The Big Picture

How is COVID-19 affecting how we feed ourselves?

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the UK food system. To understand what this will mean for citizens, we’ll be monitoring trajectories for these variables:

  • Infection and mortality rates – how will infection and vaccine developments unfold, and will these be mirrored in food system changes?
  • Civil cohesion and food poverty – will we see civil unrest if people struggle to afford food and prices rise?
  • Food prices – how will supply chains be affected; will export bans lead to price rises and shortages; will domestic production increase and will average prices of fruit, vegetables and other staple foods increase as a result?
  • Fruit and vegetable sales

Follow system-wide developments here as we track shifting challenges and demands, and look at how coronavirus-driven change is reflected in the food system.

Return to our homepage to view the COVID-19 Tracker in full.

Data from Kantar shows that grocery sales growth slowed in April as consumers adapt to life under lockdown

UK Grocery sales increased by 5.5% in April compared to the year before, according to the latest data from Kantar. Despite the rise, this is a noticeable drop compared to March which saw a record sales growth of 20.6%, suggesting that people are working their way through cupboard stocks bought in the run-up to lockdown and are adjusting to a new normal.

With restaurants, cafes and canteens all currently closed, the rise in sales is likely due to people eating more of their meals at home. This is supported by the fact that there was a fall in on-the-go food and drink sales; worth more than £350 million in April last year.

On average, households shopped only 14 times for groceries over the past month, a record low, and down from 17 in more normal times. However, this drop in frequency was matched by a corresponding uplift in the amount spent on each trip to £26.02 – the highest figure ever recorded by Kantar. Consumers appear to be heeding advice to shop less frequently, ditching more frequent top-up shops in favour of a larger weekly shop.

Convenience stores and online shopping are benefitting from social distancing measures. Demand for online shopping has continued to increase in line with retailers expanding their capacity, with shopper numbers up by a quarter. Online sales now account for 10.2% of overall grocery, versus 7.4% last month, with the greatest increase among older shoppers. Although not traditionally big users of e-commerce, over-65s spent 94% more on deliveries than they did a year ago. Convenience stores meanwhile, saw sales increase by 39% in April as people shop nearer to home.

Although it is too early to assess whether diets are changing as a result of lockdown, certainly baking appears to be on the up, with sales of suet up by 115% and sugar by 46%.

With thanks to Kantar.

ONS figures suggest the poorest are twice as likely to die from Coronavirus as the wealthiest


New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that people living in more deprived areas of England and Wales are more likely to die with coronavirus than those in the least deprived areas. Analysis shows there were 55 deaths for every 100,000 people in the poorest parts of England, compared with 25 in the wealthiest areas. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said he was aware of the problem; “This is something that we are worried about and looking at”. In a statement, the government said it had commissioned urgent work from Public Health England to understand the different factors that could influence the way someone was affected by the virus and would set out more details in due course. With data also suggesting that those with obesity are more likely to die of Covid-19, it may prove difficult to untangle the relationship between obesity and socio-economic deprivation and increased risk of mortality from Covid-19.

Millions of farm animals may be culled as US supply chain is disrupted, while US sales of plant-based meat alternatives increase

COVID-related slaughterhouse shutdowns in the US are leading to fears of meat shortages and price rises, with concerns that millions of farm animals may need to be culled as a result. More than 20 slaughterhouses have been forced to close to date (partly due to worker illness), although some have subsequently reopened. A combination of restaurant and slaughterhouse suspensions as a result of measures brought in to contain the spread of COVID-19 have led to ‘back-ups’ on farms and in the food chain. This chimes with recent data released by Nielsen which found that plant-based alternative meat sales in the US jumped by 200% in the week ending April 18th amid slaughterhouse closures.


10 foods that may be impacted by the continuing impact of Covid-19 on global supply chains

Despite assurances from retailers that supermarket stock levels have returned to normal, COVID-19’s impact on global supply chains could become more serious over time. An article by The Grocer reviews 10 foods that may be more vulnerable to negative impacts, highlighting the complicated dependencies that could result from:

  • Agricultural labour shortages
  • Changing consumer demand
  • Potential for price volatility
  • Export restrictions from key producer countries.

Lockdowns in India and Kenya for example are placing many of the world’s teas under strain, while export restrictions and currency fluctuations have created upheaval in global rice markets and price surges. With the UK relying on imports from the EU and many other countries for many foods, the pandemic’s progress across the world is likely to continue to impact on UK food supplies in the months to come. We will be monitoring shifts in imports and exports of fruit and veg on the Food Foundation’s tracker going forward, with 84% of our fruit and 46% of our vegetables currently imported.


The weekly shop is back in fashion, says Tesco CEO

Dave Lewis, the outgoing Chief Executive of Tesco, has commented that people have reverted to shopping the way they did a decade ago by making one big weekly trip to the supermarket. With COVID-19 continuing to impact on consumer shopping behaviour, the trend in recent years for individuals (particularly in urban centres) to make a number of small shops every few days appears to have changed, likely due to social distancing measures. Dave Lewis said that the number of transactions in April at Tesco had nearly halved, but the size of the average basket had doubled. This statement is supported by recent data from Kantar, which also shows that the number of shopping trips has fallen to a record low despite the size of shops increasing

Sales of frozen foods surge in the weeks leading up to lockdown, with frozen veg performing particularly well


Further sales data released by the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) for the four weeks ending 22nd March shows sales of frozen food rocketed as consumers stocked up in anticipation of social distancing and lockdown measures coming into force. Total sales increased 28.3% in volume and 28.1% in value compared to the same period of time the year before in 2019. Sales of frozen veg were particularly buoyant, increasing by 42.5%, with frozen savoury food up 36.7% and ice-cream up 5.4%. There was a 68% increase in sales of frozen peas, with one retailer reporting a 93% increase in sales of frozen broccoli. The BFFF’s chief executive said that ‘supply remains in good shape although supply chains are at full stretch’, with demand ‘continuing to remain high’.

Executive director of the U.N. World Food Program warns of hunger pandemic

The Executive Director of the UN World Food Program has warned of a potential hunger pandemic in an address to the U.N. Security Council. Observing that ‘what this pandemic has caused is nothing short of a global crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since World War II”, David Beasley said that “as a global crisis, it requires a global response, especially for the tens of millions whose lives will be crushed by the socioeconomic impact of this crisis.”  With many already facing food insecurity as a result of conflict and famine, WFP’s analysis shows that 300,000 could starve to death every single day for the next three months, warning that we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries.


Professor Chris Whitty warns social distancing may last until the end of the year   

Professor Chris Whitty warned that the UK may have to live with some form of social distancing for the rest of the yearWith trials currently underway for a vaccine, Whitty advised that it is unlikely that approved drugs or vaccines will be available in 2020. As suchProfessor Whitty said it was “wholly unrealistic” to expect life would suddenly return to normal and warned the UK may have to live with some socially disruptive measures for the rest of the year. The latest figures show a further 759 people have died with the virus in UK hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,100. 

The UK’s inflation rate fell to 1.5% in March, largely driven by falls in the price of clothing and fuel ahead of the coronavirus lockdown 

The UK’s Consumer Price Index shows the UK’s inflation rate fell to 1.5% from 1.7% in February, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Although the data was collected by March 17th before the more stringent lockdown measures were brought in on the 23rd March, the drop has been put down to falls in the price of clothing and fuel as awareness of COVID-19 and anticipation of lockdown grew.  

Sarah Hewin, senior economist at Standard Chartered bank, told the BBC’s Today programme: “Normally low inflation would be welcomed as it means people have effectively more to spend in the shop but these are not normal circumstances. The fall in inflation, in addition to low energy prices, is an indication of the steep recession we will see in the coming months.” The government’s inflation target is 2%.