At the shuttered Beaver Area School District on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, staff are still offering breakfasts and lunches to students who depend on free or low-cost meal programs during the week. The food is served at seven satellite locations in the district.
For the weekends, teachers and administrators are putting together backpacks of food for dozens of students who might otherwise have little to eat until Monday.
It’s a program they started before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Since then, the need has increased every week, while volunteers have had trouble finding enough packages of single-serving meals and canned soups to stuff into the backpacks.
“It’s important for our group to use brand-name foods. So often, the students that we’re working with have to go without, or have to do with less, and this is one area where we don’t want to do that,” said Beaver Area School District Superintendent Carrie Rowe.
So they have been looking for Chef Boyardee meals and cans of Campbell’s soup — items that currently are rationed at many local markets because they are in high demand during the pandemic, Rowe said.
Packaged foods — which had been in decline as Americans opted for fresher, healthier fare — have suddenly become more popular. Their long shelf life, easy preparation and relatively low cost are winning over consumers during an uncertain time, when Americans are being urged to limit grocery shopping to once a week at most and many have lost jobs, been furloughed or don’t know how long they’ll be employed.
“Even when the pandemic starts to fade away, there’s the economic impact that it had, and we just don’t know what that’s going to be,” said food industry analyst Darren Seifer of the NPD Group.
As long as Americans have to watch their food budgets, Seifer said, often-overlooked packaged food brands will have a chance to establish habits with new consumers or ones they had lost for decades.
The Campbell Soup Co., maker of not only the familiar cans of soup but Prego pasta sauce and other familiar fare, reported a more than fourfold increase in orders during a weeklong period in March. Kraft Heinz — of Kraft mac and cheese and Heinz ketchup fame, which had written down billions of dollars in brand value last year — said it is seeing sales increases, too. And Conagra, owner of brands such as Slim Jim and the frozen meal staple Healthy Choice, reported Wednesday that retail sales were up 30.6% for the week ending March 29.
“Those established branded manufacturers that consumers are incredibly familiar with had been falling out of favor,” said Erin Lash, a consumer sector analyst for Morningstar.
Rutgers University nutrition professor Diane Rigassio Radler said it seems the reasons for the reversal are emotional as well as practical.
“These are very disturbing times and very unsettled, and sometimes we reach for things that we’re familiar with,” said Radler, who said that she has maintained her healthy eating habits while social distancing. She urged others to do so, as well.
“If people can eat a well-balanced diet with healthy foods, they’ll feel better. And right now, we need to do everything we can to feel better.”
There’s a lot happening in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is here for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible.
Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.