Food in the Time of Coronavirus

After the initial photographic binge of empty supermarket shelves, open social media today and you’re sure to be bombarded with images of perfectly risen sourdough loaves. The global coronavirus pandemic is impacting on every aspect of our lives, but how is it affecting how we think about food and what we eat? Over the last week or so I received over eighty responses to these questions from those living in varying degrees of lockdown. Here’s what you reported.

Following the well documented period of panic-buying in the UK, several people in the survey reported a lack of fresh products, like vegetables, fruit, and especially meat and fish. With the government advising that we take less frequent shopping trips – and only to pick up essential supplies – it seems logical that many are stocking up on longer lasting foodstuffs, but this has also made it harder for some to find dried pasta and flour.

Those with existing health issues have been particularly negatively affected by the pandemic. One participant described, for example, how a history of an eating disorder means that they now ‘have to be extra conscious of managing the disordered thoughts I have around food’. The general sense that food is more scarce than before, they explain, could lead them to take up a more restrictive diet than necessary. Dorothy, dealing with problems with her health arising from having been shot in 1989 in a New York nightclub, feels ‘a bit nervous’ about the availability of food, given that she needs to adopt a paleo-style diet. More broadly, the economic fallout of the pandemic has pushed an increased number of people into food insecurity. Food banks are warning that 1.5 million adults in Britain believe they are unable to obtain enough food. This comes as the UK government begins its emergency food parcel scheme.[1]

On the positive side, now that more of us are at home there is more time for us to cook and bake. As one person reported, ‘With me working from home all the time and my husband working heavily reduced hours, we have been spending a lot more time cooking more labour intensive, long-cook meals together’. Some people have even been growing their own vegetables as a backup should food supplies fail, in a way seemingly reminiscent of the famous ‘Dig for Victory’ campaigns of the Second World War. For many, gardening is also a relaxing pastime, far from the usual bustle of modern life, which offers a way of reconnecting to nature.

‘Dig On for Victory’ poster by Peter Fraser during WW2. The British Ministry of Agriculture encouraged people to grow their own food and transform any open spaces possible to make them suitable for this purpose. Image in the public domain, via the National Archives, London.

If some of us are snacking more in response to the boredom of being confined to the house, or comfort eating to try to alleviate heightened anxieties, others are rationing food to eat only that which is necessary and seeking to reduce food waste. As one anonymous contributor wrote, ‘The food shortages have made me think more practically about what I eat in terms of prioritising perishable food above non-perishable’. This might include, for example, using up fresh tomatoes rather than tinned tomatoes in a recipe, since the latter can be stored for future use.

Faced with a cupboard of year-old kidney beans and half-used packets of lentils, many of us are enjoying being more creative in the kitchen. Karen, for instance, reported being ‘more willing to experiment with foods I’ve already got in the house for meals’, and Dorothy has challenged herself to eat things that she doesn’t normally like, leading to a new-found love of ‘sweet potatoes and frozen peas’!

So what does the future of food look like post- coronavirus? Like everything at the moment, the answer is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that in a nation used to excess, the pandemic has brought issues of food security, food waste, and food inequality to the forefront of our minds. Hopefully, as the charity ‘Food Ethics Council’ advocates, this will be an opportunity to ‘reset how our food systems work’, to make them more sustainable in order to respond better to the environmental challenges that we are facing, and to distribute food more fairly across society.[2]

Thank you for your initial responses to the survey – please do continue to log how the pandemic is affecting what you eat and how you think about food here!

Published 09/04/2020