COVID-19: The evolving impact on how people meet the food system
For more than two months now, the world has been living in semi-confinement and the world’s economy moving in slow motion due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Both the disease and the measures that are taken to reduce its spread have caused disturbances and disruptions in day-to-day food supply mechanisms, which are increasingly felt at all levels. The consequences of this can be severe. Early estimates predict an increase of at least 150 000 child deaths due to the indirect impacts of COVID-19 on health service delivery and childhood undernutrition . Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 135 million people experienced crisis level acute food insecurity. These individuals are at the greatest risk of experiencing the negative consequences of COVID-19 on food systems, while COVID-19 related restrictions risk pushing many more into acute hunger (FSIN 2020) .
As the impacts of the pandemic spread, the points of interaction between people and the food system – their food environments – are changing rapidly and taking on greater importance in everyday life. Lockdowns, policy responses, and COVID-19 itself are showing an evolving impact on both external and personal food environment domains, detailed in figure 1.
Left unchecked, the consequences of COVID-19’s impact on food systems range from undernutrition to overweight/ obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The role of unhealthy diets has gained heightened attention during the pandemic given people with obesity and NCDs are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill and to die from COVID-19.
But what does the evidence tell us is actually happening in practice? Much of the reporting and action related to COVID-19s impact on food environments so far has focused on external domains which lie outside of people’s sphere of influence. To better understand how people are experiencing and adapting to these changes within the personal domains of their food environment, UNSCN conducted an online survey to capture experiences from 15 to 30 April 2020. This was approximately one month after the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11. At the time, over 1.9 million cases and 123,000 deaths had been recorded. Europe was considered the epicenter of the global outbreak, but no region was immune, and billions of people were impacted by recommended lockdown measures .
How are people’s personal food environments changing during the pandemic? Convenience sampling was employed which utilized UNSCN’s existing communication networks. In total 2015 people from 118 countries, in primarily urban settings, responded. Most of them are female (70%) and around half between 25 and 44 years of age. Half of them are working or studying in nutrition, education, government, and health services. Most respondents were from Western Europe and North America (48%), followed by the Asia-Pacific Group (26%). Respondents from Africa (13%), Latin America and Caribbean (12%) and from Eastern Europe (1%) were less numerous.
Preliminary results show that at the time of the survey respondents’ food accessibility had altered noticeably and food related daily routines were the most disrupted, after work and social related activities. With strict rules placed on people’s personal movement to limit the spread of COVID-19 this is not surprising.
Among food related behavior changes related to food desirability and convenience, 2 out of 3 respondents indicated an increase in food stockpiling, likely linked to the finding that nearly half of all respondents report buying more food out of anxiety. In addition, the large majority of responses indicated facing important accessibility changes at the point of purchase. This included restricted access (81%), physical distancing measures (91%), as well as the availability of information on protective measures (89%) and responsible purchasing (70%) at the point of sale.
Home cooking appeared as the big winner of the crisis with 50% of the respondents indicating an increase in the practice, with the correspondent decrease in eating out, either in restaurants/cafeterias/bars our at family and friend’s places. Among the survey respondents, home cooking and food stockpiling seems to be accompanied by increased awareness of food waste (66%) and the promising indication that this awareness means food is not being wasted more than normally (93%). While the survey did not directly seek information on affordability of food this is an important and sensitive domain. Many people around the world are facing increased food insecurity because of reduced income and earning potential. The impacts are most prominent in areas that were already facing food insecurity before the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the surveys bias, with responses from largely higher income countries, 8% of respondents reported relying on social protection measures such as food banks, while 17% are relying on alternative sources of food such as personal and community food production.
So what can we learn from this? COVID-19 related changes in food environments have revealed the weaknesses in the system and the need for more resilience and sustainability. While great, the current challenges create opportunities. Faced with uncertainties and anxiety, people are searching for direction and reassurances in their food environments. Heightened awareness about our food environments and the foods we consume create a catalyst for change.
What can we do? Now is the time to support and enact changes in the food environment that guide people towards making more sustainable and healthy choices. This is an open window for strengthening local food systems with shorter supply chains, nutrition at their core and greater food diversity to enhance resilience and deliver healthy food for all– leaving no one behind.
On a personal level, there are many actions you can undertake that support this transformation:
- Focus on local foods – purchase from local suppliers and growers to support local businesses and shorten supply chains and strengthen our local food system
- Get adventurous in the kitchen- get to know what foods are produced in your area and experiment with new ingredients in your home cooking
- Focus on nutrition- set healthy aims like reaching five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, or using more beans and legumes in your cooking
- Get creative with leftovers- avoid food waste by making the most of what you have. Soups, casseroles and stews all make great use of leftovers.
At global level we are looking at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) who is developing Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems for Nutrition . This offers a unique opportunity for global actors to transform food systems for the better.