How COVID-19 transformed food consumption
New eating habits were established during the pandemic to reduce risk and as a result of our fragile supply chain.
COVID-19 shifted our world of eating. The pandemic burst into our food supply chain, causing farmers to waste billions of dollars worth of food. Logistics became a nightmare, with truckers unable to find open rest stops, PPE, and food to eat along their way. Grocers, now deemed 'essential,' could not keep shelves stocked as the world went into panic mode.

On the flip side, those people privileged with time, and the right ingredients started spending more of their day in the kitchen. Old and new food traditions were embraced, from cheffing up comfort food to baking chocolate banana bread. Neighbors began helping each other out with grocery runs, and people planted their own gardens. Long-standing issues with food insecurity that most affluent people don't think about on a daily basis made headlines. Now that we're coming out of our houses more, let's look at how consumer eating habits changed, which routines will stay, which issues will get addressed, and what will never go back to the way it was.
Panic shopping
Cooking at home
Emotional eating
Food insecurity on the rise
Online shopping and grocery delivery
Home gardening
Eating habits changed due to closures, availability and emotions

To reduce the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve, most restaurants, in the US and across the world, shuttered for in-person dining. The restaurants that chose to stay open became takeout only. In some places, they sold alcohol for takeaway or sidewalk consumption. If people decided not to cook, they could use restaurant delivery services or head to their favorite spot, if it was open, for to-go food.

Favorite brands of foods were unavailable. Fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to find. People started baking again, causing a surge in demand, as if it were the holidays, for flour, yeast, eggs, etc. Related ingredients like bananas and milk also became scarce. Plant-based meat sales were up, especially as meatpacking plants started shutting down due to COVID-19. Food safety became a topic of discussion, and health officials initially recommended that people wash down everything that entered the house, including vegetables and fruit.

Emotions ran high triggering the purchase of treats you wouldn't usually buy and the preparation of carb-heavy comfort foods. Stress eating was common. Virtual happy hours became a thing. The shift we saw earlier in the year towards less alcohol consumption was negated during Covid-19.
Grocery shopping turned into "panic shopping"
At the beginning of the pandemic, panic shopping made headlines as the number of COVID-19 cases increased. While frenzied fighting over toilet paper and hoarding are not healthy behaviors, this was not unfounded terror if you flash forward a few months to meatpacking plants closing down due to virus spread. Even before that, COVID-19 disrupted our food supply chain. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and household cleaning products were completely unavailable. Shelf-stable pantry foods like dry beans, pasta, canned goods, and frozen products went next. Hoarding food and supplies became a typical headline.

When food shelves emptied out, it signaled to people we interviewed that "shit was real now." A majority of in-store grocery shopping shifted online. Online ordering quickly became unreliable, with many orders only partly fulfilled. UPS, Amazon, and other mail-order options had significant delays stemming from the colossal demand. Online ordering slots were hard to get, and often a week out.

When they couldn't find the things they wanted in person or online from the usual big box stores, people started investigating alternative grocery options. Local farms, CSAs, frozen food companies like Omaha Steaks and Schwan's, and artisanal food sites like Sea to Table, Riviera Seafood Club, Alderspring Ranch (to name a few) saw a jump in sales. Food sold directly from the farm to the consumer became a popular solution for both families and farmers who needed to offload produce.

Grocery stores remained open, but became more inconvenient with mandated changes like limiting the number of people allowed in at one time. Lines formed in front of stores, or in some cases, around the block. Neighbors started asking each other if they needed anything picked up. Some people began planning their own food security measures by buying out seed catalogs and planting gardens.
Over 29 million kids in the US who relied on school lunches were suddenly without it.
COVID-19 disproportionately affected food-insecure kids

Over 29 million kids in the US who ate lunch at school were suddenly without this food source, and ⅓ of those kids live in food-insecure households. Some schools and community organizations rallied to continue to provide meals, but in general, food-insecure kids became more food insecure. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 provided debit (P-EBT) cards with $114 a month (in most states) to buy food for families whose kids were no longer able to get a school lunch. US federal food stamp programs like WIC and SNAP have restrictions around the types of food you can buy, which became especially problematic during COVID-19 because stores were frequently out of staple foods. At the beginning of COVID-19, SNAP did not allow you to purchase groceries from online retailers unless you were in New York or Washington. That has since expanded to include 36 states, but with a few exceptions, food can only be purchased from Amazon and Walmart. The media concurrently splashed images of farmers plowing under fields and very long lines for food banks, illuminating our current food supply chains' fragility and inflexibility.
What will the 'new normal' be like?
Overall, people are more interested in where their food comes from and in securing a steady flow of food. We predict this trend will continue but not everything that was adopted during the pandemic is here to stay.

  • COVID-19 exposed people to new online food purveyors and local farms. Future loyalty to these companies depends on people's budget and personal time investment, as work and the economy ramp back up. Now that inventory at grocery stores is more consistent, artisanal food producers will continue to operate at a higher volume than pre-COVID, but peoples' habits may taper off in favor of their usual store.

  • People eat more locally now (in part because they have to), but as restaurants start to open and farmers get some of their usual buyers back, there may be fewer CSAs available and already we're seeing fewer farmers' markets. It's not clear if purchasing from local farms will continue being a trend, especially when price points are typically higher than the same produce available at grocery stores. Chain grocery stores, even when there is a line to wait in, may be more convenient and provide more food options for those who have less free time.

  • Grocery shopping is visceral, and there are clear benefits to being able to pick out your fruits and vegetables. Impulse buys can inspire new recipes. Just walking around a store can remind you of something you forgot you needed. Grocery stores that emphasize cleanliness, have crowd control measures in place, and touchless payment options will start to see a return of regular customers. Specialty, high-end grocers may suffer more because of cost during the current economic downturn and because people can now find many of these items online.

  • Given that social distancing at stores will be in place for a while, if not indefinitely, grocery and other household delivery options will remain in high demand. This is an especially important service for people who are immunocompromised, self-quarantining, or otherwise unable to leave their house. Hiring has ramped up since the beginning of the pandemic and panic shopping is not happening nationally, so time slots and availability have improved.

  • Pantries will continue to be stocked--just in case--as we see the predicted spikes signaling another wave of COVID-19. Hopefully, people's pantries are still somewhat full from the first time, but either way, we guarantee everyone will have an extra stash of toilet paper and a few extra bags of beans.

  • And what about the new household patterns like people being helpful to their neighbors and gardening? Are their crops being harvested yet? Gardening requires time and is fraught with trial and error, weather dependencies, and all sorts of unknowns. When you can eat the fruit of your labor, it's much more rewarding. Those who made it to harvest will likely continue some form of gardening, but the drastic spike we saw in seed sales was probably a one-time thing. We concurrently see a trend of people moving out of cities and relocating in homes with yards and more space to spread out. For those folks, perhaps the home gardening renaissance is just beginning.

  • Food trends will be interesting to track as we move through summer in the Northern hemisphere. Baking is traditionally not popular at this time of year because warm kitchens are not comfortable in hot weather. We predict alcohol consumption will continue to rise as people celebrate their emergence from sheltering in place. Plant-based foods will likely continue to see a boost in popularity. 23% of consumers reported eating more plant-based meals during COVID-19. We anticipate this trend will continue for health and weight-loss reasons, and concerns about virus spread in meatpacking plants. (Producing plant-based protein does not require the same close quarters that butchering livestock does.)

  • We've noticed a spike in consumer interest around cell-based protein during the pandemic. This industry eliminates the need for butchering animals, and in the future, meat could even be grown at home, like your sourdough. Cell-based meat removes food safety issues, the threat of viral spread due to close quarters in meatpacking plants and some of the other horror stories we've seen during COVID-19, like the need to cull flocks because the chickens were too big and couldn't get to the meatpacking plant in time.

  • While schools were closed and school lunches widely unavailable, governments, non-profit organizations, restaurants, and farms contributed food and assistance to families who needed it most. Sadly, this is only a band-aid, and indeed, not every person or community benefited from an alternative food source. The pandemic brought to light some of the structural and logistical issues that contribute to food scarcity and food deserts, and the time to change these patterns is now.

  • The government took proactive first steps by providing money for lunch to food-insecure kids and allowing people to pay for online grocery shopping with WIC and SNAP. However, $114 a month (roughly $5.70/day) is barely enough to ensure kids get their caloric needs met (without a thought about nutrition) 20 days a month. Additionally, when it comes to food assistance in the US, there's clearly a monopoly on which retailers can reap the benefits of SNAP and WIC online payments, as Amazon and Walmart are the exclusive retailers approved for this in 32 out of 37 states in the program.

  • Studies have shown that even when companies set up shop and bring fresh food to food deserts at discounted prices, healthy eating doesn't always follow. Old habits die hard, and it takes more than just availability to encourage people to buy it. Education, time to cook, and cultural fit are critical parts of the equation too. It's time to solve some of the significant issues often present in food insecure communities like access to health care, redlining, and joblessness, as well as, provide nutritional counseling.
Time, stress, and food availability greatly affected how and what consumers chose to eat during this pandemic. Most of the world's eating and shopping habits changed since March, shedding light on local food purveyors, gaping holes in our food system, and food safety issues.

In the US, we've seen first-hand how easy it is to disrupt food supply chains. As COVID-19 continues to plague the nation, we can only hope that new measures are being put in place to help protect our food supply chain, food insecure communities, and the essential food workers in all occupations. For more on the effects of COVID-19 on US farms, the food supply chain, and food workers, keep an eye out for the next article in our COVID-19 series.
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