The COVID-19 pandemic has turned life upside down for many families.
While there's been the more obvious factors like loss of employment, online schooling for children, reduced activities and limited social gatherings, there's also been subtle changes — like how the pandemic has changed our relationship with food.
"Food is and has always been a basic need and for many, especially those impacted financially by the pandemic, it has raised to a higher level of critical need," said Julie Kronabetter, a registered dietician and director of food and nutrition services for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District. "Pre-COVID-19, we took access to food and the variety of food available for granted."
Food manufacturers and distributors have struggled and suffered along with consumers, she said, and supply chains have been impacted. Therefore, the amount of food and the choices we were used to are more limited.
"In addition to those who experience financial instability or an unreliable structure to obtain food resources, some people are experiencing a decrease in their comfort level to shop for groceries, due to health and safety concerns," Kronabetter added. "This leads to shopping less frequently and relying less on fresh produce and perishables, which are deemed some of the most nutritious components to our diet."
In the 2020 Shopper Behavior Report by Mercatus, a grocery e-commerce platform, it showed a potential 21% increase in online grocery sales by 2025. That's a 60% increase over pre-pandemic estimates.
Back in September, according to the Chicago Tribune, in a poll of 60,000 consumers, 43% said they'd purchased groceries online during the pandemic.
In some ways the traditional family meal seems to be making a comeback due to the pandemic. There's more home cooking.
"Having a connection to your food, where it comes from, and how to prepare it are an important part of having a healthy relationship with food and nutrition," said Laura Wacker-Hansen, a registered dietician and assistant director of nutrition services for Eastern Carver County Schools. "Preparing meals at home allows families to utilize more whole-food ingredients and understand what goes into the food they eat.
"Families cooking together and allowing children to be a part of the shopping and cooking process is extremely beneficial in helping children to develop healthy eating habits and relationships with food," Wacker-Hansen said. "Studies have shown that children are more likely to try a new food if they have helped to prepare the food. That has been one of the best pieces of feedback we have received regarding our meal kits."
Due to the pandemic, families can pick up meals during the week from their school district in the Free Meals for Kids program, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Back in the first week of distance learning in November 2020, 20,000 meals were prepared for Eastern Carver County Schools families, with roughly 25% of the district's students are getting five-day meal kits.
"We send items home that require basic preparations such as baking in the oven or steaming in a pan or in the microwave," Wacker-Hansen said. "Families have been preparing the lunch and breakfast items together, and even letting their older kids take the lead on meal preparation.
"The feedback we have been getting from parents about how excited the students are to prepare their lunch and breakfast items and how willing they are to try some of the new items has been so uplifting. We hope that these experiences with our distance learning meal kits will inspire families to continue cooking together long after the pandemic is over."
Back in April, Burpee Seeds, a Pennsylvania company that's been around since 1876, reported it temporarily had to stop taking new orders online "after seeing an overwhelming surge in demand" for vegetable seeds.
Times of national crisis tend to bring out more first-time home growers of fruits and vegetables.
"Knowing where your food comes from is quite powerful and rewarding," said Heather Baumbach, who teaches Culinary Arts at Shakopee High School in the Business & Entrepreneurship Academy. "Having a garden, even a small one in the beginning, opens up so many new possibilities.
"Exploring the variety of ways to cook vegetables to what recipes would work well with the produce on hand are some of the many benefits to starting a garden, not to mention eating fresh vegetables," Baumbach added. "It's a habit that has the potential to carry on throughout the year."
Kim Franta, director of nutrition services for Eastern Carver County Schools, said people generally have a strong food philosophies and she doesn't think those have changed much due to the pandemic. But what could change are families' ability to afford they foods they prefer.
"In our food system, more wholesome foods tend to be more expensive and can take more work and time to prepare than foods with less nutritional value," Franta said. "They may be making sacrifices on some products due to cost."