Kimchi or hungry? How Covid-19 has widened the food divide

While wealthier households have expanded their culinary horizons during lockdown, for millions of people the story of food and Covid-19 is one of desperation – and neither is good news for foodservice, writes Nick Hughes.

During the early days of the government’s daily coronavirus briefings one phrase was deployed with striking regularity. Covid-19, ministers insisted, does not discriminate in who it affects.

In recent weeks the phrase has quietly been discarded, in part, one suspects, because of emerging evidence that Covid-19 does indeed discriminate against people from some ethnic groups and those working in social care and other frontline occupations.

Yet in one key respect Covid-19 has discriminated against people from the very start. Ever since the UK went into lockdown on 23rd March, the pandemic has divided the population by what we are eating and drinking. While those more fortunate use lockdown to experiment with Japanese cuisine and recreate new cocktails at home, millions of people in the UK have experienced food insecurity with many going an entire day without eating.

Where food is concerned, Covid-19 is prising further apart an already gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots; the pleasure-seekers and the worriers; the experimenters and the survivors; the sated and the hungry.

Both extremes have implications for the foodservice sector when we finally emerge from lockdown. First, let’s deal with what we might term the Waitrose lockdown trends, as revealed by the upmarket grocery chain in a recent report. Tequila sales have soared 175% and liqueurs are up 78% as people recreate bar experiences at home in a so-called homemade ‘happy hour’. Searches on for cuisines including Japanese and Thai food have all seen big increases. Sales of kimchi are up 43%.

While the first week of lockdown was all about stocking the cupboard with rice and toilet roll, by week three people were rushing to purchase pasta machines and wine. Waitrose expects that creating “restaurant experiences” at home will become a longer-term trend. Those with experience of making pasta from scratch, on the other hand, might predict a rush to Italian restaurants once lockdown is over. What’s clear is that certain trends that have been seeded at home might reasonably be expected to take root once we all able to eat out, whenever that may be.

Some lockdown findings will worry public health professionals. A sizeable 38% of us confess to snacking more. This tallies with research published by the Obesity Health Alliance in which people report eating more discretionary foods, including confectionery, cakes and biscuits, and crisps. More positively from a nutritional perspective, the alliance also found a rise in people of all ages and backgrounds eating fruit and vegetables and cooking from scratch. Demand for veg boxes has soared with sales up 111% in the six weeks to the middle of April, according to the Food Foundation.

Wrap, meanwhile, reports that lockdown is changing our attitude to food waste. It attributes a 34% reduction in waste of potatoes, bread, chicken, and milk to better pre-shop planning and more creative approaches to cooking.

These pockets of good news are welcome. Yet for millions of people, the story of food and Covid-19 is one of desperation. New Food Foundation data released at the start of May found 5m people in the UK living in households with children under 18 have experienced food insecurity since the lockdown started. Of these, around a third (1.8m) experienced food insecurity solely due to the lack of supply of food in shops, leaving 3.2m people – representing 11% of all households – suffering from food insecurity due to other issues such as loss of income or isolation. To put this into some context, this is double the level of food insecurity among households with children reported by the Food Standards Agency in 2018 (5.7%).

Just three weeks into lockdown, the Food Foundation found that 1.5m Britons reported not eating for a whole day because they had no money or access to food. Its latest survey, which focused on households with children, discovered more than 200,000 children have also had to skip meals because their family couldn’t access sufficient food. Almost a third (31%) of the half a million children entitled to free school meals are still not getting any substitute, in part due to problems with the government’s food voucher system. And of the 621,000 children who were accessing free breakfast clubs before the crisis, only 136,000 are getting a substitute.

Adults self-isolating for health reasons are facing their own set of challenges. Parliament’s EFRA Committee has heard evidence that food parcels provided to those shielding at home often don’t take account of dietary or allergy needs, nor do they contain enough fresh food.

At a recent daily briefing, environment secretary George Eustice announced that up to £16m of government funds would be made available to provide food for those who are struggling as a result of the coronavirus. Campaigners, however, believe the funds will barely scratch the surface. “They expect a fanfare for giving £16m to frontline charities, but this represents just a few days’ worth of food for the hundreds of thousands of people now struggling to put food on the table due to low income,” said Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, the food and farming alliance.

This polarised experience of food across the country also shows up in research by Hubbub. The environmental charity discovered that while 44% of people are cooking more since the restrictions began and 47% of people are spending more time eating with their family or housemates, 43% of people are worried about the extra cost of providing food for their household rising to 59% of those aged 35-44 and 54% of those aged 25-34.

Hubbub had bad news for businesses too. Although more than a third of people are supporting smaller and local businesses more than ever before, 43% say they are buying fewer takeaways due to concerns about contamination with a further 42% reporting they are not buying takeaways because money is tight.

People struggling to find the means to buy food is not just fearful news for those individuals and households, it’s bad news too for the eating out-of-home sector when restaurants and pubs do start to reopen. If these trends continue beyond lockdown no amount of tequila will numb the pain for foodservice operators.

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