Concerns about shortages of meat and other staples during the pandemic, along with a renewed focus on cooking at home, have sparked consumers’ overall in­­terest in food, according to panelists at a session on consumers’ post-COVID-19 attitudes during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s virtual convention. 

That renewed interest in food and how it’s produced provides an opening for farmers and others in the food chain, the panelists noted. 

There’s a clear op­­portunity to help consumers understand and appreciate today’s agriculture and food production, they said. 

“There has been a lot of skepticism about food since the pandemic began,” said Roxi Beck of the Center for Food Integrity, a non-profit group working to build consumer trust and confidence in food production. “It can be tough to deal with. But that skepticism means that consumers are paying attention and are open to a conversation about their food.”

Those conversations can provide an opportunity for farmers’ and others in the food production chain to tell their story and help build confidence in today’s food production, said Beck and the other panelists at the session.

Genuinely interested 

Consumers are genuinely in­­terested in how farmers, processors and retailers came up with solutions to supply-chain problems during the pandemic, Beck said. “There was certainly no shortage of obstacles, and that can provide an opening to begin a conversation with consumers and everyone in the food chain.”

A key point to make about the pandemic is that, after some initial disruptions, the food supply chain recovered quickly, said Jarrod Gillig, an executive at Cargill Protein. 

Everyone, from farmers to meat plant workers to supermarket employees, stepped up to keep food in supermarkets and on consumers’ tables, he said.

“The untold story is that folks showed up every day to make sure that food production met the needs and folks didn’t walk into empty stores,” Gillig said.

The flexibility of the food production and distribution system showed during the early days of the pandemic, the AFBF panel said. That was especially true as processors worked to overhaul meat plants and other facilities to meet COVID-19 protocols, Gillig said.  

The pandemic also altered food trends and increased de­mand for both basics and more exotic foods and ingredients, the panelists said.

Staple products, such as can­ned soup, regained a foothold, and the baking category took off, Beck noted. That held true in lean meats, as consumers saw beef, pork and chicken as protein-rich foods that could help build immunities, she said.

Learning self-sufficiency

While they are cooking more meals at home, consumers aren’t taking food for granted as they often did before the pandemic, noted Martha Hilton, a vice president at Wegman’s, a leading grocery chain in the Northeast. 

“They have learned how to be more self-sufficient about their food supplies,” said Hilton, a county Farm Bureau president in New York. “There is still a fear of could this happen again, and they want to be ready.”

The in­­terest in cooking at home is likely to continue, even after vaccines begin to quell the pandemic, Gillig said.

“There is going to be pent up demand for eating out and entertaining, but people saw the value of eating at home and that will stick around,” he said. “Both of those should be good for livestock farmers and everyone in the food chain.”