Food and Consumers

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to significant changes in U.S. consumers’ food-spending patterns. In general, consumers increased their expenditures on food from grocery stores and other retail food establishments, while they decreased food-away-from-home expenditures. In addition, many consumers stocked up on some groceries to avoid perceived shortages and to reduce their potential exposure to the virus by reducing 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 be updated periodically, as the information becomes available:

Food Spending During the Pandemic

August 2021 expenditures at food-away-from-home establishments—restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues, and other eating-out establishments—exceeded spending at food-at-home retailers for the fifth straight month, after trailing at-home expenditures in each month since March 2020, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus included stay-at-home orders that led to significant changes in U.S. consumers’ food-spending patterns. Following a sharp decline during March to April 2020 in food-away-from-home spending, such purchases increased during May through December 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. Expenditures on food-away-from-home establishments in December 2020 remained 19 percent below those in December 2019. (See For the Second Time in 25 Years, Annual U.S. Food Spending Declined in 2020).

Analysis of data from the ERS Food Expenditure Series found expenditures at grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores, and other retailers (i.e., food at home) increased 26 percent, from $64 billion in February 2020 to $80 billion in March 2020—before declining to $74 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 $36 billion in April 2020, a drop of 48 percent, then rose to $59 billion in December 2020. Inflation-adjusted spending on food away from home in April 2020 was 51 percent lower than April 2019—and still 22 percent lower in December 2020, compared with December 2019. Total inflation-adjusted expenditures on food were 9 percent lower in December 2020, compared with December 2019.

The 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 with 57 percent higher food-at-home sales during March 16–22, 2020, than the same week in 2019. After the COVID-19 pandemic reached a duration of more than 1 year, the Weekly Retail Food Sales data series added a comparison to food sales during the same week 2 years earlier to provide a pre-pandemic baseline that accounts for seasonality. By August 22, 2021, the value of food retail sales was 17.2 percent above the same week in 2019.

By August 16–22, 2021, the pandemic had continued for more than 1 year and the overall value of retail food sales was higher compared with the same week in 2020, with substantial variation among food categories. Although retail sales values of sugar and sweeteners, vegetables, and alcohol were lower than the same week in 2020, retail sales values of all other categories were higher.

Compared with the same week in 2019, the value of retail food sales during the week ending August 22, 2021, was higher in every food category.

Food Prices During the Pandemic

Food-price changes during the coronavirus 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 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. Similarly, meat processors faced labor shortages (due to illness) and implemented health protocols that may 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 the August 2020 edition of Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook).

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 September 2021 than September 2020 for all categories. The highest price increases were for beef and veal (17.6 percent) and pork (12.7 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 in the 1930s. (see Unemployment 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).

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 ERS and other Federal agencies to develop 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; for Phase 2 during August 19–October 26, 2020; for Phase 3.0 during October 28, 2020–March 29, 2021; for Phase 3.1 during April 14–July 5, 2021; and for Phase 3.2 during July 21 through September 13, 2021. The 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.

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) rose from about 10 percent in August and September 2020 to 13.4 percent as of December 21, 2020, before declining to 8.0 percent as of April 26, 2021. Food insufficiency had increased to 9.6 percent as of June 21, 2021 before declining to 8.4 percent in September 2021. Very low food sufficiency has followed a similar pattern and was estimated at 2.2 percent in September 2021.

Data from the Household Pulse Survey and other sources are not entirely comparable (for more information, see the technical documentation on the HPS from the Census Bureau). As such, there is not a directly comparable measure of food insufficiency prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 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. In the December 2020 Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement, 3.5 percent of U.S. households reported what best described the food situation of their household over the previous 12 months was "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–March 29, 2021, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander households (27.3 percent) and American Indian and Alaskan Native households (20.3 percent), had the highest rates of food insufficiency. Nearly 20 percent of Black and Hispanic households experienced food insufficiency during this period. 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 among ethnic groups are also seen in child food insufficiency. As of September 13, 2021, 20.8 percent of Black households and 19.1 percent of Hispanic households reported their children sometimes or often did not have enough to eat during the past week—compared with 5.9 percent for White non-Hispanic households and 6.1 percent for Asian households. The prevalence of child food insufficiency for Other non-Hispanic households is lower than reported in June 2021 but, at 13.7 percent, is more than double that of White non-Hispanic and Asian households. Although the prevalence of child food insufficiency has declined, disparities have remained.

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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