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Pandemic’s end unlikely to change consumers’ habits

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(© Alexander Borisenko – stock.adobe.com)

Food consumption trends created by COVID-19 will continue long after the pandemic has passed, according to a Jan. 11 panel at the 2021 American Farm Bureau Federation Virtual Convention.

“As of February 2020, only 5% of households were buying groceries online, and in March that jumped up to 30%,” said Roxi Beck, consumer engagement director for The Center for Food Integrity. She moderated the panel, which was titled “The Post-COVID Consumer: What’s Top of Mind for Them.”

“So even if half of those consumers go back, that’s still a three-time increase in terms of online shopping that took place in a matter of weeks,” Beck explained.

One Virginia agricultural expert agreed with her assessment.

“While that volume may decline in a post-COVID economy, online grocery shopping is here to stay,” said Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “We’ll likely continue to see grocers focus staffing on stocking and picking orders as opposed to cashier services. Some less-popular food items or package sizes may be very slow to return, if ever.”

Beck also noted an increase in consumer skepticism regarding food choices, but noted that isn’t necessarily bad for agricultural producers. “When people have skepticism, that means they’re paying attention, and that means they’re open to conversation,” about how and where their food is produced.

The increasingly widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines for essential workers, including food and agricultural producers, is forcing industry leaders to consider the impact this will have on farmers and food retailers.

Martha Hilton, vice president of produce and floral for Wegmans Food Markets, said consumers have figured out how to be more self-sufficient, and that may mean only celebratory-type events will see an immediate economic rebound. “I think you’ll see certainly people ready to have some entertaining and some partying that they haven’t been able to do, but I don’t know that you’ll see everything that’s happened during this time period change. People have learned how to cook at home.”

Jarod Gillig, president of business operations and supply chain for Cargill Protein North America, concurred. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand that agriculture will see. Folks will want to get out and kind of celebrate for the sake of getting back to kind of normal.”


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