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This page provides an overview of results in progress as the data from country surveys are analysed. Below left, you will find some overview results, and below right links are provided to initial results from individual and groups of countries, some of which are in local languages.

Overview of results in progress prepared for the World Pandemic Research Network. January 2021

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Food-Covid-19 network of food experts and researchers launched an online survey to collect initial information on the ways ordinary people at household level have changed how they obtain, prepare and eat their food. Data collected also examined both behavioural and attitudinal changes resulting from variations in national lockdowns and other restrictions, such as closure of physical workplaces, canteens, cafés and restaurants, schools and childcare institutions, changes in households’ grocery shopping frequency, individuals’ perceived risk of COVID-19, income loss due to the pandemic and socio-demographic factors. Overall, almost 10,000 valid responses were obtained, with most of the individual country surveys using quota sampling to ensure generally representative samples of the national populations in terms of gender, age and regional distribution.

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Currently, detailed analysis has taken place on a cross country comparison of data from Denmark, Germany and Slovenia with results showing that, depending on the type of food, 10-45% of study participants changed their consumption frequency during the pandemic, compared to before. Broadly speaking, people across all three countries shopped less frequently during lockdown and there was an overall reduction in the consumption of fresh foods, but an increase in the consumption of food with a longer shelf life. Overall, there was an increase in food consumption, perhaps because more people were at home more often making it likely that food items like snacks would be consumed more regularly.

Such findings suggest that it is more difficult for people to eat healthily during a COVID-19 confinement in terms of fresh fruit and vegetables. However, some diverging trends were observed in all food categories analysed, with some people decreasing and others increasing their consumption frequencies, demonstrating that the pandemic had very different impacts on people’s lifestyles and food consumption patterns. For example, whilst almost all households made a significant shift to take-away food and to home delivery typically ordered online, the types of food purchased and consumed often differed according to the degree of income loss during the pandemic. Those whose incomes decreased the most tended to shift to more affordable food and away from fresh foods, whilst those with much lower income loss instead tended to seek compensation for the huge inconveniences of lockdowns and changing routines by shifting to greater consumption of ready-made meals, sweets and alcohol.

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Differences between national food cultures were also important, for example in relation to eating during the day given that midday lunch is typically the most affected by COVID-19 related to whether work canteens were closed and the increase in the online home working. In Denmark, the consumption of fresh fish decreased amongst those whose work canteen was closed given that fish is a common lunch component in these canteens. In Germany, on the other hand, the consumption of cake and biscuits tended to increase among people affected by the lockdown of their physical workplace, probably because these food items are part of the traditional afternoon coffee break at home which, before the lockdown, was normally only a weekend habit. There are also often quite stark differences between population cohorts, for example in terms of household composition, so that households with children simultaneously both increase their consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as of comfort foods like sweets, cake, chocolate and alcohol. This is perhaps because the adults both realize the importance of healthy food for children, whilst compensate themselves for some increase in stress levels by food indulgence.

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A closer look at the Danish study also showed how some population groups have quite significantly distinct food behaviour changes compared to other consumers during the pandemic. For example, respondents with a university education, with children, who are female and in the younger age groups, all generally think that food has increased in importance compared to other groups, eat more, spend more on food, purchase more organic food, throw less food away, plan meals more and use a greater variety of food ingredients and recipes, but also consume more alcohol. These cohorts also report the greatest changes in overall food behaviour and say they are much more likely to be committed to continue many of these changes once the pandemic has subsided.

Some very initial analysis has also been undertaken looking across the ten European countries with very large samples. For example, despite the majority of households purchasing less fresh food, most in all countries purchase more organic food and throw less food away. Conversely to possible expectations, however, it tends to be the outer western, southern and eastern European countries that have changed more in these directions compared with north-central countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. The conjecture is that the former countries had not already moved as far towards organic purchases and lower food waste compared to the latter, so the quite dramatic food related changes caused by the pandemic, and the ensuing greater overall focus on food, propelled them to catch up. Further research will be needed on this, as in relation to the other initial findings.

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Paper published in the Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems journal, 14 April 2022, special issue “Building sustainable city region food systems to increase resilience and cope with crises”, available here.

Frontiers promotion

Food is central to our existence, not just for sustenance and survival but as a major contributor to our cultural, social, and economic lives. The food industry also has huge environmental impacts. 

So, what happens to patterns of food purchasing, preparation, consumption, and diet when food systems are disrupted by widespread lockdowns, closures, and bottlenecks during a global crisis like Covid-19? Our research, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, showed that the majority of European households significantly changed important aspects of their food behavior, including both more ready-made meals and food from local shops.

Drawing on comprehensive survey data from 7,368 European households, we have found many significant differences in these behaviors depending both on the type of region in which the household resides and on its socio-economic characteristics. 

The survey included questions on where and how people shop for their food both before and during Covid-19, the types of food eaten, how their food is prepared, where they eat, the amount of food eaten, and the money spent. Other questions covered reliance on food banks and free food, growing own food and stocking-up on food. Food awareness, whether meals were missed and other aspects of food anxiety, diet and health were also covered.

Small metropolitan cities are more resilient
An important geographical observation is the strong tendency for more or less sequential changes in food behavior outwards from a country’s capital city center to its rural periphery. This is defined by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, as being down the metropolitan hierarchy and along the urban-rural continuum. These changes are directly related to decreasing population density and distinctive socio-economic profiles.

Using Eurostat’s standard regional typologies, the current stage of Europe’s urbanization process shows an important counter trend in population growth and decline from the center to the periphery. There is movement of population out of both the largest, typically capital, metropolitan areas and from the so-called second-tier, typically older industrial, metro cities towards smaller metros in or beyond the suburbs and in adjacent rural areas. These smaller metros are also growing because of rural depopulation as they represent more desirable destinations than the larger metros with higher rents and living expenses. 

These newer, smaller but growing metros tend to be the most socio-economically vibrant. Compared to all other regional types, their populations show the greatest egalitarian and cohesive profiles in terms of income, age, education, and family size, as well as the lowest proportion of households that lost income during the pandemic. Across nearly all types of food behaviour, these smaller metros directly reflect this regional geography by displaying many of the advantages of capital metros while foregoing some of the disadvantages. Capitals typically exhibit pockets of poverty alongside very wealthy households, while second-tier metros are more likely to be characterized by the lowest metro incomes as former industrial areas that have been left behind economically with relatively high unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion. 

This overall dynamic is being driven by a better quality of life in smaller metros that are able to retain good connectivity to the larger metros as well as balance urban and rural advantages with high service levels. Their relative lack of physical connectivity compared to the larger metros has been decisively countered by the dramatically increased use of digital technology during the pandemic, including very strong take-up of online shopping and teleworking.

For example, smaller metros typically change their food behavior significantly less than all other regional types during Covid-19, showing them to be the most resilient to the pandemic’s disruptions. They also exhibit much smaller food behavior differences between households that lost income during the pandemic and those that did not. This means that their overall food vulnerability is much lower.

Low income
Laying on top of these very clear regional differences are the highly significant food behavior differences between households that lost income during the pandemic and those that did not. This distinction is a good surrogate for household income which is otherwise difficult to measure comparatively in a household survey. Income-loss households during Covid-19 were likely to be fragile even before the pandemic which then made their situation worse. They nearly always experienced food behavior changes arising from Covid-19 much more than no-income-loss households. 

On the other hand, income-loss-households are more likely to state that some changes they have made, and perhaps forced to make, during Covid-19 are more likely to continue post-pandemic. For example, greater increases in shopping with local producers and in more local shops, growing own food, and using a wider range of food dishes and recipes. Thus, a useful policy would be to put in place measures to support the positive food behavioral changes of all households with specific focus on those with lower incomes.

What the future holds
How this and many other impacts will play out over the longer term is a critical issue and needs focused research and policy action, especially because the likelihood of other shocks in future with similar effects is high. These could include new pandemics, the ongoing and increasingly alarming climate crisis, new disruptive technologies, geopolitical and economic-trade tensions, etc. The early 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing disruption of both energy and food systems is but the latest example.

Overall, we have demonstrated often quite stark food behavior inequalities between population groups in all types of region, as well as distinctive differences between regions themselves. For example, there are significant trends to less healthy eating during the pandemic away from fresh food to more processed and sugary foods and alcohol. This is likely due to increased stress and snacking whilst at home during lockdown seen strongest in income-loss households whose vulnerability has been further exposed. 

These differences existed before Covid-19, but the system shock has further exacerbated them. On the positive side, however, the pandemic has also dramatically accelerated the previous slow trend towards more local and seasonal food delivered along shortened supply chains, a move to smaller independent shops, and much greater food awareness and interest in trying new types of food and recipes.

The study has clearly shown that the food system is multidimensional, that both social determinants and geography strongly affect food behaviors, and that there is a highly significant alignment and interaction between geography and society. In times of food system disruption during a crisis, both appear to be exerting increasing influence over a market system based largely on large centralized organizations, long supply chains and ever-increasing globalization.

Figure 6 Amount of food, money & stocking up.jpg
Figure 8 Food vulnerability.jpg
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