The retail food landscape has changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to evolve, according to a trio of industry experts.
It has been “a wild six months” since the start of the pandemic, noted Martha Hilton, vice president of produce and floral at Wegmans Food Markets, a regional supermarket chain with 103 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
“Fortunately, on the produce side, product has still been able to flow since March,” Hilton said. The company swiftly updated its mix of product offerings as consumers changed their buying decisions. Initially, at the start of the pandemic, this meant reducing the number of produce products offered as consumers cut back sharply on trips to the grocery store.
“Today consumers are buying more vegetables than before the pandemic,” Hilton said. She attributes the change in part to consumers preparing more meals at home and seeking to add a common element of restaurant dining – the pre-dinner salad – to their meals.
The dramatic shift to online food purchasing by consumers has the been the biggest growth-driver for Wegmans during the pandemic. Although Hilton acknowledges that the desire to personally select produce remains common among shoppers, “Consumers trust our produce and are willing to buy it online,” she said.
Sarah Schmidt, vice president of public affairs for milk marketing cooperative Associated Milk Producers Inc., shared insights about how consumer dining patterns have changed since the start of the pandemic.
“Prior to COVID-19, about 20% of the U.S. population ate 90% of their meals at home. Now, about 50% of households are reporting eating at home at least 90% of the time,” she said.
Schmidt also pointed to greater consumer interest in streamlined food service delivery options, time-saving meal kits and “shoppable” recipes, increased online engagement and an uptick in higher-quality foods at convenience stores as trends to watch in the future.
Sarah Little, vice president of communications at the North American Meat Institute, said changing production from food service to retail was the meat industry’s primary challenge during to the pandemic.
“Protecting and supporting workers was also critical,” Little said. This included engineering changes to facilities and deploying administrative measures like staggering shifts and educating employees on COVID-19 best practices.
Little referenced independent data from The Food and Environment Reporting Network and the New York Times showing that these industry measures (worker protections and support) are working – the number of cases of coronavirus among meat and poultry plant workers is trending down.
In addition, despite huge losses of production earlier in the pandemic, “NAMI members are producing food again at normal levels,” Little said. “In fact, since the disruptions resulted in heavier slaughter weights, cattle slaughter for the year is almost 5% below 2019 but beef production is only 2% below 2019. Hog slaughter for the year is 1.4% more than 2019 and pork production is 2.3% ahead of last year,” she added.
Hilton, Schmidt and Little addressed grassroots Farm Bureau members during Farm Bureau Virtual Target: Trust Engagement Training hosted by the American Farm Bureau and the organization's Promotion & Education Committee earlier this month.