Is It Ethically Okay to Get Food Delivered Right Now?

A guide to this and other pandemic food dilemmas

An illustration of Plato holding a slice of pizza
Franco Origlia / Getty / Aleksei Isachenko / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Unless you produce your own food, some combination of you and other humans has to transport it from wherever it’s made to your stomach. In normal circumstances, most people don’t dwell much on that fact, but during a pandemic, it makes deciding just how to procure sustenance highly fraught: Because every option comes with potential negative consequences for you and others—cashiers, shelf stockers, delivery people, restaurant workers, and so on—it can seem like there’s no right way to get dinner.

For example, is it better to cook at home or get food from a restaurant? Getting takeout means leaving the house and potentially spreading or catching the coronavirus (and ordering delivery means shifting that risk onto someone else). Meanwhile, sticking to your own kitchen is safer for everyone involved—but it means not financially supporting workers and businesses that may desperately need the money. And if you cook, you still have to get groceries somehow, which again means either you or someone else going outside to transport the food.

What follows is an attempt to work through specific food dilemmas such as this one, including the ethics of getting delivery and how often you should go to the grocery store. In a lot of cases, there are no right answers, but establishing all the trade-offs makes it possible to feed yourself in a way that doesn’t feel wrong.

Whatever food choices you end up making, it’s important to follow the pandemic eating commandments that many journalists (including my colleague Amanda Mull) and public-health experts have already laid out: Don’t shop at a crowded grocery store; have a shopping list and don’t browse; ask delivery people to leave food on your doorstep (and not hand it off to you); stay home if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or are at greater risk of dying from it; and of course, wash your hands before and after getting food, try not to touch your face, and wear a mask when you go out. Taken together, these guidelines are a powerful way of reducing the potential health risks to you and others that come with getting food—whether from a grocery store or a restaurant, via pickup or delivery.

Frustratingly, this is a very difficult question to answer straightforwardly. That’s because so much depends on the precautions taken by each grocery store, restaurant, and delivery company. For instance, a crowded grocery store is riskier (for you and for workers) than one that caps its occupancy, and a restaurant that gives paid leave to its staff when they’re feeling sick is safer (again, for everyone) than one that doesn’t.

That said, the experts I spoke with generally agreed that delivery seems to be safer for individual consumers than going into a store or restaurant, because you are exposed to the fewest people (ideally none, if the delivery worker doesn’t hand the food off to you directly). Picking up curbside from a grocery store or restaurant is also relatively low-risk.

Grocery-store, restaurant, and delivery workers, though, are all at risk of getting or spreading the virus no matter which choice you make. Even if you opt out of delivery and spare a courier another potentially risky trip, leaving home to get groceries yourself still heightens others’ risk. “You may be in the store for half an hour, but the workers are there for eight-, nine-, 10-hour shifts, so they have the potential for far more interactions with people,” said Elizabeth Carlton, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. Moreover, working conditions can vary greatly, so gauging the risk to whole categories of workers is really hard.

When I peppered Robert Salata, a medical professor at Case Western Reserve University, with questions about the various health considerations of each method of obtaining food, he said that I was probably splitting hairs—if you’re not in an at-risk group, choosing one method over another will likely not add so much risk to you and others that it would nullify any other concerns you might have, such as wanting to support a local restaurant or contribute to delivery workers’ income.

Of course, not everyone has this range of choices available to them. Some areas don’t have many online food-delivery options, and many people don’t have the money for delivery, now or ever. But no matter what choices you have, as long as you’re observing the aforementioned general principles, no option seems to be significantly riskier than the others on a per-trip basis—but the risk does go up with each trip, and getting restaurant food is something you’d probably have to do more often than (and in addition to) getting groceries.

Lastly, a bit of good news: “We have no evidence that the virus is transmitted by food,” said Donald Schaffner, a food-science professor at Rutgers University. So wherever you get your food from, it’s most likely safe to eat, though discarding the packaging that takeout meals come in and washing your hands after bringing home groceries are good practices.

“The less often you can go, the better,” Carlton said.

What that looks like in practice likely depends on how much food you can transport and store. The example Tamar Lasky, an epidemiologist, gave me was, “If I used to buy groceries three times a week, I am now trying to consolidate my purchases to once a week.” There’s no correct frequency, but I’d say, after speaking with several public-health experts, that if you’re going to the store more than once a week, you should try to space out your visits more, if you can. (You might also consider buying foods that last longer, such as root vegetables, apples, yogurt, and hard cheeses.)

Keeping your number of grocery-store visits down doesn’t mean eating like a prepper, with dehydrated meal kits and Spam. When I asked Salata how much riskier it would be if I went to the grocery store once a week versus once every two weeks, he said, “I think if you’re careful, in the long run it’s not going to make that much of a difference”—careful being a reference to the guidelines mentioned above.

This minimize-your-trips mentality also applies to takeout and restaurant deliveries: Instead of getting meals from two different restaurants in one week, consider getting two meals’ worth of food from the same restaurant. (Of course, this way of thinking is also an implicit argument against ordering food from restaurants at all, because if you can get a week’s worth of food from a grocery store, that spares you and others from making any other food-related trips on your behalf that week.)

Nope. “Shopping for a 2-week supply is reasonable in the current circumstances and unlikely to threaten the supply chain,” Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics, wrote to me in an email. “Even panic-buying at its worst didn’t threaten the supply chain. It simply created short-term shortages in stores (and food banks), which were replenished fairly quickly.”

The people ferrying food from grocery stores and restaurants to paying customers are currently caught in a terrible bind: They can either make money and risk exposure to the virus or stay home and forgo some or all of their income. “I’m afraid to make deliveries because I’m afraid to die,” one delivery worker wrote in a group chat that was shared with The New York Times.

So is it morally wrong to order delivery and put workers in that position, or is ordering delivery a good thing because it directs money to restaurants and workers? “Right now, I think workers would largely ask you to please keep ordering,” said Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley. “It’s essential for these workers to be able to survive. Our industry is definitely worried about people’s safety, including their own, but they’re also worried about survival and feeding their kids … It’s not that they don’t think this is a scary time to be doing delivery, but they also need their jobs.”

Besides, the ethical calculations might not be as simple as they seem at first, because going to the grocery store also puts other people at risk—you could be infected and contagious but not know it. “In a moral sense, that at least makes it more gray,” said Christopher Robichaud, a senior lecturer in ethics and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Because there’s no clear correct answer, “it’s probably far more important that you simply do your best to be decent, conscientious, gracious, and so forth in all your dealings with everyone you interact with right now,” Jorah Dannenberg, a philosophy professor at Stanford, wrote in an email. (And wash your hands, I’d add.)

One last ethical consideration, though: “We’d want to make sure that those who are at highest risk have opportunities to have food delivered to them,” Robichaud said. So if every grocery-delivery service has a 10-day wait, and if you’re not in an at-risk group, it might be better to just go to the store and leave that delivery slot open for someone who needs it more than you.

Many small businesses are in danger of going bankrupt during the pandemic, and one common suggestion for supporting local restaurants is to purchase a gift certificate from them, providing them with a cash infusion.

But it’s probably better to spend money on food now, whether you pick it up or order in. “Ordering delivery will maintain delivery [and restaurant] workers’ jobs,” Jayaraman said. With “gift certificates, it’s not clear what will happen to the money, because restaurants are in such dire straits right now just to pay basic bills and stay afloat. If your goal is to keep people employed, I would say delivery is the way to go. But gift certificates are great if you can do both.”

Somewhat hard—which is unfortunate, because both you and food-industry workers are at lower risk of getting the virus when employers provide paid sick leave as well as hand sanitizer, masks, and the like.

Some of this information is available because media outlets have reported on certain companies’ practices. For instance, my colleague Olga Khazan noted that Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, Stop & Shop, and Target all give workers two weeks of paid leave if they contract COVID-19. Also, Eater and Consumer Reports have described the policies of several national chains and delivery services. Agitation for safer and fairer pandemic protocols has made headlines, too, providing further hints as to which companies are prioritizing workers.

But there’s no comprehensive, up-to-date database with this information for all the places you can get food from. In the absence of that, Jayaraman suggested a general guideline: “I would say employers that have already demonstrated before coronavirus that they care about their workers and prioritize them are going to provide you with safer and healthier environments, not just for their own workers but for you as a customer.”

To some extent, it’s also possible to gauge whether a business is taking the pandemic seriously just based on your own observations. Some grocery stores have cart wipes, hand-sanitizer dispensers, plexiglass dividers at registers, and limits on how many shoppers are allowed in at once, to prevent crowding. If you go to a store that isn’t doing those things, see if other nearby stores are—for your sake and for workers’.

Certainly, though some things are quicker and easier than others.

Alberto Giubilini, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, said that when people perform essential work but must take on extra risks to do so, they should be compensated accordingly. Ideally, he said, the employer or, failing that, the government would see to it that the worker gets paid extra. “If there is no compensation scheme in place—either by the government or by the individual employers—then there certainly is a moral obligation to tip a lot,” he wrote in an email. “We ought to tip way more than we do in normal circumstances.”

Then there are the things you can do to support workers more broadly. “The question isn’t so much about individual choices as much as why the system is failing delivery workers,” said Wilfred Chan, a writer and food-delivery worker in New York City who volunteers with the Biking Public Project, an advocacy group that focuses on food delivery. “Whether customers decide to order, we need their help in fighting for workers to get fair wages, hazard pay, insurance, sick leave, and the protection they need.”

What does that sort of help look like exactly? “The best thing consumers can do is to pressure companies to change their practices, and to vote for politicians that support a robust safety net,” Debra Satz, a philosophy professor at Stanford, wrote in an email. “People should reward the best corporate actors—some stores/chains are stepping up.” In other words, vote with your wallet, and with your actual vote.

Schaffner, the food-science professor, approves, so long as you are able to stay six feet away when you drop off or receive it, and wash your hands before and after preparing or eating it. (And don’t sneeze on it or anything.) He says the same of CSAs, or community-supported agriculture, in which local farms distribute their produce to people’s homes.

The experts I interviewed aren’t all picking just one means of procuring food because they have some public-health or ethical concern on their mind. They’re going to the grocery store, getting food delivered, and picking up takeout like many other people. There’s no single most ethical way to feed yourself—whatever you choose, if you’re careful and conscientious, that’s the best you can do.