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Food Delivery Helps Elders Avoid Virus, Continue Cultural Traditions

A woman in a yellow shirt organizes food in separate plastic bags. She is standing in a house and the food is on a table.
Kassidy Arena
Sarah Ha organizes the Godeli deliveries for the day on Feb. 7 in Des Moines. Godeli worked with an individual vendor on Superbowl Sunday to do what they could to support small businesses. They started Godeli to help older people get groceries and food during the pandemic. "We actually promote doing grocery shopping because of coronavirus. We want to lower the numbers as they are getting higher. And we also want to promote more shopping in the Asian community," Ha explained.

Throughout the country, elderly people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, as well as the social distancing guidelines aimed at avoiding it. Four members of central Iowa’s Asian community decided to do what they can to protect the elderly. They also want to make sure their lives and culture can continue as normally as possible.

Sarah Ha opened the back door of her car and loaded it with bags of food. She quickly hopped in the front seat. It was snowing and the temperature was at exactly 0. She adjusted her face mask when she talked about the freezing weather.

A girl in a big winter coat puts an orange sticker that says "godeli" on a bag of food.
Kassidy Arena
Sarah Ha puts a Godeli sticker on the food she delivers on Feb. 7 in Des Moines. Most of her deliveries are no contact, which means she will drop the food off in front of the door and wait in her car to make sure customers get their delivery. If they don't come out, she will call them to let them know their groceries have arrived.

"So yeah with like the weather and everything, everybody who has ordered, when it has like snowed pretty bad or whatever, are very good about wait time and stuff because we have to actually go to the grocery stores and pick everything up and then drive out. And they’ve been pretty good about that because I’m like 'oh my god, I don’t know if my car is going to make it,'" Ha laughed as the car rolled over crunchy snow.

She was talking about delivering food. She is one of the four employees for Godeli. S\It's short for "on-the-go delivery." She runs the business with her boyfriend and his mom and aunt. They deliver food from Asian grocery stores.

Ha put her car in park and checked her phone.

“Okay, so this one is a no contact. So what I will do is grab her food and I'm just gonna leave it at her door and I'm gonna ring the doorbell and I'm come back out and just make sure that they pick up their food, basically," she explained.

She stepped out of the car and looked through the organized food bags in her back seat. She found the one she was looking for and put a yellowish-orange Godeli sticker on the plastic bag full of food. She held her arms slightly out to her sides to keep her balance on the snow and ice as she walked to the front door of a gray house. She turned to leave immediately after she rang the doorbell to keep with the customer's no contact request.

When Ha reached her car again, a woman peeked out the door and yelled thank you. Ha waved and thanked her for her business.

Sarah Ha drops off a food delivery on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. Ha said weekends are normally the busiest time for deliveries. So far, their services are pretty limited to Asian groceries. "I want to be able to spread Asian cuisines and recipes to people who aren't like familiar with it," Ha said.
Kassidy Arena
Sarah Ha drops off a food delivery on Feb. 7 in Des Moines. Ha said weekends are normally the busiest time for deliveries. So far, their services are pretty limited to Asian groceries. "I want to be able to spread Asian cuisines and recipes to people who aren't like familiar with it," Ha said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Godeli “family” was concerned about how elderly people would get their groceries. Those 65 and older were cautioned to avoid densely populated grocery stores. So they created the delivery service in hopes that older people can not only get food, but food that fits in with their traditional cuisine.

"We have grandparents. We have people in the community that we want to make sure that don't get affected, but not to take away from their daily routine either," Ha said. "Like we don't want them to suffer even more by being neglected from being able to do their everyday cooking.”

That's why Godeli focuses specifically on Asian groceries. Ha said there aren't many such stores in central Iowa, which makes it even harder for people to get what they need. Along with that, Ha said Godeli was concerned about seniors feeling isolated from their own culture and community.

"We don't have a large Asian community, so we want to promote being together and supporting local, so that we can have a sense of that community building," Ha said.

They offered free delivery at first, back in December. But then they realized there was a larger need from the rest of the Asian community in central Iowa. They started to charge $5 for delivery. The Des Moines-based service was getting orders farther out — in Grimes and Ankeny — so they needed some extra money to keep the business running.

They feared their Facebook page wouldn’t reach people who aren’t very tech savvy. So they have also heavily relied on word-of-mouth advertising.

“That's why it's so important that we, you know, push that so it's like people in the community, you should take care of your parents and your grandparents. And if you know that they can't go grocery shop and you can't as well, we will do that for you," Ha said.

Godeli is a second job for Ha, as well as for the rest of the employees. Ha is currently student teaching English, so she’ll soon be vaccinated against COVID-19. That's one of the reasons why she isn’t worried about her own health right now.

"Our health isn't really a concern as much as we're trying to help older people and even younger kids as well like who are more prone to getting sick," Ha admitted. "Like we're in a good age where our health is not going to be diminished as much as these people who are going to need our services more."

On the other side of Godeli’s philosophy is helping out small businesses and individual vendors like Davina Phaviset. She makes a “bomb” fish sauce according to Ha. Phaviset worked with Godeli to help build up her business from her living room.

A woman holds a pan filled with sauce against the open oven. A large pot is on the stove.
Kassidy Arena
Davina Phaviset checks on her homemade fish sauce on Feb. 7, in her Des Moines home. She first used Godeli as a customer to help balance her life as a mom and a small business owner. Now, she hopes to use Godeli to help build her customer base.

She hopes to one day open a shop or food truck. So she used Godeli to find out how big her demand is. She used SuperBowl Sunday as one way to find out, and was pleased with the turnout. She made more than 20 orders for the day. And Godeli made sure they got delivered.

“I love the convenience of it, let's just say that, especially with not being like really big because, you know, I don't have my own restaurant or anything like that," Phaviset said. "I just want to get my stuff out there and Godeli was able to help me with that. Plus they work and they help with the locals and stuff like that too, so that helps.”

Ha said Godeli works nonstop and can make more than three grocery deliveries per day. She said she wants to bring the Asian community together during these trying times, and food is one way to do that.

“That has really promoted a sense of community in that way, for people to just recognize that this is something that we can all share together that a lot of people might have not known about,” she said.

Godeli is working on making a website and wants to keep their services open even once the pandemic subsides.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines