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STATE OF PLAY

The disruptive and disorienting ways Covid-19 has changed the way we eat

Rômolo D'Hipólito for Quartz
Published Last updated

No matter what your life looked like before Covid-19, your meals have adapted.

Perhaps you’re at home with the family, doing two loads in the dishwasher every day (or being forced to buy a dishwasher you never quite needed before). You’re cutting down on trips to the grocery store, or visiting the drive-through just for the thrill of getting out of the house. Or you’re focusing on  staples, making furlough funds or stimulus money stretch as far as it possibly can.

The changes to the food system brought on by Covid-19 have been disruptive, disorienting—and, very occasionally, delightful. Nine months into the pandemic, Quartz looked at the biggest gastronomical shifts around the globe, and the local and multinational businesses being impacted by them. Who benefits, who’s harmed, and when this is all over, which changes will last?

Whether it’s shifts in home cooking, the suffering restaurant industry, or the role of food in our culture and politics, we found a mix of creative solutions to difficult situations, ingenious adaptations to short-term shortages, and even some hope for the future.

Table of contents

Eating at home: We’re paying attention to ingredients | Grocery delivery is booming | We’re buying bulk

Eating out: Falling back in love with the office lunch | Community-based restaurants are struggling | Fast food drive-throughs are booming

The role of eating: School meals are more important than ever | The way we diet has changed | More of us are food insecure

Eating at home

We’re paying attention to ingredients

If any of the changes in food habits are likely to outlast the pandemic, it’s the slow shift toward mindfulness.

Not that everybody’s suddenly become a beacon of healthy, sustainable eating. But global lockdowns early in the pandemic—and the return of restrictive stay-at-home orders in parts of the world today—forced many people to spend more time in the kitchen than they had in a long while. For those with the time and the income, that’s encouraged a reckoning with the quality of the ingredients that make up their meals.

“I think a lot of people have had time to slow down,” says Marryam H Reshii, a food writer who shuttles between Delhi and Kashmir in India. “People around me have started learning things like growing a kitchen garden in small apartment balconies.”

I think the pandemic and the lockdown has made urban Indians reassess their choices.

Outfits that sell locally-farmed and produced items have responded to consumer need. While many were simply responding to short-term demand as grocery stores struggled with shortages early in the pandemic, they’ve created converts out of some customers, especially in urban areas. “We all talked about buying organic stuff, but it was always so expensive. Plus no one really knew much about buying sustainably,” says Delhi resident Shashank Mitter. “I think the pandemic and the lockdown has made urban Indians reassess their choices.”

Of course, buying more locally and sustainably produced food is still a luxury inaccessible to most of the world. The question now is whether sustainable producers can capitalize on the growth of new direct-to-consumer markets to grow demand and reduce prices enough to reach more of the population. “The demand and supply for organic produce has to be just right for it to be feasible for farmers to grow crops in that model,” says Achintya Anand, founder of Krishi Cress, a sustainable farming collective based in Delhi. “For someone who is growing their produce on the basis of cash flow, this is very difficult,” he says.

Organic produce may still be years away from becoming affordable and accessible. But, believes Reshii, “I suspect if this trend of eating and living sustainably can percolate down—and up—the social ladder, this switch to a slower life may very well be permanent.”

Grocery delivery is booming

Grocery stores, particularly those in the US, aren’t known for embracing change. But the pandemic is forcing them to adapt in order to survive, by upping their online presence. Pre-pandemic, online grocery was about 3% of the US grocery market, according to grocery research firm Mercatus. That number is expected to more than triple to 10% of the $1 trillion grocery market this year. By 2025, online grocery is expected to make up 22%—or $250 billion—of total US grocery sales.

Even as many states eased lockdown measures over the US summer, a report from investment bank Cowen shows that in August, 32% of respondents had purchased groceries online, up from 18% the previous year. Those figures may continue to grow as a surge of Covid-19 cases continues through the winter.

That shift offers an opportunity for food delivery businesses. While pick-up is more popular than delivery—data from NPD shows that in July, online orders collected in person were up 30% year-over-year—delivery is still up 23%. On the heels of that demand, Instacart became profitable for the first time during the pandemic. Big retailers like Amazon and Walmart are investing more into grocery delivery, too, trying to get a slice of the pie.

With an average margin between just 1% and 3%, Instacart and other food delivery companies need more frequent buyers and larger volumes. Automating fulfillment and creating dark stores could help bring down costs.

While that brings convenience to consumers, the gap between those who can and can’t afford regular grocery delivery will continue to widen. As the economic recovery continues in fits and starts, there’s a question whether customers will continue to pay up for delivery.

We’re buying bulk

For many Americans, grocery shopping has long been a form of entertainment. But during the pandemic, stocking up has become a matter of necessity rather than luxury.

At the beginning of the pandemic, a full 93% of respondents to an LEK Consulting poll said they were pre-emptively stocking up on food and drink. Americans were buying so much, so differently, that it actually threw off inflation numbers, which are based on a typical “basket” of goods. For a while, this led to shelves empty of certain products like meats. It wasn’t a shortage, per se: According to the US Food and Drug Administration, it was more of a result of hoarding.

Now that shelves are largely restocked, though, we’re still buying in bulk. In a survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by global payments and shopping service Klarna, 41% of respondents said they had bought groceries in bulk in a six-month period after the pandemic began.

That’s true for a few reasons. Understandably, most people have cut down the number of trips they make outside of the house; instead of browsing through aisles or picking up small quantities of food for the next few meals, customers are trying to make the most out of each of their trips. Buying bigger packages—think boxed wine instead of bottles—also means fewer items to sanitize when you get home (if that’s still a thing you’re doing; the evidence for transmission of Covid-19 on grocery items is low to nonexistent).

There are bound to be some people who are taking extra time at home as a chance to re-evaluate their relationship with more nutritious foods; but that’s a minority of shoppers. Most of us are snacking more as we work from home. Chips, crackers, cookies, and cereal—anything that gets stored in the pantry has become a favorite among US households, Chris Growe, an analyst at Stifel, told the Washington Post.

For more staple items, however, brand names don’t seem to matter as much. A July survey from the Food Industry Association found that 30% of US grocery shoppers reported buying more store brands, which are generally cheaper than private labels. Which leads to reason number three for bulk buying: It’s generally cheaper. As consumers stare down the barrel of a double-dip recession, buying in larger quantities is one way to keep food costs relatively low.

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?

Part of the thing that makes work okay is the other people there.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.