COVID-19

The pandemic economy is changing the way Americans buy groceries

Kimberly Adams Aug 21, 2020
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A man shops for groceries at a Seattle supermarket. The downturn has propelled millions of Americans into the federal nutrition assistance program. Karen Ducey/Getty Images
COVID-19

The pandemic economy is changing the way Americans buy groceries

Kimberly Adams Aug 21, 2020
Heard on:
A man shops for groceries at a Seattle supermarket. The downturn has propelled millions of Americans into the federal nutrition assistance program. Karen Ducey/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we shop for food.

More of us are eating at home, and more of us are out of work and struggling to find ways to pay for necessities.

With extra unemployment benefits running out and food prices going up, the grocery stores of America, and shoppers themselves, are going to face some hard decisions.

Despite the economic downturn, many of us are spending more at the grocery store, stocking up in the panic-buying days or just buying more because we are eating at home more.

And thanks to expanded federal relief benefits, consumers have been able to pretty much keep buying the types of products they want.

But Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, said that’s unlikely to continue.

“In our numbers, 40% of people were telling us that they were very pessimistic about their finances,” Corlett said. “But many of them were being supported by a stimulus check or additional weekly unemployment payments, so it delayed the financial crisis.”

The downturn has propelled millions of Americans onto SNAP — the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Joan Driggs, a vice president at analytics firm IRI who follows the grocery industry, said typically, those benefits account for about $100 billion a year in grocery spending.

“But with all the increased unemployment, we’re looking at an additional, like, $20 billion increase in SNAP spend coming up,” she said.

And in addition to more people using the program, they are using it in different ways. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded the number of states where people can use SNAP to buy groceries online, like at Amazon or Walmart, although delivery fees aren’t covered.

“The ability to shop with SNAP benefits online really brings that convenience to households that hadn’t had that before,” Driggs said.

According to the USDA, in March just 35,000 SNAP households were buying groceries online. In July, it was close to a million.

In the meantime, there’s additional strain on family budgets. Higher food prices, for one, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

“They’re probably paying more for the same amount that they were trying to get before,” Waxman said. “The other thing that families have mentioned to me is that the cost of [personal protective equipment] has typically eaten into their food budget.”

Budgets waiting for more federal relief, if there’s ever a deal.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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