi kama cost $24.90 plus tax, plus the same delivery fee of $4.99 (total: $35.80). Last week, my household spent approximately $128 on five delivered meals.

Iris Smith (not her real name), an editor and mother diagnosed with lupus, says, "Usually I aim for once a week. But during the worst weeks, when I am just barely getting through the day, it can be every day — or, more often, delivery one day, leftovers the next, delivery the next." Lovelace, the Pittsburgh-based activist, orders more frequently, and mentions that "the frequency of my delivery orders — two or three times a week, most weeks — has required me to realign my budget." Kal Cobalt, a disabled transman living with two disabled partners, says, "I honestly think there are times when I wouldn’t eat dinner if it were not for delivery meals." He adds, "It’s hard to shell out $75 for three people to eat, but I often think of it as a health cost, like my medications or my cane. It helps us do things, in the end."

Misconceptions about illness and disability, as well as popular narratives about 'overcoming' disability, feed the notion that people with chronic illness are simply lazy

The "health cost" of being ill is especially burdensome to many already struggling financially. Disabled people solely living off of SSI (Supplemental Security Income) would find it impossible to regularly budget for delivery, with a monthly maximum stipend of $733 per month per individual; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can only be used in "some areas" at restaurants if the user is homeless, elderly, or disabled.

Nor is delivery available for everyone living with chronic illness or disability, even if they can afford it — operating in sparsely populated rural areas isn’t profitable for delivery companies, especially startups, which lack the incentive to extend service into those areas. Though I’m ill, I remain well enough to run a small web-based business with the flexibility to accommodate my symptoms, and my husband earns enough money so that we can have a roof over our heads and order Munchery, too. Delivery isn’t quite a necessity, but it’s not an extravagance, either.

There are contexts, though, in which Americans consider delivered meals to be such a necessity: Few bat an eye at Meals on Wheels America, which provides free-to-low-cost meals for nearly 2.4 million seniors who receive not only a nourishing meal, but also a visit and safety check from the delivery person. Charities such as Lifelong and Project Angel Heart provide free meals for those with HIV/AIDS and other serious illnesses.

But for those of us living with chronic illnesses that may not be immediately life-threatening, an expanded definition of "who deserves delivery" would diminish the sense of embarrassment and shame, as well as the additional costs on disability and illness, that one bears in a culture that largely treats delivery as a luxury; at best, an expanded definition would provide financial aid to those who are sick, but not so ill that we qualify for charitable help.

For those with both chronic illness and the ability to order delivery, the arrival of food to one’s doorstep feels like a lifeline to not only nourishment, but also gustatory pleasure and comfort. A favorite ramen shop across the city is too much for a trek for me to visit there as much as I’d like; via delivery, I can treat myself to tender pork belly and chewy, gluten-free ramen noodles at my dining room table. I dream of making elaborate meals, and of going out to new or already-beloved restaurants. Until that day comes, delivery will keep me well-fed at home.

Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of The Border of Paradise: A Novel (2016) and the winner of the 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. She can also be found at esmewang.com.
Angie Wang is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Los Angeles.
Edited by Meghan McCarron and Matt Buchanan


Read more from Eater's Delivery Week:
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When Restaurants Ditch the Dining Room
What America Orders for Delivery
Where Are the Pizza Delivery Drones?

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