Food and Consumers

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to significant changes in U.S. consumers’ food spending patterns in early 2020, with a return to pre-pandemic spending patterns that continued through 2021. While closures of restaurants and nonessential businesses contributed to record unemployment increases during March and April 2020, unemployment fell to below pre-pandemic levels by December 2021. Although income and employment improved, some U.S. households continue to face difficulties obtaining adequate food, particularly in the face of increasing food prices.

Through a variety of data products, USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) monitors the pandemic’s effects on food spending, food prices, and food sufficiency.

These sections will be updated periodically as the information becomes available:

Food Spending During the Pandemic

March 2022 expenditures at food-away-from-home establishments—i.e., restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments—approached the record level seen in July 2021. Such food expenditures remained higher than pre-pandemic levels after their steep decline in March 2020, the beginning of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In March 2020, efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 included stay-at-home orders that led to significant changes in U.S. consumers’ food spending patterns. Following a sharp decline during March–April 2020, food-away-from-home spending returned to pre-pandemic levels by March 2021. Food-away-from-home spending outpaced food-at-home spending in each month since January 2021, returning to the pattern seen during each month of 2019. Total food expenditures presented year-to-year increases from March 2021 through March 2022. Food spending patterns in 2021 reflect the effects of the increased reopening of restaurants and increases in household income with economic recovery.

Analyzing data from the USDA, ERS Food Expenditure Series found expenditures at restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments (i.e., food away from home) fell from $79 billion in February 2020 to $63 billion in March 2020 and $42 billion in April 2020. In the span of 2 months, food-away-from-home spending dropped by 47 percent but recovered to slightly exceed food-at-home expenditures again in September 2020. Food-away-from-home spending remained lower than at-home spending through the rest of 2020 before reaching $76 billion in January 2021 and remained higher than food-at-home spending in each month of 2021. Food-at-home expenditures rose sharply starting in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic and remained higher than 2019 levels, setting a new record of $91 billion in December 2021. Inflation-adjusted spending on food away from home in April 2020 was 47 percent lower than April 2019—but by April 2021 spending recovered to exceed the pre-pandemic record set in August 2019. Food-away-from-home spending remained strong in March 2022 at 6.0 percent higher compared with pre-pandemic March 2019. Total inflation-adjusted expenditures on food were 5.9 percent higher in March 2022 compared with March 2019.

The USDA, ERS Weekly Retail Food Sales data series provides a more current and detailed picture of food-at-home retail sales. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, retail food sales rose sharply and peaked during March 16–22, 2020, with 57 percent higher food-at-home sales compared with the same week in 2019. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued into 2022, the Weekly Retail Food Sales data series added a comparison of food sales with the same week 3 years earlier to provide a pre-pandemic baseline accounting for seasonality. By May 1, 2022, the value of food retail sales was 18.9 percent above the same week in 2019. In contrast, the volume of food retail sales was 2.4 percent above the same week in 2019, with the difference between changes in sales value and volume likely reflecting food price increases.

By the week of May 1, 2022, the pandemic had continued for over 2 years and a comparison to the previous year provides insights into changes in sales within the pandemic period. The overall value of retail food sales was higher compared with the same week in 2021 as a whole and in all food categories except alcohol—with substantial variation among categories.

Compared with the same week in 2019, the value of retail food sales during the week ending May 1, 2022, was higher in every food category.

Food Prices During the Pandemic

Food price changes early in the COVID-19 pandemic partly reflected the impact of illnesses and safety measures on labor supply and productivity in the United States. For example, most fresh-market vegetable growers rely on seasonal labor to produce crops 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.

More recently, food price changes may reflect higher costs for labor and energy as well as supply-chain challenges and international trade conditions. For more information, see the May 2022 edition of Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook).

The USDA, 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 retail price changes of food over time. Retail food prices were higher in April 2022 than April 2021 for all categories. The highest price increases were for eggs (22.6 percent), poultry (15.3 percent), and fats and oils (15.3 percent).

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 COVID-19 contributed to a surge in U.S. unemployment not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. For more information, see Unemployment and Employment During the Pandemic and Prevalence of food insecurity and very low food security by education, employment, disability status, and by labor force characteristics resulting from the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While unemployment declined to historic lows, concern for ongoing effects of the pandemic on households remains.

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 USDA, ERS and other Federal agencies to develop the Household Pulse Survey (HPS). The HPS is a weekly online survey asking respondents about educational, employment, health, housing, and food-related outcomes. Data were collected for Phase 1 of HPS during April 23–July 21, 2020; Phase 2 during August 19–October 26, 2020; Phase 3.0 during October 28, 2020–March 29, 2021; Phase 3.1 during April 14–July 5, 2021; Phase 3.2 during July 21–October 11, 2021; Phase 3.3 during December 1, 2021–February 7, 2022; and Phase 3.4 during March 2–May 9, 2022. HPS includes an indicator of food sufficiency for U.S. households as well as an indicator of child food sufficiency.

  • Food insufficiency means a household did not have enough food to eat sometimes or often in the last 7 days.
  • Low food sufficiency means a household did not have enough to eat sometimes in the last 7 days.
  • Very low food sufficiency means a household did not have enough to eat often in the last 7 days.

For more information about the difference between food insufficiency and food insecurity, see Food Security in the United States Measurement.

Measuring Food Insufficiency

The food sufficiency item in 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 and 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, meaning 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—peaked at 13.4 percent as of December 21, 2020, before declining to about 8.0 percent in August 2021. Food insufficiency increased to 11.0 percent as of May 9, 2022. Very low food sufficiency was estimated at 3.0 percent in May 2022.

Data from the Household Pulse Survey and other sources are not entirely comparable (for more information, see the Household Pulse Survey Technical Documentation from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census). As such, there is not a directly comparable measure of food insufficiency prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA, ERS monitors the annual prevalence of food insecurity in U.S. households with data from the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement. These data also include the food sufficiency question, but with a 12-month reference period. According to the December 2020 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement, 3.5 percent of U.S. households described their household’s food situation over the previous 12 months as "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–September 27, 2021, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander households (21.0 percent) and American Indian and Alaskan Native households (18.8 percent) had the highest rates of food insufficiency. Black (17.3 percent) and Hispanic households (16.0 percent) experienced high rates of food insufficiency during this period as well. 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 across racial and ethnic groups are also seen in child food insufficiency. As of May 9, 2022, 29.2 percent of Black households, 23.8 percent of Hispanic households, and 17.1 percent of households in all other racial/ethnic groups (“Other non-Hispanic”) reported their children sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the past week—compared with 8.2 percent for White, non-Hispanic households and 10.5 percent for Asian households. Although the prevalence of child food insufficiency declined since peaking in December 2020, disparities remain.

Additional statistics on household food security in the United States in 2020 are available: see Key Statistics and Graphics and Interactive Charts and Highlights.

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