The COVID-19 pandemic changed almost every aspect of normal life, including the way we buy food.

As grocery stores remained open as a core business and flourished financially throughout the pandemic, this prosperity did not translate into a steady and sufficient supply of food for many customers. Researchers have found that, on average, people went to the grocery store less often and spent more on travel during the pandemic.

Ran Xu, professor of allied health sciences at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, was interested to see if this trend applied to people who are not safe in food. COVID-19 exacerbated food insecurity for many people. Job losses related to the pandemic and other factors also led to an increase in overall food insecurity rates.

“Because of how COVID-19 hit the economy, more people were suddenly insecure about food, and we needed more research on that,” Xu says.

Xu and co-workers recently published a paper on Public health which assessed how perceived risk aversion, lack of resources, and consumer food safety status influenced food procurement behaviors during this moment of national strife. They found that as food-safe individuals, food-insecure individuals made fewer trips to grocery stores due to concerns about COVID-19 contracting. But unlike food-safe individuals, they did not increase travel costs.

“We think this is a serious issue that shows that COVID-19 affects different populations differently,” says Xu. “The findings we have are troubling.”

The researchers focused on food insecure individuals who have significant financial difficulties in securing food.

They measured food insecurity according to two measures from the longest USDA food insecurity survey. They asked respondents if they were worried that their food supply would end before they had money to buy more and if the food they bought just did not last and they did not have the money to get more.

The researchers then assessed participants’ behaviors in purchasing food, such as the types of stores they patronize, the frequency of travel, and the average cost of food. They compared these measures with their pre-pandemic buying experience.

Their results showed that, out of 2,500 respondents from across the country, food-safe individuals tended to spend more on travel in food collection, reduce their potential for exposure to COVID-19, and prepare for food shortages. But food insecure individuals could not be prepared in the same way as they had much more limited budget and resources. Although food-insecure people made fewer trips to food shopping due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, unlike food-safe people, they did not increase travel costs.

The team conducted the study in May 2020, during the peak of the US pandemic

These findings show that the pandemic exacerbated the inequality between food-safe people and insecure people.

Food insecurity has serious health consequences. Lack of access or lack of reliable access to nutritious foods contributes to a host of diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“Food has everything to do with our health,” says Xu. “Food insecurity adds another layer to this.”


University of Connecticut

Diary reference:

Wang, Y., etc. (2021) Perception of risk and lack of resources in food procurement during the early outbreak of COVID-19. Public health.