- The COVID-19 pandemic is causing breaks in our food chain, resulting in shortages of products, like beef and pork, in some stores.
- Scarcity of items has led some people to begin panic-buying products en masse that ended up going bad or spoiling.
- Experts advise that if certain meat items are scarce in your area, now might be the time to try plant-based substitutes to relieve some stress on our strained system, and give you peace of mind about your own food security.
The COVID-19 outbreak has caused some notable shifts in how we approach food, from what we consume and where we consume it to how it’s being produced and made available to us.
Certainly in the United States, the pandemic has played a major role in reshaping our interactions with food.
Restaurants have closed regular service in many parts of the country, while physical distancing has mandated people interact differently in supermarkets. Many places have instituted a 6-feet-apart rule while standing in checkout lines.
The pandemic has also affected what foods we even have access to.
But as the pandemic continues, what can you do about how these disruptions affect your own experience with food?
Healthline spoke with several experts who addressed how you can adjust to these COVID-19-driven changes, and contextualized just what these shifts mean for our culture as a whole moving forward.
The impact of abrupt changes to the food supply
Recently, some major meat processing plants have been forced to close — if even temporarily — due to the new coronavirus spreading among their workforce, the Associated Press reported.
This has particularly affected rural parts of the country, with 900 of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Dakota tied to a Smithfield Foods meat processing plant in Sioux Falls.
As with everything during this period, the closure of meat processing plants has caused some political controversy.
President Trump recently signed an executive order that mandates these kinds of plants remain open to avoid major ruptures in the country’s food supply.
Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, told Healthline that she expects each part of the country to be affected differently by their own unique disruptions in food production.
“For example, some states may see a shortage in pork while others are seeing shortages in beef. Either way, it is tragic that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of animals will be euthanized — hopefully more humanely than what happens in slaughterhouses,” she explained. “What a waste of resources and life.”
She says that when it came to plant-based foods and produce, she sees added tragedy in the fact that some farms will have to bulldoze or plow their crops, given that there will be no way to get their food “off the farm and into stores or food banks” in time of lockdown and isolation.
“When we look at food deserts, which already tend to have food shortages, we run into even more problems of shortages in healthy items. So, I think people will have to get creative with what is available, not be afraid to try new things, like plant-based meats, and look for other items they can try,” she added.
Registered dietitian Amber Pankonin, MS, LMNT, told Healthline that the impacts of these kinds of closures of food production sites are hard to assess since they’re so recent.
In Nebraska, where she lives, she says they haven’t seen store shortages yet but does believe they’re coming.
“I don’t know if people realize how closing a processing plant could lead to a meat shortage and how that impacts the farmers,” Pankonin said. “It will probably be a shock for some when they realize they can no longer find ground beef in the grocery store.”
She says these kinds of abrupt changes could bring about creative solutions in the form of direct farm-to-consumer sales.
“Being from the Midwest, I know of several companies who can ship meat or vegetables directly to the consumer. The meat is still processed at a facility where it can be inspected by the USDA, but it allows the consumer to directly purchase from the producer,” Pankonin said.
“The expense is higher compared to what you might find at the grocery store, but it is convenient and does offer the advantage of knowing where your food is coming from,” she explained.
Pankonin has a friend who is a cattle producer — a college senior who just started her own meat company, where she sells directly to consumers through a subscription plan.
“She is completely sold out for the next few weeks, and she believes it’s due to COVID-19 and the impact it’s having on the food industry,” she said.
Avoiding grocery store panic
One big impact of all this change is the fact that it has caused some consumers to panic-buy some items in bulk, effectively making them unavailable for others.
“Well, everybody saw what happened when people started hoarding toilet paper,” Pankonin said. “It is a big deal, and when it comes to food, we could see this significantly impacting food waste, as people might purchase more than they need and then not use it.”
Hunnes echoes those thoughts. She says one thing she’s seen on news reports and anecdotally in her community is the phenomenon of people panic-buying items en masse that ended up going bad or spoiling.
“So, not only does that not leave those items for other people to eat, but it also ends up just being thrown away, meaning that no one can use it and it’s a waste of money and resources,” she added.
What does she suggest? It might be time for people to think outside the box for themselves and their families.
Hunnes says if certain meat items are scarce, now might be the time to try tofu, for instance, or other plant-based substitutes.
“They are significantly better for the environment and for your heart, your health, and for these individuals who work in meat packing plants who are getting COVID-19,” Hunnes said.
Ali Webster, PhD, RD, director of research and nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, says new opportunities might arise with having more time to spend in the kitchen.
“Having more time to cook and experiment in the kitchen can be an opportunity to figure out how to use different or unfamiliar foods,” Webster told Healthline.
“However, for others, like those who are juggling many things at once — taking care of kids while trying to work remotely, for example — it’s often all about convenience and expedience. There’s just not as much time to figure out how to do something new when dinner needs to be on the table as soon as possible,” she added.
Pankonin says she hasn’t seen the retail data yet on any of this, but generally in a time of crisis, people “reach for what is familiar and comforting.”
“I believe we are also seeing that with food. People are reaching for what they know and what they know will taste good, because taste is the top driver of food choice,” she said.
“I think as this continues and folks are settling into the ‘new normal,’ we probably will see people trying new foods as they build confidence in the kitchen and are forced to try other substitutes due to shortages,” Pankonin explained.
Changing behaviors around food
A recent survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation looked at how the outbreak has affected people’s eating behaviors, purchasing patterns, and perceptions around food safety.
The foundation interviewed 1,000 American adults who were at least 18 years or older in early April.
There are some interesting takeaways. For example, half of respondents said they’re shopping in person less, with nearly 4 in 10 saying they’re buying more groceries at a time, with those items more often being preservable pantry foods.
Beyond this, when it came to hygiene, 63 percent said they wash their hands after a grocery store visit.
Half reported they were going to the store less and trying decrease how much they touch various surfaces in a market to feel comfortable about the food they’re purchasing.
Women were more likely than men to take these kinds of precautions. Younger people — under the age of 45 — were less adherent to these safety practices, with 55 percent saying they washed their hands after shopping compared with 73 percent of people 65 and older.
Moreover, 78 percent of respondents said they’re comfortable with the food supply, and 82 percent said they’re confident that the food they’re purchasing is safe.
Webster says the “most surprising and disheartening” finding was the relatively low number of total respondents who said they wash their hands after grocery shopping.
“At the time the survey was fielded in early April, it seemed like advice to wash our hands frequently had really been hammered home as a key way to reduce risk of coronavirus exposure. It was pretty shocking to see that nearly 4 in 10 people aren’t doing this, even after being in a highly public place,” she said.
When it came to the age disparities in who was taking hygiene seriously and who wasn’t, Webster says a lot of it has to do with “risk perception.”
“Unfortunately, some younger people have latched on to the idea that, statistically, they’re are at a lower risk of serious consequences from COVID-19, which to many translates as meaning they don’t need to bother with recommended precautions,” Webster said.
She stresses that, as has been evidenced by the realities of this epidemic, “it’s not just about how the disease may impact us if we get it. It’s about our ability to spread it to others.”
How you can reframe fears around food
If you’re worried about your own health when you walk into the grocery store, what can you do?
Pankonin says that if you’re an older adult or part of another group with high risk factors for COVID-19, take advantage of the special hours your local market allots to those groups each day.
Additionally, many stores offer online order-and-pickup options to reduce the potential for coronavirus exposure.
Hunnes emphasizes practicing recommended preventive measures, such as wearing a mask; washing hands with soap and water, or using hand sanitizer, immediately after putting groceries in your car if you’re driving; and washing your hands again when you get home, or after the delivery person leaves.
“Get takeout from a restaurant you trust and that is complying with social distancing, and then always wear a mask when getting it, reheat on a clean plate or bowl, and wash your hands,” she added.
Pankonin says you shouldn’t “be afraid of canned or frozen foods.”
“Canned and frozen foods can be very affordable. They can be nutritious, and they are a great way to help reduce food waste,” she said.
All of this doesn’t only keep you safe, but it can help you psychologically reframe how you view shopping for necessary food items during an admittedly scary time.
Will these changes last?
One big question is, while the food chain remains disrupted — from closing processing plants to the grocery store experience turned completely on its head — will these changes last?
“I think that many of the food safety and shopping habits will absolutely stay in place for quite some time. At the very least, until the spread of COVID-19 is under control and a vaccine is widely available,” Webster said.
She says it’s more than likely that people will eat mostly at home. “Grocery shopping definitely isn’t the same experience as it was before the pandemic,” she added.
Webster foresees people maintaining practices like shopping less frequently, buying more shelf-stable and frozen foods, and buying more quantities of that food each time they go to a store.
“It’s possible that some behaviors may equilibrate as COVID-19-related restrictions are eased, restaurants open, and white-collar workers return to their offices. But I think it’s going to be a gradual transition to a new normal — not necessarily a return to the pre-pandemic days,” she added.
Pankonin says those who have discovered the convenience of online grocery shopping will come to wonder “how they ever managed without it.”
For her part, Hunnes doesn’t see much “normalizing” without a COVID-19 vaccine.
Then again, what does “normal” mean right now? These behaviors and interactions with food consumption and distribution could make for a “new normal.”
“I think behaviors around food and grocery shopping may be shifted at least for the next 9 to 12 months,” she said. “And we need to get accustomed to the idea that there could be shortages of certain foods.”
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