Published November 23, 2020
Changes to America’s retail food system during the COVID-19 pandemic are increasing food insecurity and health disparities, particularly for lower-income communities and communities of color, according to a new paper published by a UB researcher in a special issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“It will not only be important to study the direct impact of changes to the retail food environment during the pandemic, but to look at the implications for building more resilient food systems following the pandemic,” says lead author Lucia A. Leone, assistant professor of community health and health behavior, School of Public Health and Health Professions.
Leone’s is one of nine papers and commentaries in the journal issue examining the importance of research and evaluation of retail strategies to support healthy eating.
“This groundbreaking special issue is the result of a collaborative effort between food retail and public health experts to determine research priorities that will help support healthy eating in places where Americans shop,” says Megan Lott, deputy director of Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This is especially urgent as the pandemic continues to affect the food retail environment and access to healthy food.”
The special journal issue also is accompanied by a new report that outlines a national research agenda on promoting healthy food in the retail environment.
The journal issue and report, both funded by Healthy Eating Research, mark the culmination of efforts led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Healthy Eating Research, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Food Trust to build consensus around key research priorities for healthy food retail practices.
In the report, the authors conclude that public health and industry experts must work together to counter growing food insecurity and disparities by developing retail strategies and best practices that build a more equitable and healthful food system.
The issue is especially timely as a growing number of American families face food challenges as a result of the pandemic. With food supply chain disruptions, shortened store shopping hours and limitations in getting food from restaurants and school cafeterias, families in the United States struggling with food insecurity have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the paper on healthy food retail during the pandemic.
Pre-pandemic, food insecurity — or limited, uncertain access to adequate food for a household — affected 11% of families in the U.S., but has since soared to a record 23%. Communities of color are disproportionately affected, with an estimated 38% of Black households now experiencing food insecurity.
In March 2020, spending on food prepared outside the home was 51% lower than in March the prior year. Online grocery ordering surged at the initial onset of the pandemic. However, most online retailers could not accept payment cards from consumers relying on federal food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
While some consumers turned to meal delivery services, such services are often expensive for budget-strained families or unavailable in more rural communities. And as grocery stores dealt with sporadic shortages of food on their shelves, some customers began stockpiling food, worsening food inequities for those who could not afford to travel to multiple stores or make bulk purchases.
Part of the response to these challenges has been through policy changes, such as Congress’s expansion of SNAP online purchasing at more retailers. Congress also allowed states to provide additional SNAP benefits to families with children who would normally receive free or reduced-price meals in school.
At the local level, governments passed policies and allocated funds for efforts such as home delivery for vulnerable populations and emergency feeding programs such as grab-n-go meal sites during school closures. And, many retailers instituted limits on the quantities of shelf-stable goods consumers could purchase during one shopping trip to help address food shortages.
In the special journal issue and research agenda report, the authors cover key aspects such as the food retail environment and industry practices, consumer food shopping patterns, effectiveness of retail interventions to support healthy eating and the future of food retail research.
The papers also delve into more specific topics, among them the influence of online food and grocery shopping on dietary behaviors, the effects of sugary drink marketing and stocking practices on consumption, disparities in packaged food purchases between urban and rural households, and policies to increase healthy food purchases in supermarkets.
Americans consume three times more calories from supermarket and retail purchases than from purchases made at other places outside the home, such as restaurants and schools, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, diet-related chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, continue to serve as leading causes of death in the nation.
The special journal issue and accompanying research agenda report aim to bring attention to the importance of research and evaluation of retail strategies to improve public health following years of efforts and a recent convening of 46 expert stakeholders representing a wide range of academia, government, advocacy groups, and food and retail industry.
“With smart, research-backed policies and strategies, we can create a positive impact on health, starting in the food aisles,” says Breanne Wright, senior scientist at the CSPI. “We are proud to partner with researchers, retailers, funders, advocates and others who share our vision for a food system that prioritizes health.”