Image for article titled The disruptive and disorienting ways Covid-19 has changed the way we eat

Eating out

Falling back in love with the office lunch

When the coronavirus pandemic prompted millions worldwide to work from home, it didn’t just change the lives of office workers. It also changed the office lunch economy. Pret a Manger, a chain ubiquitous in cities like London, had to pivot to delivery and special hot evening meals. At the height of the pandemic, New York City’s midtown parks, where office workers would fight over space for a few minutes of fresh air, were eerily quiet. So important is the “business lunch” that the UK government created a lockdown provision protecting it; it fast became a loophole allowing some British households to meet during restrictions.

Is the shock of the pandemic severe enough to kill the office lunch altogether? Or will a stretch of working from home prompt us to embrace the ritual of breaking for food when we’re back in the office, and perhaps even bring back long, lively midday meals?

Cultural historian Megan Elias, an associate professor in gastronomy at Boston University, thinks yes—eventually. “Investors will be more cautious about getting into the [lunch office] business because they have seen how quickly it can close down,” she says. But the biggest chains will have the ability to withstand the short-term troubles and return.

In the between-times, she expects to see some adaptations. “I think you might see a lot more temporary interventions in the lunchroom, more things like food trucks,” says Elias. “People will return to it kind of provisionally and just figure out what people will want.”

But in the long-term, it seems likely that people will want to return to some form of the office lunch. “Everybody who’s working from home realizes that all of the work stuff can be done at home, and that part of the reason that we go to work, part of the thing that makes work okay, is the other people there,” says Elias. “That connection is going to seem more precious, and may take the form of people having lunches, bringing in food, and finding spaces that they can share, even in the office.”

Community-based restaurants are struggling

The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. Data from the National Restaurant Association shows that the US food service industry is expected to lose $240 billion this year. At the height of the pandemic shutdown, more than 8 million restaurant employees were laid off or furloughed, according to the organization.

Those who have fared the best are the ones pivoting to some form of off-site premise, whether that’s delivery or curbside pick-up. The association’s survey of more than 3,500 US restaurant operators between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1 found that of the restaurants that have added off-premises options to do sales, roughly two-thirds have added third-party delivery, and 83% of those plan on keeping it. Over the same period, 17% have added in-house delivery, with 58% of those planning on keeping it.

Restaurants are resilient businesses—consider the ones in New York City that have gone through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy—but the pandemic requires a totally new playbook. As Mike Whately, the Restaurant Association’s vice president of state and local affairs, points out, the variables impacting restaurants are largely out of their control. In downturn urban corridors, if businesses surrounding the restaurants are closed down, then that will impact the restaurants. But in the suburbs, with folks working from home, there may be an increase of more lunchtime ordering than they would have otherwise done so because they were in the office.

And even the bright spots for the restaurant industry during the pandemic have been dimmed by external forces. While delivery apps like GrubHub and Uber Eats give local spots a chance at previously unimaginable scale, their commission and marketing fees can make it hard to turn a profit, inspiring some local restaurants to experiment with other delivery platforms—even their own.

Fast food drive-throughs are booming

Drive-throughs have been the heroes of fast food restaurants in 2020.

In earnings calls across this year, fast food franchises reported that drive-through activity boomed. Business doubled at Tim Horton’s, Burger Kings, and Popeyes; it even surpassed in-store foot traffic at Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins. Drive-throughs helped suffering McDonald’s sites rebound faster than those that weren’t set up to accommodate customers in their cars.

As more restaurants have opened up indoor dining, the number of drive-through visits has declined, but they’re still higher than normal. According to a report from NPD Group, visits were up 26% in April, May, and June; in the following months they were up by 13%.

The obvious advantage of the drive-through during the pandemic is that it offers a (nearly) contactless way of eating out. But drive-throughs  also capitalize on comfort and familiarity: No matter where you are in the world, you know that a Whopper will be a Whopper, and a Frappucino will be a sugary, frozen beverage with little to no actual coffee. In a time filled with anxiety and uncertainty, drive throughs have offered people a way to feel like they were doing something normal again. It could also serve as an outing; instead of eating at home for the umpteenth time, you could get in your car and purchase a cheap, safe meal.

It’s no wonder that they’ve even became a source of entertainment: at the time of writing, 1.4 billion people had watched videos posted on TikTok with #drivethru.

Image for article titled The disruptive and disorienting ways Covid-19 has changed the way we eat

The role of eating

School meals are more important than ever

When schools around the US closed in mid-March, it laid bare one of their most critical functions: feeding kids. A temporary change in federal regulations allowed schools to hand out meals to all children who needed them during the pandemic. It’s made some people wonder why we don’t do this all the time—that is, why doesn’t the US offer universal free school lunch?

There’s little question that such a program would benefit students. Kids who have access to lunch at school perform better academically and have better long-term health outcomes (pdf). And countries that offer universal free lunch, including Finland, India, Brazil, and Japan, have seen their children become healthier and more responsible as a result.

Legislation over the past decade has made it somewhat easier for schools to provide free school lunch. Part of the 2010 Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act provides districts where 40% of students qualify for free meals with government reimbursements that make it possible to feed all kids at no cost to families. It was this change that allowed New York City, the US’s largest school district, to offer universal free school lunch in 2017.

But districts have to opt in, and some simply don’t consider it a priority. “We thought it would not be a big challenge [to bring universal free lunch to New York City], but it ended up being quite a fight,” says Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. Her nonprofit created a coalition of principals, teachers, parent groups, and public health advocates to get city officials to take it seriously. That’s the kind of momentum needed at the national level to bring free lunch to all American kids.

The pandemic may have provided the right push. The US Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, extended the provision that allows schools to be reimbursed for feeding 100% of kids through the end of the 2021 school year. And in July, US House representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced a bill that would result in universal free school lunch.

The way we diet has changed

Food has been a familiar source of comfort during the pandemic. Preparing a meal is a small thing people can control and enjoy in an uncertain world, and some people have even used the slower pace of life to eat more healthily than they might have before, says Deanna Minich, a nutrition professional on the board of directors for the American Nutrition Association.

For others, the stress of the pandemic has led to emotional eating—and sometimes weight gain. Working from home and being around restricted foods all the time, plus the difficulty in leaving home to exercise, haven’t helped. “People who were struggling with eating and lifestyle are caving into emotional eating and feeling like it’s too much effort [to eat healthy],” says Minich. “It’s one more thing to think about what they’re going to put in their mouths, so they’re going to let go for the time being,” The pandemic has also put people at increased risk of disordered eating.

But as people look to get rid of their Covid 15 or simply create some sort of food routine, they may be eschewing more rigid, regimented diet plans for looser ones.

Sara Peternell has seen this reflected in her practice. The Denver-based holistic nutritionist, who focuses on family nutrition, has seen more clients with a focus on weight loss than she did last year, even though they’re “not really thinking about a ‘diet mentality.’” With no end to the pandemic in sight, folks are settling in for the long haul, looking for ways to avoid cooking burnout or gaining more weight.

The trend is impacting corporations, too. WW (formerly Weight Watchers), which helps clients lose weight with lifestyle changes instead of restrictive diets, has done well during the pandemic. It closed the third quarter of 2020 with 4.7 million subscribers, which the company says is an all-time third quarter-end high. “There was this initial shock to the system [at the beginning of the pandemic], and then there seems to be this mindful recalibration that allows people to get back on track for a weight wellness journey,” says Gary Foster, chief science officer at WW.

More of us are food insecure

Since the early days of the pandemic, concerns over food shortages have mostly disappeared, as supply chains recovered from short-term disruptions due to outbreaks in meatpacking plants and unexpected demand shocks for quarantine favorites like yeast. Global production of major staples has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, or better.

But while food supply has returned to relative stability, food insecurity is only beginning to rear its head. The pandemic recession will force many families to the brink, while those living in conflict zones, and in areas most threatened by climate change, will be especially vulnerable to instability in the food system. By the end of 2020, the World Food Programme estimates that 265 million people around the world will suffer from acute hunger—almost double pre-pandemic estimates.

One silver lining is that the pandemic has provided policymakers a laboratory to understand the role of different interventions to stem food insecurity. In particular, it’s difficult to test the impact of cash transfers in helping people weather an unanticipated economic crisis—you can’t just flip a switch to destabilize the economy.

For researchers who were already investigating universal basic income in Kenya, the pandemic offered just that opportunity. In September, the researchers reported that the cash transfers decisively reduced food insecurity. Recipients were up to 11% less likely to report experiencing hunger than the regional average, and up to 6% less likely to report an illness.

Image for article titled The disruptive and disorienting ways Covid-19 has changed the way we eat

For better and for worse, it seems the pandemic has simply exposed and accelerated the changes that were already underway in the world’s food systems. A shift toward remote, digital delivery systems sped toward profitability; a precarious global food system became even less stable. What we can hope for is that consumers, businesses, and policy makers take note of those changes, and cling tight to the lessons they provide. Shifts in global access to more sustainable food sources, provisions for school lunches, and most impactfully, a shift in the global approach to universal basic income can all help nourish the world, long after the pandemic has receded.

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