Just a few months ago, Sue Smith considered herself a healthy eater. She ate salads with kale and quinoa. She counted calories. She eliminated processed sugar from her diet. She avoided dairy products.
But in the past month, as the coronavirus pandemic made her housebound, Los Angeles writer Smith began shopping — and eating — completely differently.
During a trip to the grocery store, she bought SpaghettiOs. And she went all in on dairy.
“I’m eating ice cream. Ice cream bars,” Smith said. “And tonight, I’m making a spinach-artichoke lasagna. There’s so much dairy in it. But I just need the comfort that I get from that food right now.”
As the coronavirus shutdowns continue across the United States, two growing trends involving how people eat — the rising amount of money spent on meals outside the home and the increased purchase of fresh or organic foods in grocery stores — have been reversed.
Many restaurants have closed, and shoppers are reaching for frozen pizza and boxes of cereal instead of organic greens and whole grains.
That’s good news for big food companies like Golden Valley-based General Mills, Kraft Heinz and J.M. Smucker, which have struggled in recent years to adapt as Americans shied away in great numbers from highly processed foods. Now, in a moment of crisis, shoppers are turning to old standbys.
Many large food businesses including Campbell Soup Co., which had seen steady declines in soup sales the past two years, are ramping up production and temporarily increasing wages for hourly employees to meet the higher demand.
And ConAgra Brands, which had reported a decline of more than 5% in net sales for the quarter ending Feb. 23, said its shipments to retailers and in-store sales in March had grown 50% as demand increased for Slim Jim jerky snacks, Birds Eye frozen vegetables and Chef Boyardee pastas.
“We stocked up on the entire Chef Boyardee line. Chef Boyardee Ravioli. Chef Boyardee Beefaroni,” Smith said. “I hadn’t had that stuff in 20 years.”
Much of the early panic buying that cleared out stores of rice, cans of tuna, soup and beans was rooted in a combination of fear and practicality. Shoppers bought foods that could sit on their shelves for months.
For the large food companies, a big question is whether the robust sales will disappear once the shutdown ends. Some of that depends on how quickly the economy rebounds, said Robert Moskow, an analyst at Credit Suisse.
“We counted three economic recessions in the past 30 years, and in each of them the data show that consumers shifted more toward at-home food consumption to save money, away from the structural trend of eating away from the home,” Moskow said.
Others said the quarantine food shopping provides an opportunity for food companies to convert first-time shoppers into longtime buyers with packaged, refrigerated or frozen foods that they said are healthier and tastier than they were a few years ago.
General Mills has seen across-the-board increases in its product lines in the past four weeks, from Yoplait yogurt to Cheerios cereal to Progresso Soup and even baking products like Gold Medal flour and Bisquick as consumers confined to their homes fill the endless hours by trying new recipes or baking bread.