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 periodically be updated as the information becomes available:

Food Spending 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 in restaurant purchases during the period March to April 2020, restaurant purchases increased during May through October 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.

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 $64 billion in October 2020. Inflation-adjusted spending on food away from home in April 2020 was 51 percent lower than April 2019—and still 14 percent lower in October 2020, compared with October 2019. Total inflation-adjusted expenditures on food were 5 percent lower in October 2020, compared with October 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 December 6, 2020, food retail sales had declined from the peak in March—but remained 8.6 percent above the same week in 2019.

Increases in the dollar value of retail food sales during 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 3.7 to 16.2 percent higher across all food categories during the week ending December 6, 2020, compared with the same week in 2019.

 

Food Prices During the Pandemic

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 might 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). This shift has instead changed to demand for grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other retailers (food at home), as well as 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 November 2020 than in 2019 for all food categories.

Food Sufficiency During the Pandemic: the Household Pulse Survey

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. Census Bureau worked with ERS and five other Federal agencies to develop the first phase of 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.

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.

  1. Enough of the kinds of food (I/we) wanted to eat
  2. Enough, but not always the kinds of food (I/we) wanted to eat
  3. Sometimes not enough to eat
  4. 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 8.9 to 11.9 percent from April 23 to December 21, 2020. During this same period, very low food sufficiency remained between 1.8 and 2.9 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 households with children and households that experienced a loss of employment income. During December 9-21, 2020, the prevalence of food insufficiency was higher for households with children (15.6 percent) than households with no children (9.5 percent). The prevalence of food insufficiency was 19.5 percent for households that reported loss of employment income, compared with 4.6 percent for households that had not lost income. Disparities by race are also apparent. The prevalence of food insufficiency was higher for Black, Hispanic, and Other/Multi-racial households compared with White and Asian households.

 

The Household Pulse Survey also collected data on household acquisitions of free groceries or free meals during each survey week. During December 9 - 21, 2020, 10 percent of respondents reported receiving free meals from school meals, food pantries, shelters or soup kitchens, or other sources.


Recent Research

Household Food Security in the United States in 2019

Data Resources

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