The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just changed our lives; it has also changed our diets. Research conducted during the pandemic showed that 85 percent of adults have changed their eating habits since the start of the pandemic, with increased snacking and higher quantities of food as the most frequently reported changes. One study found that these shifts have led to even greater feelings of anxiety.
“The pandemic has come with a great deal of unknowns, stress, isolation, anxiety, and challenges,” said Alicia Romano, a registered dietitian (RD) for Tufts Medical Center. “It’s not surprising that the way individuals are eating is different.”
Supermarkets are stepping in to help. Over the course of the last year, regional grocers including ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Hy-Vee, and Giant Food have launched virtual nutrition services—some targeted to low-income shoppers—that include cooking demonstrations, online classes, virtual store tours, and one-on-one chats with registered dietitians who can answer questions and provide advice about menu planning, shopping on a budget, and making healthier food choices.
In May 2020, Kroger launched a free “telenutrition” service to help shoppers plan healthy meals during the pandemic after their data showed increases in baking, eating comfort foods, purchasing packaged foods, and snacking during quarantine. During these two-way video chats, trained dietitians share food, grocery, and nutrition information with customers and help them develop a plan for meeting their personal nutrition goals.
Studies have shown that supermarket tours increase interest in eating fruits and vegetables, and in-store interventions, including advice for food swaps—switching from sugar-laden sodas to fruit-infused waters, for example, or trading traditional pasta for chickpea pasta—had changed their purchasing habits and could be part of successful public health interventions to improve health. Consulting with a dietitian is also associated with improvements in diet quality, weight loss outcomes, and diabetes control.
“These services are a great way to educate consumers in a productive way,” Romano says.
While supermarkets offered similar services before the pandemic, quarantine triggered a transition to virtual services—and the online offerings are even more popular than the in-store offerings. The GIANT Company, a supermarket chain that operates stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, declined to provide participation data, but regional nutritionist Holly Doan said class attendance has been increasing each month.
For Black, Latinx, and Native American consumers, hurdles to accessing healthcare and affordable, nutritious foods are key factors to the disproportionate rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related chronic disease—all comorbidities to COVID-19. New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that disparities in nutrition access and obesity might have played a role in higher rates of COVID-19 infections, more hospitalizations, and poorer health outcomes from the virus.
Elisa Sloss, the vice president of health markets for the Midwest supermarket chain Hy-Vee, sees supermarkets as ideal providers of nutrition information. “Grocery stores are really the best place to meet with a dietitian because it’s the frontline of where our food decisions are made and where people have the most questions,” she said.
In recent years, grocery retailers have been gathering data from shoppers and using it to retain them and increase their spending. Now, those goals are becoming increasingly urgent—especially for supermarkets that may have lost customers to online shopping.
“The pandemic has catalyzed in a big way a trend that was happening anyway—the death of traditional retail,” said Jean-Pierre Dubé, the Sigmund E. Edelstone Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “People are finding for a lot of stuff—especially things they buy on a regular basis, like groceries—they’re not as wed to the physical store.”
COVID-19 Changed Shopping Habits
A number of factors have shifted shopping habits since COVID-19 took hold.
Doan believes pandemic fatigue has caused shoppers to lose interest in healthy cooking and eating. “As the pandemic has lingered, meal preparation has become a daunting task,” she said. “What once was exciting—to get in the kitchen and experiment with new recipes—has lost its luster, which can lead to increased takeout, skipping meals, and lack of meal balance.”
The pandemic has also made some shoppers dread their weekly trips to the supermarket. One survey found that half of consumers felt stressed about shopping in the store, causing them to purchase groceries less often; the survey also associated less frequent shopping trips with fewer fresh food purchases.
Economic stress has also played a role in altering shopping habits. The national unemployment rate is 6.0 percent, though the rates are much higher in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities—9.6 percent for the Black community and 7.9 percent for Latinx shoppers. With less income, many people struggle to fill their carts with enough nutritious foods to feed their families.