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Lyft is tapping more drivers to help with delivery of essential items

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - APRIL 10: A ride share driver picks up passengers at O'Hare Airport on April 10, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. In response to the death of 21-year-old University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson, the South Carolina House has approved a bill that would require Uber, Lyft and other ride sharing vehicles to have illuminated signs. Josephson was killed after climbing into a vehicle that she thought was her Uber ride. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(CNN) — As demand for rides has slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lyft is tapping more of its drivers to help with delivery needs.

While the rideshare company has not historically offered delivery services, it is now getting into the space to help partners — ranging from nonprofits to businesses — get meals, groceries, and other necessities to people in need by leveraging its drivers.

The initiative, which was teased in late March, is called Essential Deliveries and it will be live in 11 cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Seattle, to start. Approved partners will be able to use Lyft’s platform for scheduling rides, known as Concierge, to set up deliveries.

As the pandemic has forced people to travel less and slashed requests for rides, it has also boosted demand for home deliveries of groceries, meals and other goods. The virus has upended the on-demand industry, where the biggest companies were built around ride-hailing services rather than deliveries, which tend to have lower margins. But now, they’re forced to refocus, at least temporarily.

Lisa Boyd, director of social impact at Lyft, told CNN Business that the company saw a “huge need in terms of delivery” and “an opportunity to provide new earning opportunities for Lyft drivers and also make an impact by delving into the delivery space.”

In March, Lyft invited its drivers to join a “driver community task force” for access to “special updates and opportunities to serve your communities in this unique time of need.” More than 120,000 drivers signed up, the company said.

Lyft said it will consider expected delivery demand and notify the appropriate number of drivers who will be able to opt-in for delivery requests. It will expand to more drivers as warranted.

According to Boyd, there’s a “combination of different funders covering different aspects of our delivery work.” In some cases, Lyft or Mastercard will donate rides and deliveries; in other cases, businesses are paying for deliveries.

For instance, Dole Packaged Foods will use Lyft to deliver fruit products from its warehouses to senior facilities in Seattle. “It is often difficult for distributors to get to the facilities in a timely manner. Especially during the virus, the ‘last mile’ is oftentimes the most difficult,” Dave Spare, vice president of marketing at Dole Packaged Foods, told CNN Business.

Spare said Dole is footing the cost of delivery and donating the goods, adding that “assuming everything goes smoothly, we’ll then be expanding to the Chicago area, Los Angeles, and New Jersey.” He said he expects the effort to cost Dole around $1 million “mostly in the value of the product but also in paying drivers and other logistics.”

Meanwhile, Lyft’s rival Uber is also looking for new ways to help the underserved get access to foods during the pandemic. The company said Wednesday it is expanding its 1-833-USE-UBER to Uber Eats delivery so older adults, or anyone who prefers a conversation when ordering a meal or doesn’t have access to the Uber app, can place an order using an SMS or text-based mobile phone. Initially, it will only be available in the Greater Miami area and New York City’s five boroughs starting Wednesday, the company said.