In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has been entrenched in our daily lives for the better part of one year. 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.
IFIC has released two ten-question consumer surveys of COVID-19’s effects on shopping for food, eating habits and perspectives on food safety: one in April and one in May. Since that time, we have been tracking select questions each month to assess changes in perceptions and behaviors over time. We have also asked a few new questions to further help us understand how the pandemic has shifted our actions and our viewpoints. The results of these survey questions can be found at the links below, and we will continue to update this page with new information as time goes on.
Our February survey found that grocery shopping habits and purchasing behaviors remain sharply impacted, nearly one year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-six percent of people reported grocery shopping in person less often and over one in three Americans (35%) reported buying shelf-stable foods more often. These results also highlight the rise in popularity of online grocery shopping: 34% reported shopping for groceries online more often, with people under 45, those who make $80K+ per year and those with a college degree being more likely to do so. Of those who reported grocery shopping online more often, people age 65+ were more likely to say that they will stop doing so once the pandemic subsides (22%), compared to people under age 45 (2%). Snack purchases have also changed since the pandemic began. Twenty-six percent of people have been buying packaged snacks more often, with women, African Americans and people under 45 being more likely to do so.
Despite easing of COVID-19 restrictions in many areas of the country over the past few months, many still have not recently returned to restaurant dining: 59% percent of people said they had not dined at a restaurant in the past month, compared to 36% in November 2020. When asked about their top three criteria for regularly returning to restaurants, the most common answers were “when it is deemed safe to do so by medical authorities” (35%) and “when COVID-19 rates are lower where I live” (31%), followed by vaccination-related responses (“only once a vaccine is widely available” (25%) and “only once I am vaccinated” (25%)). One in 10 said that they didn’t think they’d regularly return to restaurant dining.
Concerns about scarcity and the health of those in close proximity while food shopping continued to be pressing concerns for many through the end of 2020. Thirty-one percent said that the health of other shoppers was one of their top two concerns, while the health of grocery store employees worried 28%. Three in 10 (30%) were concerned about running out of staple, non-food household items. After a year of job losses, an economic downturn and struggles to stay afloat, food insecurity is an immediate concern for one in five survey respondents: 21% said that they were worried about their ability to provide enough food for their family. Compared with data IFIC collected in our 2020 Food and Health Survey (fielded in April 2020), the frequency of online grocery shopping is up drastically in December. Thirty-six percent reported buying groceries online at least once a week, compared with just 11% who said the same in April. In April, 52% said that they never bought groceries online, a number that had shrunk to 29% in December.
Our November survey found that an increasing number of people are paying greater attention to the amount of money that they spend on groceries (46% compared to 43% in August and 38% in May) and the healthfulness of the food they’re buying (35% compared to 31% in August and 26% in May). When asked about the types of foods or meals they have been cooking or preparing since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the most popular responses were comfort foods (38%), nutritious foods (34%) and foods that are quick to prepare (34%). Nearly one-third of respondents said they’d been cooking more animal meat, while only 17% said they’d been preparing more plant-based foods. And it seems that people are increasingly returning to restaurant dining: just 36% said they had not dined at a restaurant in the past month, compared to 52% who said the same in August.
In September, the health of other shoppers remained the top concern related to food shopping, but the fact that just 25% of people stated this indicated a continued reduction in food shopping concerns across the board. Accordingly, the number of people who said they were not concerned about food shopping continued to increase (16% in September compared to 13% in June and 0% in May). Survey takers reported a net increase in the frequency of shopping at large supermarkets, local grocers and corner stores, while fast food/quick service restaurants continued to see a net decrease.
Wearing a mask and washing hands after going to the store continued to be most common safety steps taken while grocery shopping, and the number of people reporting wearing a mask jumped from 52% in June to 60% in August. Rates of other actions, like using sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer, going to the store less, shopping during less busy times and shopping for groceries online remained largely stable compared to June. As had been seen in previous months, people under age 45 were less likely to take many precautionary measures when grocery shopping. Compared with May, more people reported paying attention to how much they were spending on groceries (43% vs. 38% in May) and the healthfulness of their food choices (31% vs. 26% in May). Those making less than $40,000 per year were nearly 1.5 times more likely to be paying more attention to their grocery budgets compared to those making $80,000+ per year.
Nearly 4 in 10 (39%) said they were eating at least somewhat healthier compared to pre-pandemic (15% much healthier, 24% somewhat healthier), down slightly from May, when 43% said they were doing so. Men and those under 45 years old were more likely to say they were eating much healthier, while women and people 65+ were less likely to say so. Among options for acquiring food and beverages, consumers reported the largest net reduction in frequency of visiting fast food/quick service establishments.
In June, wearing a mask while shopping and washing hands after going to the store were the most common actions people were taking to feel comfortable when shopping for groceries, but just 52% of survey takers reported doing either of these actions. Compared to earlier in the spring, the percentage of people following safety measures while shopping was leveling off or declining. The health of other shoppers was the top concern people had about food shopping, but in line with reductions in following safety precautions, worries about food shopping were mainly down compared to May. Eight out of 10 were confident in the ability of food manufacturers to supply enough food to meet consumer needs, an increase from 73% in May.