How might COVID-19 change food purchases this summer?

How can food producers and consumers adjust in a world with COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by novel coronavirus?

People at a farmers market
Photo by Flickr photo/Michigan Municipal League, mml.org

COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by novel coronavirus, has caused much concern regarding our food supply and over the past couple months, agricultural producers and consumers alike have asked us what we think will happen during the 2020 growing season. The honest answer is, “We don’t know.” We do not have a crystal ball. However, since we have been involved in agricultural production, research, marketing, teaching, food preservation and an observer of food trends for over 40 years, we should be capable of forming an opinion. Our collective insights should count for something.

Our experience and vision is limited primarily to fresh fruit, vegetables and local market sales. Even though we cannot predict what will happen, we can share our thoughts concerning the 2020 season. Here they are.

No previous history to draw from

Our society is much different today than during the last severe pandemic (Spanish Flu of 1918 – 1920). Therefore, the food production and distribution industry has essentially no direct experience to work with. Our society is less rural, food production, distribution, marketing and eating habits are very different. For a broader picture, go to Trey Malone and Aleks Schaefer’s podcast, “Closing Bell: A Conversation with MSU Agricultural Economists.”

There will be less travel this summer

International and national long-distance travel will be reduced the next six months or more, either by government action or voluntarily by safety-conscious consumers. Consumers will still travel, but they will be traveling locally. Day or weekend trips will most likely be the trend.

A priority on “buy local”

A visit to a roadside market or farmers market will be part of many consumer’s short trips. It will be viewed as an event they can do relatively safely since many festivals and concerts where there will be large gatherings have already been cancelled. Some growers are offering pre-order and pickup from farm stands and farmers markets to further ease customer concerns. Therefore, producers selling locally and directly to consumers may see demand increase, while those marketing through brokers may see less or similar demand as previous years. We have already seen an increase interest and enrollment in CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Those interested in CSAs can find a CSA near you.

Greater unemployment and less consumer buying power

The speed at which the economy will recover is uncertain, but there is a good chance a significant portion of the workforce will be unemployed through the summer and fall months. Unemployed consumers will be looking for good ways to increase their food dollar buying power. Buying local and seasonal items could be part of their money saving strategy.

When setting prices, producers selling locally should take into consideration that the average consumer might have less money to spend but not to the extent that they undermine their own financial health. Food pantries have already seen an increase in demand, which will no doubt continue for some time. Producers should consider sending excess produce to these pantries and participate in the federally funded program to grow specifically for food pantries. Interested producers should contact their local USDA office for more details.

Increased interest in U-pick

Boy eating a strawberry in a u-pick field
Photo by gcmenezes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

U-pick probably began with farmers offering an outing to city dwellers or farmers allowing gleaners to harvest crops missed or intentionally left during the regular harvest. The former looking for entertainment and the latter looking for inexpensive food (see “The History and Evolution of Pick-Your-Own Farms” for more information). Either case fits well into the current situation.

U-pick operators are already thinking ahead as to how they can operate and maintain proper social distancing between pickers and during check in and out. If you are a frequent customer at U-pick operations, expect a more structured activity to ensure your food and you are safe.

Renewed interest in home food preservation

There are many reasons home food preserving is gaining in popularity. Some preserve food to save money, for food security or to have more control over ingredients and production practices. Whatever the reason, it is important to follow research-based, tested and food safe recipes and processes. Michigan State University Extension has developed an Online Food Preservation Course that instructs viewers on research-based methods for safely freezing, canning and drying foods at home. Canning jars have been popular garage sale items of late, but probably not this year, and new ones may be in short supply. Those planning to can should get jars, lids and other supplies soon.

 

Fewer dollars spent on dining out

An abrupt, extreme shift in food service occurred when dine-in restaurants, schools and universities closed. The average consumer probably does not grasp the enormity of this change. Our food buying and consuming habits have been well-studied. Since 2010, over half of the family food budget has gone to eating outside the home with the average person eating out four to five times a week. To have this sudden shift placed a tremendous burden on the established supply chain. That is why grocery stores struggled to keep stores supplied with some items.

People sitting at outdoor restaurant

What will happen in this area is hard to tell. Once restrictions are lifted, there could be a big demand on restaurants as consumers strive to return to a more normal life. However, there will still be some amount of social distancing at least for the near future. This will mean fewer tables and many eat-in restaurants may not open until they can have full operation. The restaurant business relies on volume and quick turnover to make a profit and to operate below full capacity may not be possible for some.

The food service industry is also a big user of fresh product, especially vegetables. Depending on how quickly consumers return to restaurants, we may see a decrease in fresh fruit and vegetable demand and an increase in prepared or pre-packaged fruits and vegetables.

Social distancing in confined areas may be in place for an extended period for identified high-risk groups. Either this could be self or government imposed. Those 65 and older and those with complicating health issues represent a significant amount of population and a significant amount of buying power.

Many of these points are interrelated—one leads to the other. How consumer’s food purchasing and eating habits temporarily or permanently change will be interesting and important to observe. However, it will cause much frustration at least in the short term for food producers since the only reference they have when it comes to how much to plant and potential income is their recent history, and they have no history on this type of event. For some producers, this frustration may lead them to explore different or multiple business models for marketing their produce, which in the long term might be a good thing.

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