In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has been entrenched in our daily lives for over two months. In the midst of its impact on the health of many and the lives of everyone, the way we’re thinking and acting around food and food safety continues to evolve.
We conducted our first consumer research on COVID-19’s effects on shopping for food, eating habits and perspectives on food safety in early April. This most recent survey, fielded May 7th to May 12th, serves as a follow-up to this initial research. It tracks several questions asked previously in April and asks new ones to help us better capture the full scale of the pandemic’s effects on how we think and feel about food in these ever-changing times. Here are some key takeaways:
Since April, there has been a consistent downturn in following risk-reducing practices related to COVID-19 and grocery shopping. Just 52% of survey takers report washing their hands after going to the grocery store, down from 63% in April. This change is emblematic of the declines seen in many other safety practices, including going to the store less (46% versus 51% in April), minimizing touching surfaces while at the grocery store (39% versus 50% in April) and using wipes and hand sanitizer (38% versus 47% in April). Consistent with last month’s survey, those in the youngest age bracket (less than 45 years of age) are less apt to follow many risk-reducing precautions compared with people older than 45. One exception to the downturn is an uptick in the percentage of people who say that they’re ordering at least some of their groceries online (24% versus 16% in April).
Wearing protective equipment, frequent cleaning, wearing gloves while working, and offering sanitizers or wipes are perceived as the most important actions grocery store employees can take regarding food safety. Top responses remained consistent from April to May, though having employees wear masks while working jumped to the top of the list this month (36%), followed by frequently cleaning surfaces (28%), employees wearing gloves while working (21%), and providing disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer (20%).
The health of other shoppers and grocery store employees, as well as running out of staple foods, remain the most concerning parts of food shopping. This month, the health of grocery store employees (30%) slightly edged out running out of staple, non-food items (29%) and the health of other shoppers (28%) as the top concern about food shopping. The largest jumps in concern were about the safety of available foods (23% in May versus 15% in April) and running out of healthy food (16% in May versus 9% in April). Slightly more people (21%) are concerned about running out of meat (a new response option this month) than they were about running out of fresh food (19%) and running out of healthy food (16%). Those under 45 years old are less likely to be worried about the health of other shoppers and grocery store employees.
Compared with April, slightly fewer report purchasing more packaged foods than usual. Thirty-six percent of survey takers say that they’re purchasing more packaged foods, the same number that says that the amount of packaged foods they’re buying hasn’t changed. Both of these numbers are down from 42% in April, balanced by an increase in the number of people saying that they’re buying less packaged foods than usual. This may signal a leveling-off of packaged food purchases after the initial stockpiling that occurred in the beginning of the U.S.’s pandemic reaction.
More than one in three have a more favorable opinion about the safety of packaged foods since the start of COVID-19’s impact. Thirty-nine percent say that their opinion hasn’t changed, while 20% have a less favorable opinion about packaged food safety. People under 45 are more likely to say that their opinion is now more favorable.
Food waste and food packaging are focuses for some. One in four are paying more attention to the amount of food wasted from meals eating at home, while 19% are paying more attention to the type of packaging used in products they’re buying and 17% are doing the same when it comes to the amount of packaging used in products they purchase.
There are clear worries about food insecurity and grocery budgets. One’s ability to provide enough food for their family is a top concern about food shopping for 20% of survey takers, with people under 45 years old more likely to be worried about this. Thirty-eight percent of people report paying more attention to the amount of money they have to spend on groceries compared with a few months ago, before we began feeling COVID-19’s impact.
More than two in five say they’re eating healthier than they were prior to the pandemic. Forty-three percent of survey takers report that they consider their eating habits to be healthier than they were a few months ago (18% much healthier, 25% somewhat healthier), while another 43% say that they’re at about the same level of healthfulness. Just 14% say they’re eating less healthy. Men, people under 45, those living in the West and college-educated people are more likely to report improvements to their diet’s healthfulness, while women are more likely to say they’re eating less healthfully.
Roughly half of consumers are eating the same amount of most types of protein. Despite empty egg and dairy shelves during the initial “panic buying” days of the pandemic, more recent reports of meat shortages and increased discussions about plant protein sources like beans and legumes, many people report no change in their protein consumption habits. About 50% of consumers say they’re eating the same amount of meat, other animal products (eggs and dairy), and protein from plant sources (beans, legumes, and tofu or soy). The amount of people saying they’re eating more or eating less of these types of protein is nearly equal, and this also holds true for plant alternatives to animal meat. Thirty-one percent of survey takers say that they never eat plant alternatives to meat, while 34% say that they’re eating the same amount as they were prior to COVID-19. People under the age of 45 are more likely to report eating more of each type of protein, while those in older age groups were less likely to do so.
Confidence in the safety of the food supply and the ability for food producers to meet consumer needs remains high. Seventy-eight percent of survey takers are confident that the food they are buying is safe (35% very confident, 43% somewhat confident), down 4% from the April 2020 survey. Seventy-three percent projected confidence in the ability of food producers to supply enough food to meet consumer needs in the month ahead (27% very confident, 46% somewhat confident), down from 77% in April (31% very confident, 46% somewhat confident).
Three in ten people place more trust in government agencies, scientific studies, healthcare professionals and friends and family since COVID-19 began impacting the U.S. These information sources showed the largest increases in trust since the pandemic began. In contrast, the information sources that have fallen in trust the most are news articles or headlines (29% trust at least somewhat less), government agencies (23% trust at least somewhat less) and doctors or nutritionists on TV or social media (23% trust at least somewhat less). Men were more likely to place more trust in nearly all information sources post-pandemic compared to women, as were people under the age of 45 compared to people age 45-64 and those who were college-educated compared to those without a college education.
One thousand interviews were conducted among adults ages 18+ from May 7th to May 12th, 2020, and were weighted to ensure proportional results. The margin of error was ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.
This blog post was written by Ali Webster, PhD, RD, with contributions by Alex Lewin-Zwerdling, PhD.