Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

This story began as a conversation in my family–how do we get groceries or order food while trying to shelter at home during the pandemic? Some argue that going to the supermarket is needlessly risky. Others are reluctant to ask others, who are less well off, to assume those risks.

We’re having similar debates, as you may be, about whether to order take-out from restaurants or patronize a favorite coffee shop. What, if anything, do we owe to these places that have been there for us for years?

I had hoped to talk to some gig-economy workers for this story but they were too busy. (Surprise!) So I talked to ethicists, and read what I could about the working conditions and pay at Instacart, the giant in the Internet home delivery business. Here’s how my story, which appears at Medium, begins:

“When the plague came to London in 1665, Londoners lost their wits,” the historian Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker. “Everyone behaved badly, though the rich behaved the worst: Having failed to heed warnings to provision, they sent their poor servants out for supplies.”

Today, only the richest of the rich have poor servants to do their shopping. The rest of us rely on Instacart, Door Dash and Uber Eats.

This raises a thorny question: Is it ethical, during the pandemic, for healthy people to hire others to bring them food and take risks they want to avoid? The Silicon Valley gig-economy firms do not provide workers with health insurance or hazard pay, and they need not pay even the minimum wage.

“Those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs that enable us to work from home need to be honest with ourselves about whether we are bearing our fair share of the collective risk, or whether our comfort is coming at too high a price to others,” says Karen Stohr, a senior scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. “If we’re healthy, this may mean going to the grocery store ourselves rather than relying on others to do it for us.”

You can read the rest here.

8 thoughts on “The ethics of grocery shopping during the pandemic

  1. Stuart says:

    My apologies for the caustic tone of my posts. Totally uncalled for…


  2. Max says:

    How would crowding the stores with more people be helpful to anyone? I am sure you are aware infected people could be asymptotic. And you should also be aware there is not enough tests for “healthy” people to know if they are carriers. Plus, many of those people live with those at high-risk, such as my partner who does not go into stores as I am high-risk. If anything, it would be more helpful to Instacart workers, as well as the grocery store staff, if LESS of us went into the stores. We should do our best to minimize contact with these workers so they have less chance of exposure.


  3. Marc Gunther says:

    Stuart, actually, the story doesn’t say that grocery delivery is unethical. (What’s on the blog here is only an excerpt.) Particularly for people who are older or compromised, online shopping is the only ethical choice and the best way to stop the virus from spreading. The story also says that Instacart is hiring 300,000 people at a time of near-record unemployment; that’s obviously a good thing. For those reasons and others, this is a tough call. But there are ways to obtain food that don’t rely on workers who have no health insurance or minimum wage–organizing with neighbors, other services like Hungry Harvest that are said to treat their workers better, etc.


    1. Stuart says:

      Let’s simplify this. People need to eat. This starts with farmers and ends with consumers buying food with a multitude of persons involved in between.

      The workers engaged in farming, field work, transport, food processing, distribution/delivery, and all the industries that support these efforts are all under risk. All mechanisms that allow us to get food are overwhelmed.

      The notion that one can meaningfully choose the most “ethical” way for this to occur as a consumer during this crisis is naive at best.

      If you are worried about health car etc., I would suggest promoting the best way for that being accomplished rather than suggesting the entire country engage Hungry Harvest.


  4. Chuck Palmer says:

    Marc, I would only use a shopper if they are an actual employee of the service and not an independent contractor.That way, if they contract the virus, the employer would be responsible for wage loss and medical expenses.Even with an actual employer, they still may try to avoid responsibility by claiming that the person contracted it elsewhere.Given the huge medical and wage loss exposure, many employers or their workers’ compensation companies may seek to avoid responsibility by disputing the case. Unless you’re disabled or extremely high risk, you should get the groceries yourself.  There’s no guarantee the person who does the job for you will be adequately protected in the event of contracting the virus. Chuck


    1. Marc Gunther says:

      I agree. The workers for Instacart (and the other gig-economy companies) have no health insurance and while they are being promised paid sick leave, the companies are making it very hard for them to collect it. Peapod is a better choice from an ethical perspective because their shoppers and delivery people are unionized.


      1. Stuart says:

        I know it is probably too much to ask for commentary to include an alternative to what is deemed immoral…but let’s say we universally agree food delivery is immoral. What do you suggest? We all go to the grocery store, and food deliverers become unemployed and forced to go to the grocery story to purchase their own food at crowded supermarkets?


  5. londonesl says:

    Great piece Marc. So important. Thanks for putting it out there.


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