Remember when we were secluded in our homes trying to stop the spread of coronavirus, when restaurants shut down and one of the few places we could go was the grocery store?
Turns out it changed our food-spending habits for years to come.
Now, when economists graph food inflation and spending, there are wild swings that only the context of a surreal global pandemic can explain.
“COVID hit a reset button — people realized what it was like to go to an empty grocery store and that they shouldn’t take that for granted,” said Dawn Thilmany McFadden, an agriculture and resource economics professor at Colorado State University.
Before the pandemic, people in Colorado and nationally were spending half of their food money at restaurants and the other half on groceries. After the virus came, about 80% of food budgets paid for groceries while just 20% went toward restaurant meals, including takeout and delivery.
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Three years later, that out-of-whack spending has returned to 50-50. But here is what has changed for the long term — people are spending a higher percentage of their total budget on food out and at home. U.S. consumers spent 11.3% of their income on food last year, nearly a 13% increase from the year before.
A big reason was simply inflation — the cost of food has gone up 20% or 30%. Another reason, Thilmany McFadden said, is that government food assistance benefits were extended for three years after the pandemic.
But it wasn’t just people in lower-income brackets spending more on food. The pandemic shifted people’s habits about eating and cooking across the board.
Making dinner turned into a form of entertainment. Selecting ingredients and trying new recipes became fun pastimes for people who didn’t normally put in much effort.
We meandered through outdoor farmers markets and picked out vegetables we’d never bought before. Shoppers appreciated seeing grocery shelves abundant with items that had been missing because of supply-chain and workforce shortages, and they were willing to pay more for nice things. We were bored, and we couldn’t spend our money at the movies.
“Cooking became a larger part of their leisure life,” Thilmany McFadden said. “People just reevaluated it as a hobby.”
On top of that, people who paid extra to get their groceries delivered during the pandemic for safety reasons kept doing it because they realized how convenient it was for their busy schedules. “A whole bunch of mothers who were sick of taking their 2-year-olds to the grocery store are like, ‘Why would I give up delivery?’” Thilmany McFadden said.
Along with the consumer trends, CSU has been keeping track of how the pandemic affected the agriculture industry. Producers of raw food and meal-assembly kits fared well. Another bright spot was Colorado potatoes. Growers in the San Luis Valley specialize in potatoes that people eat at home, not the fast-food french-fry kind grown in Idaho. So when restaurants closed, sales of Colorado potatoes stayed strong.
This could help explain why a sack of white potatoes is now about $5 compared with $3.50 in 2018.
Potatoes were one of the ingredients in the traditional chicken dinner we prepared to find out just how much more it costs to make a meal today than it did five years ago.
Ingredients for one dinner at home
12 pack of soda
$4.27 for one six pack
$7.38 for one six pack
$2.06 for 1 pound of romaine lettuce
$1.77 for 1 pound of tomatoes
$2.73 for 1 pound of romaine lettuce
$1.91 for 1 pound of tomatoes
$1.93 per pound
$2.59 per pound
$3.54 for 5-pound bag of white potatoes
$4.09 for 1 pound of butter
$5 for 5-pound bag of white potatoes
$4.85 for 1 pound of butter
$6.34 for 4-pound whole chicken
$8.50 for 4-pound whole chicken
$2.28 for 5-pound bag of flour
$1.94 for 4-pound of sugar
$3.96 for 3-pound bag of Granny Smith apples
$3.29 for 5-pound bag of flour
$3.72 for 4-pound of sugar
$5.07 for 3-pound bag of Granny Smith apples
Photography by Olivia Sun. Design by Danika Worthington.