A cluster of pneumonia illnesses in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, from an unknown cause was first reported in December 2019. In January 2020, the cause was identified and, later, designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) resulting in an infection named COVID-19.
WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, and by November 2020, 218 countries and territories were affected by the illness. Since April 2020, many of these countries have instituted strategies to control virus spread so that sudden and large increases in infections needing hospitalization would not tax their medical care capacities. A study published in the Journal of Infection in April 2020 reported that this attempt at “flattening the curve” will reduce case fatality rates. Countries highly encouraged—and mandated in some areas—physical distancing of at least six feet between people, wearing face coverings when physical distancing is not guaranteed, strict hand hygiene, avoiding touching the eyes, nose, and mouth, and good respiratory hygiene (sneezing or coughing on a disposable tissue or bent elbow).
Additional practices include avoiding contact with symptomatic persons, sheltering those who are highly vulnerable (i.e., the elderly, especially those with compromised immune systems), limiting crowd sizes, identifying risky venues and activities, and other strategies, depending on the operations and policy makers. These restrictions reflected and magnified real consumer fears about personal health and safety and financial health. Consumers continue to eat during a pandemic, but consumption of food and beverage is also impacted by the virus.
Because of nationwide shelter-at-home orders during the pandemic, about 40% of U.S. consumers cook at home more often. Approximately 49% of this group expects to keep cooking at home after the pandemic.
In April 2020, The Hartman Group conducted their “Eating Occasions Compass” survey, recruiting approximately 2,500 U.S. adults aged 18 to 73 from the major demographics. Several studies were completed to determine the impact of COVID-19 on eating relative to their cultural values/beliefs, social/political/economic forces, the different media and social networks, what people need for food and beverage, and their behaviors and habits. This article focuses on consumer eating and buying behavior during the pandemic as primarily reported by this organization.
For the majority of consumers prior to the pandemic, dinner was the meal most frequently eaten (80%), followed by lunch (70%) and breakfast (64%). Some consumers also ate an afternoon snack (38%) or an after-dinner snack (32%). American consumers retained the same eating occasions during the pandemic, at approximately the same frequency. In consecutive order during the day, the eating occasions are the early morning snack, breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, after-dinner snack, and late-night meal/snack.
Effects of Isolation
To arrest the spread of the coronavirus, most countries isolated themselves from other countries, and residents were instructed or mandated to follow quarantining practices. Most office workers were told to work from home. Venues with high close-contact activities (such as restaurants, fitness centers, salons, travel, banks, schools, and houses of worship) were closed, and residents were severely restricted from using many services. A new term—“untact”—was introduced in South Korea to describe services that minimize direct person-to-person contact, such as online purchasing and payment, self-service counters, videoconferencing, and distance learning. Buffets and hot bars were quickly converted to untact services such as complete meal kits and take outs.
Before the pandemic, approximately 76% of consumers ate at home, and the remaining 24% ate at work, in restaurants, and at other locations outside the home. During the pandemic, eating at home increased to 88%, reducing eating anywhere away from home to 12%, half of what it was before the pandemic. Morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner are eating occasions that now happen significantly more at home, due to increased unemployment and work-at-home strategies or mandates. Generation X (those born from 1965 to 1976) experienced the largest decrease in eating at work during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, U.S. consumers were more likely to eat alone during early morning snack, breakfast, morning snack, and lunch times when they hurriedly prepared to go to work or were already at work. Although about 43% still ate alone during the pandemic, U.S. consumers are more likely to eat with others (e.g., family, significant others) at these eating occasions. Approximately 88% of snack consumption now occurs at home, and snacks are mostly ready-to-eat items.