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
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has significantly impacted food spending. Beginning in March 2020, efforts to limit the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) 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—restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments—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 18 percent below those in December 2019.
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 25 percent, from $63 billion in February 2020 to $79 billion in March 2020—before declining to $73 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 $35 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 21 percent lower in December 2020, compared with December 2019. Total inflation-adjusted expenditures on food were 8.8 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 16–23, 2020, than the same week in 2019. By March 7, 2021, food retail sales had declined from the peak in March 2020 to just 1.2 percent above the same week in 2020, just before the spike in retail sales.
Increases in the dollar value of retail food sales early in the pandemic were observed in every food category, with increases of 50 to 120 percent during March 16–23, 2020. After lifting of stay-at-home orders, retail food sales remained higher for some categories but were lower for others during the week ending March 7, 2021, compared with the same week in 2020.
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 it into supply channels. COVID-19 illnesses in producing regions reduced the supply of farm workers. 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 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 February 2021 than February 2020 for all food categories.
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, and were collected during August 19–October 26, 2020, for Phase 2. Phase 3 was conducted during October 28–December 21, 2020, then resumed on January 6, 2021 to continue through March 2021.
The HPS includes an indicator of food sufficiency for U.S. households.
- 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 ranged from 9.5 to 13.4 percent from April 23, 2020 to March 15, 2021. During this same period, very low food sufficiency remained between 1.8 and 3.4 percent of adults.
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 experiencing food insufficiency (sometimes or often not having enough to eat) in the previous 12 months, with 0.9 percent experiencing very low food sufficiency—a more severe condition where adults report often not having enough to eat.
Very low and low food sufficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic affected certain segments of the U.S. population more than others, particularly Black, Hispanic, and Other/multiracial households and households with children. During March 3–15, 2021, the prevalence of food insufficiency was higher for Black (19.5 percent), Hispanic (18.3 percent), and Other/Multi-racial households (16.2 percent) compared with White (6.9 percent) and Asian (6.0 percent) households. Food insufficiency was also higher for households with children (14.0 percent) than households with no children (8.0 percent).
Disparities among ethnic groups are also seen in food insufficiency among children, with up to 30.5 percent of children in Black households experiencing food insufficiency during November 25–December 7, 2020, compared to 10.1 percent for children in White non-Hispanic households that week. Children in Hispanic, Asian non-Hispanic and other non-Hispanic households experienced food insufficiency at rates in between those extremes. While the prevalence of food insufficiency for all groups declined from peak levels by March 15, 2021, the disparities remained.
The Household Pulse Survey also collected data on household acquisitions of free groceries or free meals during each survey week. During March 3–15, 2021, 8.2 percent of respondents reported receiving free food or free meals from one or more sources. The most common sources included food pantries (37 percent of free food recipients); family, friends or neighbors (28 percent of recipients); religious organizations (21 percent); and other community programs (18 percent).
- 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
- Household Food Security in the United States in 2019