September 30, 2020
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity has been a significant challenge for households across America. HealthyPeople.gov defines food insecurity as a disruption of food intake or eating patterns due to lack of money and resources. In short, it means that millions of Americans lack consistent access to nutritional or adequate supplies of food.
In the wake of COVID-19 and related food shortages, the number of food-insecure Americans has increased from 35 million in 2019 to more than 50 million in 2020. Between these rising rates of food insecurity and shifting consumer behavior, the food industry has faced various changes over the past several months. In conversation with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, leaders in the food industry discuss the current state of the system, as well as how to move forward in a sustainable and accessible way.
COVID-19 Has Impacted Food Insecurity and Changed Consumer Behaviors
Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer at S2G Ventures, shared insights on the current state of food in the pandemic, as well as the future of food. He explained that as people continue to spend more time at home, grocery and retail sectors are remaining well-poised, while restaurants and other foodservice establishments are facing decreased sales.
"The crisis also brought a lot of attention to the fragility of our system, particularly our notion of centralized food," Krishnan continued. "We had a 'just-in-time' food system globally. We didn't have a 'just-in-case' food system."
Krishnan noted that the issues arising from COVID will likely shape the future of the industry. He cited four main themes moving forward: digitalization, decentralization, de-commoditization and the use of food as immunity.
Meal Kits Prioritize Food Sustainability and Transparency in Their Processes
With a shift toward at-home cooking, meal delivery kits have seen a significant increase in sales over the past several months. Founded in 2012, Blue Apron, the first meal kit company in the U.S., initially set out to drive healthier eating and reduce food waste by providing fresh, pre-portioned ingredients.
During COVID-19, Blue Apron has continued to provide only the necessary amount of food for each customer, while also increasing safety protocols and accountability — all the way to their suppliers. The company also focuses on being transparent with their customers about every step of the process.
"[Deciding] what you put in your body is one of the most intimate things you do in a day," said Linda Findley Kozlowski, CEO of Blue Apron. "If you're actually preparing food for your family, you want to make sure you know exactly where that food is from and how it's been treated."
Food Companies Shift Toward 'Real Food,' Meat Alternatives and Decreasing Their Carbon Footprint
Historically, fast food has been presented as an affordable and convenient meal — not necessarily a healthy one. However, some chains such as Burger King are making a shift toward sustainable practices.
Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer of Restaurant Brands International and former global CMO of Burger King, noted that his company has been "on a journey to clean up [its] food," removing artificial colors or flavoring, preservatives, and anything else that "detracts from realness." Burger King has also developed a partnership with Impossible Foods, a meat alternative company, and continues to work on making its packaging and processes more environmentally friendly.
"Investing [in] improving product quality ... and investing [in] environmental sustainability will help you guarantee a better future for your brand and company," Machado added.
Community Gardens Help Solve Food Insecurity and Sustainability Issues Through Local Collaboration
While larger corporations are doing their part to create a better food future, the work is also taking place in local communities. Take, for instance, the AARP's efforts with the Delaware National of Oklahoma to improve access to healthy food in the tribal community. Through a grant with the AARP, the Delaware Nation tribe has built a community garden, complete with accessible planters and tools for those with physical disabilities.
"As our citizens are aging, we need to be able to incorporate them in community engagement ... but also [provide] a way for accessible vegetables," explained Jaclyn McCasland, environmental director of Delaware Nation. "Some of our elders may be on low income, and so providing them [with] fresh vegetables without having to purchase [them] really helps."
From local community initiatives to movements from food giants, the future of food is shifting toward one that is both sustainable and accessible for all.
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