Our relationship with food locked down

25 July 2020

The national lockdown introduced many new restrictions on our modern life and has changed our relationship with food and each other. Many have traded the convenience of fast food for the cost-effectiveness of home-cooked meals. Others have lost the ability to feed themselves entirely.

For some time now the narrative around food has been driven around “snackification” and convenience. It made sense: busy lives required an on-the-go answer that delivered quality and appropriately nutritious food products to meet demand.

Traditionally, the triggers of food behaviours are largely driven by a set of nudges that include macro-factors (the economy, social system and media) as well as micro-influencers (family, peer group and education). These come together to affect food choices. When these external factors shift, so does the way we think about and behave around food.

The shift caused by Covid-19 has naturally had a considerable effect on these triggers. It goes without saying that our relationship with food has changed since the lockdown. We’ve all seen the memes: the home-made banana bread (which is really just whole bananas stuck into a loaf of bread), the “simply-use-what’s-in-your-pantry” baked beans on toast. These are the faces of lockdown cooking and baking. They’re funny, but they also reveal deeper structural shifts driven by new realities of our economy and society.

It has become common to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed lives and livelihoods for some time to come. More critically, this comes with unintended consequences and real shifts in our everyday relationship with food. Equally, a change in our relationship with food brings with it shifts in the nutritional profile of homes and families.

Key nudges that underpin these most recent shifts include three key factors:

Entertaining and snacking

Increased time at home has evolved the use of food into a source of entertainment and changed the way we snack.

Recipe searches peaked in popularity (a value of 100 on Google Trends) on April 5 and trended throughout the month, with baking being a huge trend and categories such as cake mixes seeing 65.2% value growth.

People are baking more and cooking more. Instead of ordering out for sushi, they’re buying and cooking in bulk for the week.

Snack sales — specifically chips, nuts and dried fruit — have risen 24.3% over a three-month period compared to a year ago.

People are snacking more, but the convenience culture around “snackification” has changed. Rather than eating on the go, people are sharing snacks at home. By way of an example, we saw a 26.1% rise in sales in a three-month period (from March to May) for the typically shared-at-home chocolate slabs category compared to the prior year.

Healthier choices

Although entertainment drives new behaviours, it is not at the expense of the right choices. The increased visibility on health has also shifted views of what makes up our pantries and how we use these items. Healthier foods, such as breakfast cereals, have seen a 22.6% increase in sales.

Dramatically evolving landscape

Media attention on Covid-19 has shifted consumption behaviours, initially in terms of panic buying and stockpiling, but increasingly in terms of what is considered an essential item.

Essential handwashing or sanitising before consuming a meal has become a de facto new routine. Household cleaning/sanitary sales have jumped double digits to 10.5% value growth, and hand sanitisers and soaps have risen by 45.3% (peaking in March at 65.9%) compared to a year ago.

Added to this, and perhaps most importantly, we should never underestimate the role of the economy. Recent research shows that a loss of income and retrenchments are more top of mind than the spread of the actual virus itself, although most South Africans agreed with the government’s lockdown measures when they began.

The survey also showed that half of all consumers, particularly in upper income brackets, were spending significantly less because of fewer shopping opportunities.

Low-income households spent most of their money at the beginning of the lockdown on food, groceries and household essentials.

At the lower end of the income spectrum, some have gone without food altogether as they struggle to simply pay their rent.

Nutrition and health

The lockdown has also highlighted the link between nutrition and health. Nearly 13% of South Africans suffer from diabetes, about 70% of women and 40% of men are overweight or obese, and half the population is food insecure or at risk of food insecurity. Those with access to food often eat too much, and those without access to food cannot eat enough to sustain themselves.

In the face of massive job losses, South African consumers have been pulling together during lockdown and are returning to basics, preparing comforting and nutritious food on strict and often shrinking household budgets. In spite of the privations that the lockdown has brought, family bonds have been tested and often strengthened.

This is an extraordinary time for us all, and it has highlighted the need for food businesses to remain connected to consumers. Perhaps the challenges of Covid-19 will mean collective re-evaluation of healthy and cost-effective eating that live long into the future. If the lockdown has taught us anything about food, it is that we need a more considered relationship with it. The price we pay for a single convenience meal could mean a week’s worth of food for an entire family.

Of course, eating out is a big part of how we connect, and supporting restaurants means supporting many livelihoods in that supply chain. But we can all learn to waste less, choose our foods more wisely and get more out of our meals. We can all learn to be more conscious of those who cannot sustain themselves. Food can entertain us, sustain us, and be a source of great charity to each other.

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