Our food habits have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Americans spending more on food at home than “food away from home” each month since March of 2020 according to USDA Economic Research Service data. As consumers spend more time preparing food at home, price remains the key driver of food choices. In a recent nationally representative Padilla Spotlight Survey of U.S. consumers fielded by the agency’s SMS Research Advisors division in September 2020, 65% of consumers cited the price of food as the key factor when making food purchasing decisions.

While the relative impact of price on U.S. consumers’ sustainable food purchases has not changed much from 2018 to 2020, food waste is becoming a more central sustainability consideration. According to the survey, the “ability to help reduce food waste in my household” was the second most important attribute factoring into U.S. consumers’ food purchasing decisions. The survey also found that food waste now factors into the food purchasing decisions of over half of U.S. consumers, with 26% going so far as to say reducing food waste is a primary factor when they make food purchase decisions. At the same time, 17% of U.S. consumers are not clear on the connection between the food they buy and reducing food waste.

The growing importance of food waste as a key consideration in Americans’ food purchases during the pandemic is perhaps due to its dual impacts on food budgets and the environment. Consumers continue to value food that supports their health and sustainability, but affordability, comfort, accessibility and safety are taking center stage right now given the impacts of the pandemic and resulting economic stress. Although those values may be perceived as at odds, there are opportunities to bring them together to help price, health, taste, safety, and sustainability coexist.

While the pandemic is creating heightened interest in reducing food waste, barriers to purchasing more sustainable foods persist. Nearly a third of U.S. consumers (32%) cite cost/affordability as a very strong barrier to purchasing more sustainable foods. Availability/accessibility and food preferences are secondary barriers. While consumer confusion on the topic of “sustainable foods” continues to be an obstacle, it was only rated as a barrier for 34% of consumers. This suggests that ongoing efforts to define sustainable foods and dietary patterns by a broad range of global stakeholders may be making some inroads on consumer awareness and understanding. Only 10% of U.S. consumers cite their belief in the impact of our food choices on the environment as a key barrier to purchasing more sustainable foods. This suggests that if economic barriers can be overcome, U.S. consumers would be willing to purchase more sustainable foods.

As consumer food values continue to evolve during the pandemic, it is essential that any sustainability education and awareness initiatives account for the critical importance of cost and economic realities. Given the growing attention consumers are paying to food waste, opportunity exists for U.S. food manufacturers to more clearly communicate their products’ contributions to reducing waste and the corresponding environmental benefits. And, implementing food production and manufacturing practices that can reduce waste throughout supply chains may not only enable companies to improve their sustainability, but also share efficiencies and cost savings with consumers through price reductions, providing another way to shift consumers toward more sustainable food choices.

Interested in learning more? FoodMinds has dedicated experts in healthy, sustainable food systems. Connect with us at [email protected].

Co-authored by Andrea Carrothers, MS, RD, is a Senior Vice President at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, based in our San Francisco office.