It’s been just over one month since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, a global pandemic. And we continue to feel its impact in nearly every aspect of our lives. For many of us, our normal shopping routines – and certainly eating out – have been entirely upended. To capture what we know to be widespread changes in how we buy food, how we feel about food safety and ultimately what we eat, the International Food Information Council conducted a consumer research survey, which was fielded on April 6th and 7th.
Here are some key takeaways:
People are doing less shopping in-person and cooking more. When asked how their food shopping habits have changed over the past month (from early March to early April), half of all survey takers reported shopping in-person less, and nearly 4 in 10 said that they were buying more shelf-stable, pantry foods and buying more groceries each time they shopped. At the same time, nearly half (47%) of survey takers said that they were eating more home-cooked meals than one month ago. Nearly 1 in 3 reported that they were ordering less takeout or delivery than usual, while 16% say they were ordering in more often than they used to.
Online grocery shopping sees the spotlight. As consumers shop in person less, 16% report that they’ve started shopping for groceries online; 13% report increasing the frequency of online deliveries. It makes sense, then, that 16% also highlighted online grocery shopping as a step they’re taking to feel comfortable with the safety of their food. While there were no statistically significant demographic differences seen in those who started online grocery ordering, college-educated people and those under the age of 45 were more likely to increase the frequency of their existing grocery delivery versus non-college educated and older age groups, respectively.
There is room for improvement when it comes to recommended health habits and grocery shopping. While frequent hand washing is one of the most well-known suggestions for protecting oneself from COVID-19, only 63% of people report doing so after visiting the grocery store. Half of all survey takers said they were going to the store less and trying to minimize touching surfaces while there in order to feel comfortable with the safety of their food while shopping. To a lesser extent, people are also buying fresh, unpackaged foods (14%), unpacking groceries outside (12%) and buying more plastic-wrapped produce or bakery items (11%). Women were more likely than men to be taking many of these precautions, and white people were more likely to do so as compared to other races/ethnicities. Those in the youngest age bracket (less than 45 years of age) were less apt to follow risk-reducing precautions – for example, just 55% reported washing their hands after shopping – while those 65+ had the highest percentage of people washing their hands after shopping (73%), minimizing touching surfaces (62%) and shopping during less busy times (50%).
Frequent cleaning, offering sanitizers or wipes and wearing protective equipment are perceived as most important actions grocery store employees can take regarding food safety. When people were asked about actions they’d like to see grocery store employees take to protect the safety of food, almost half (43%) said that frequently wiping down commonly-touched surfaces was important. Other top actions included providing wipes/hand sanitizer (32%) and wearing gloves (28%) and masks (28%).
The health of other shoppers and grocery store employees, as well as running out of staple foods, are the most concerning parts of food shopping. Forty-two percent of respondents said that they were most worried about the health of other shoppers, while 37% were worried about the health of store employees. Running out of staple items was a concern for over one-quarter of respondents (28%). Running out of healthy food (9%) and not knowing how to prepare the foods they had available (5%) were less common answers, but they were more likely to be selected by the youngest age bracket (those under the age of 45).
Four in 10 people are buying more packaged foods, but most haven’t changed their opinion on the healthfulness of these products. Forty-two percent of survey takers reported buying more packaged foods than usual over the past month, while the same number said that their packaged foods purchases haven’t changed. Those under age 45 were more likely to be upping their packaged foods purchases; the same age group reported buying more frozen foods as compared to those 45-64 and 65+. At the same time, 59% of people said that they haven’t changed their perceptions on the healthfulness of packaged foods. Twenty-two percent said that they now believe them to be healthier than they did before, while 10% said that they think packaged foods are less healthy.
Eating habits have changed, too. Over one quarter (27%) said that they’ve been snacking more, and 15% say they’re eating more or more often than usual. The same number of people say they’re eating healthier food than usual, while 13% say they’re eating less or less often than usual. Just 2 in 10 said that their eating habits haven’t changed.
Most people are confident in the safety of the food supply and the ability for food producers to meet their needs. Eighty-two percent of survey takers are confident that the food they are buying is safe, with 39% being very confident and 43% somewhat confident. This number is even higher than IFIC reported in our 2019 Food & Health Survey, in which we asked, “Overall, how confident are you in the safety of the US food supply?”. At this point just over a year ago, 68% were confident in the safety of our food supply (53% somewhat confident and 15% very confident). In this most recent survey, 77% projected confidence in the ability of food producers to supply enough food to meet consumer needs for the month ahead (31% very confident; 46% somewhat confident). White, college-educated survey takers were more likely to be confident, while Hispanic/Latinx and non-college-educated respondents were less so.
One thousand interviews were conducted among adults ages 18+ from April 6th to April 7th, 2020 and were weighted to ensure proportional results. The margin of error was ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.
This blog post includes contributions from Ali Webster, PhD, RD, and Alex Lewin-Zwerdling, PhD.