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COVID-19

During lockdown, packaged comfort foods are back

Nova Safo Apr 8, 2020
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Craving something salty and familiar during the pandemic? You're not alone. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
COVID-19

During lockdown, packaged comfort foods are back

Nova Safo Apr 8, 2020
Craving something salty and familiar during the pandemic? You're not alone. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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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.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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