partly bare shelves from hoarding. grocery shopping habits
Partly bare shelves from hoarding
Wikimedia Commons

COVID-19 has changed our shopping habits. Eventually the pandemic will end, and we will return to some of our pre-pandemic habits. Some new habits, however, will become permanent. Some new habits have a good environmental impact and others appear catastrophic if we continue them. The information and recommendations here ought to remain useful once we get back to whatever normal will be.

What are the new pandemic grocery shopping habits?

Volunteers loading groceries. grocery shopping habits

Volunteers for a shopping service that allows grocery shopping over the phone to avoid risk of exposure to COVID-19
(U.S Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Christopher Madero)

According to C & R Research, we use grocery delivery services much more now and visit grocery stores less. The pandemic has induced 73% of us to make fewer trips to a grocery store. On the other hand, 15% report making more trips. People on average made 2.3 trips per week before the coronavirus outbreak where now they make only one. 

As stores experience shortages, 88% of us can’t find all the items we would normally buy and 89% agree that stores should limit the number of certain items any customer can buy. Oddly enough, 46% stock up in bulk when they can. 

The average weekly grocery spend has increased from $159 per week to $184, largely because so much has become more expensive. Half of respondents claimed to have witnessed price gouging. So only 24% of us now go out of the way to find favorite brands. For some reason, only 48% compare prices. The study does not specify pre-pandemic habits of comparing prices. 

A study by Acosta indicates that changes in shopping habits have not shown a consistent trend. Early on, people hoarded toilet paper and cleaning products. Then people started to stock up on soup, pasta, rice, and other pantry items. More recently, they increased purchase of comfort foods and prepared meals. 

Hoarding food and supplies has forced others to go without. Large-scale stockpiling of perishable foods can only increase the amount of food that we waste, which is already scandalous.

Pandemic-induced waste

Littered face mask

The coronavirus outbreak has forced people to use more single-use disposable products. When restaurants can’t allow diners to eat in, they must subsist on carry-out and delivery, with all the attendant plastic waste. Bulk bins now contain products prepackaged in plastic bags. 

For some reason, even reusable shopping bags have raised suspicion. Some stores require customers who bring them to bag their own groceries. But some won’t even allow them in the store. This shameful policy requires eco-conscious customers either to ask the clerks to load groceries in the cart without bags or shop somewhere else.

Of all the new grocery shopping habits, this one, which is imposed on everyone, probably does the most environmental damage. Let’s hope it’s one that most of us will abandon as soon as possible.

A trend toward delivery services

Use of grocery delivery services has increased 3.5 times. Using restaurant delivery services has also increased by 2.5 times. 

Delivery has environmental advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, it adds to single-use packaging, which is frequently not recyclable. I haven’t found figures on how much if at all the emissions from the delivery drivers offsets reduced driving from their customers. It may be a wash. On the other hand, many small businesses have come to depend on delivery services just to stay in business. They also provide an extra measure of safety for the immunocompromised and elderly.

The C & R report does not consider curbside delivery, but stores have hired thousands of people to shop and take purchases out to customers’ cars.

Fear can lead to strange habits, and 60% feel some kind of fear, anxiety, and even panic when they shop and 45% disinfect their groceries when they get home. For all the increase in delivery services, 59% of respondents have completely stopped ordering takeout or delivery. They don’t feel safe handling items from delivery drivers. Grocery shopping habits that come from fear do as much emotional damage as enforced wasted does environmental damage.

New eating habits during the pandemic

Our eating habits have changed, too. According to C & R,

  • 47% eat more processed foods, but 20% eat less. 
  • 36% eat less produce, but 21% eat more.
  • 26% eat less meat and poultry, but 14% eat more.

In Acosta’s survey, 56% of respondents said they were eating out less and would probably continue to eat at home  more after the pandemic ends. 

Some recommendations for good shopping and eating habits

The coronavirus outbreak has not changed  the meaning of eco-friendly  habits.

If you order takeout or delivery from a restaurant, ask the staff not to include napkins, condiments, plastic cutlery, and other items you have at home. And if you get more food than you can eat at one sitting, be sure to eat the leftovers before they spoil. 

When you visit a store, take a shopping list to avoid impulse buying. Buy only what you need so the store will have enough for everyone. Also, if the pandemic is forcing you to choose what you wouldn’t ordinarily buy, buy as little as possible until you find out whether you’ll actually eat it. 

Keep good track of what you already have on hand. It helps to have an easily visible “eat me first” area for perishable foods. When planning what to cook, take inventory of what ingredients you already have and build meals  and treats around that. 

Unless you are already in the habit of making complicated meals, stick to recipes that use no more than five ingredients (not counting herbs and spices). 

If something freezes well, make a lot of it. Eat it until you get tired of it and then dish the rest into single-serving containers and pop it in the freezer. You’ll enjoy it again in a couple of weeks or so, and you’ve already put all the effort into making it. Just put the container in the fridge the day before you plan to eat it. 

Basically, pandemic or no pandemic, good grocery shopping habits including looking to minimize packaging—and the gasoline used to run errands. Plan both your shopping and meals to minimize food waste. And be kind to store clerks you see and other customers you may not see. 

Sources:
Changes in grocery shopping habits during COVID-19 / C & R Research
Here’s what to do instead of stockpiling food during coronavirus / Chloe Skye, Earth911. April 3, 2020 
How the coronavirus pandemic is changing US grocery shopping habits / Acosta, Smart Brief. May 19, 2020

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