Food and Consumers
The COVID-19 pandemic led to significant changes in the food-spending patterns of U.S. consumers. In general, consumers increased their expenditures on food from grocery stores (and other retail food establishments) and decreased expenditures on food away from home. In addition, many consumers stocked up on some groceries to avoid perceived shortages—and to reduce potential exposure to the virus by reducing their trips to the store.
Closures of restaurants and nonessential businesses contributed to record increases in unemployment during March and April 2020. Unemployment and related economic changes made it more difficult for many U.S. households to obtain adequate food.
Through a variety of data products, ERS monitors the pandemic’s impact on food spending, food prices, and food sufficiency.
These sections will be updated periodically, as the information becomes available:
- Food Spending During the Pandemic
- Food Prices During the Pandemic
- Food Sufficiency During the Pandemic
May 2021 expenditures at food away from home establishments—restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments—exceeded spending at food at home retailers for the second straight month, after trailing at-home expenditures in each month since March 2020, the beginning of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In March 2020, efforts to limit the spread of Coronavirus included stay-at-home orders that led to significant changes in the food-spending patterns of U.S. consumers. Following a sharp decline during March to April 2020 in spending on food away from home, such purchases increased during May through December 2020. This increase occurred as States began allowing restaurants to reopen and households began receiving stimulus checks from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Expenditures on food away from home establishments in December 2020 remained 19 percent below those in December 2019. (See For the Second Time in 25 Years, Annual U.S. Food Spending Declined in 2020).
Analysis of data from the ERS Food Expenditure Series found that expenditures at grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other retailers (food at home) increased 26 percent, from $64 billion in February 2020 to $80 billion in March 2020—before declining to $74 billion in October 2020. Expenditures at restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments fell from $68 billion in February 2020 to $54 billion in March 2020 and $36 billion in April 2020, a drop of 48 percent, then rose to $59 billion in December 2020. Inflation-adjusted spending on food away from home in April 2020 was 51 percent lower than April 2019—and still 22 percent lower in December 2020, compared with December 2019. Total inflation-adjusted expenditures on food were 9 percent lower in December 2020, compared with December 2019.
The ERS Weekly Retail Food Sales data series provides a more current and detailed picture of retail sales of food at home. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, retail food sales rose sharply—peaking at 57 percent higher food sales spent on food at home during March 16–22, 2020, than the same week in 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic reached a duration of more than 1 year, the Weekly Retail Food Sales data series added a comparison to food sales during the same week 2 years earlier to provide a pre-pandemic baseline that accounts for seasonality. By June 13, 2021, the value of food retail sales was 13.2 percent above the same week in 2019.
By June 7-13, the pandemic had continued for more than 1 year and the value of retail food sales was only slightly higher compared with the same week in 2020 overall, with substantial variation among food categories. While retail sales values of beverages, commercially prepared items and fruits were higher than the previous year, retail sales values of all other categories were lower, perhaps illustrating the partial readjustment of food expenditures toward pre-pandemic levels, after lifting of stay-at-home orders.
Compared to the same week in 2019, the value of retail food sales during the week ending June 13, 2021, was higher in every food category—especially beverages.
Food price changes during the pandemic reflect, in part, the impact of illnesses and safety measures on labor supply and productivity. For example, most fresh-market vegetable growers rely on seasonal labor to produce a crop and place the crop into supply channels. COVID-19 illnesses reduced the supply of farm workers in producing regions. Also, procedural changes to comply with recommended social distancing and sanitary protocols may have reduced productivity for some processing and packaging facilities. Similarly, meat processors faced labor shortages (due to illness) and implemented health protocols that may have hindered their ability to process cattle and hogs, although processors have recouped much of the lost slaughter capacity (see Spread of the Pandemic to Rural America and the August 2020 edition of Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook).
Food price changes also reflect the shift in demand away from restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments (food away from home). Demand has shifted to grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other retailers (food at home), and has led to changes in food demand due to higher unemployment.
The ERS Food Price Outlook tracks changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food at home and food away from home. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food measures changes in retail prices of food over time. Retail food prices were higher in May 2021 than May 2020 for several categories. The highest price increases were for fresh fruits (5.9 percent) and pork (3.2 percent).
Stay-at-home orders, closures of nonessential businesses, and other actions to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) contributed to a surge in U.S. unemployment not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s. (see Unemployment During the Pandemic).
To produce timely information on the economic and social effects of COVID-19 on U.S. households, the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census worked with ERS and other Federal agencies to develop the Household Pulse Survey (HPS). The HPS is a weekly online survey that asks respondents about educational, employment, health, housing, and food-related outcomes. Data were collected for Phase 1 of the HPS during April 23–July 21, 2020; for Phase 2 during August 19–October 26, 2020; and for Phase 3.0 during October 28, 2020–March 29, 2021. Phase 3.1 began April 14, 2021. The HPS includes an indicator of food sufficiency for U.S. households, as well as an indicator of child food sufficiency.
- Food insufficiency means that a household did not have enough food to eat sometimes or often in the last 7 days.
- Low food sufficiency means that a household did not have enough to eat sometimes in the last 7 days.
- Very low food sufficiency means that a household did not have enough to eat often in the last 7 days.
See more about the difference between food insufficiency and food insecurity.
Measuring Food Insufficiency
The food-sufficiency item in the HPS asks about the food eaten in the household in the last 7 days to assess rapid changes in food sufficiency.
Household adults are asked the following:
In the last 7 days, which of these statements best describes the food eaten in your household? Select only one answer.
- Enough of the kinds of food (I/we) wanted to eat
- Enough, but not always the kinds of food (I/we) wanted to eat
- Sometimes not enough to eat
- Often not enough to eat
Adults who select (1) are classified as living in households with full food sufficiency, while those who select (2) are classified as living in households with marginal food sufficiency. Those who select (3) or (4) are counted as having low and very low food sufficiency, respectively. Those who respond with (3) or (4) are classified as food insufficient, which means that a household did not have enough to eat in the last 7 days.
Prevalence of Food Insufficiency
The prevalence of food insufficiency (low and very low food sufficiency) among U.S. adults rose from 9.5 percent as of April 23, 2020 to 13.4 percent as of December 21, 2020, before declining to 8.0 percent as of April 26, 2021, but has increased to 9.6 percent as of June 21, 2021. Very low food sufficiency has followed a similar pattern and was estimated at 2.3 percent during June 9-21, 2021.
To put these numbers in context: In the December 2019 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement (collected during a pre-pandemic time period), 3.7 percent of U.S. households reported that what best described the food situation of their household over the previous 12 months was "sometimes or often not having enough to eat" (food insufficiency), with 0.9 percent reporting "often not having enough to eat" (very low food sufficiency).
Very low and low food sufficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic affected certain segments of the U.S. population more than others. From January 6–March 29, 2021, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander households (27.3 percent) and American Indian and Alaskan Native households (20.3 percent), had the highest rates of food insufficiency. Nearly 20 percent of Black and Hispanic households experienced food insufficiency during this period. Eastern Asian households (including Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese households) had lower rates of food insufficiency than other racial and ethnic groups, including White households. For most groups, food insufficiency was higher for households with children.
Disparities among ethnic groups are also seen in child food insufficiency. As of June 21, 2021, roughly 1 in 5 Black, Hispanic, and Other non-Hispanic households (19.2 percent, 22.0 percent, and 22.1 percent, respectively) reported that their children sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the past week—compared to 7.0 percent for White non-Hispanic households and 7.8 percent for Asian households. While the prevalence of child food insufficiency has declined overall from peak levels seen in December 2020, disparities have remained.
- Household Food Security in the United States in 2020
- The Food and Nutrition Assistance Landscape: Fiscal Year 2020 Annual Report
- Online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Purchasing Grew Substantially in 2020
- Updated Food Access Research Atlas Now Maps Changes in Low-Income and Low-Supermarket Access Areas in 2019
- For the Second Time in 25 Years, Annual U.S. Food Spending Declined in 2020
- Retail Food Price Inflation in 2020 Outpaced Historical Average by 75 Percent
- Working From Home Leads to More Time Spent Preparing Food, Eating at Home