In this 5-part series, “COVID-19’s Wake-Up Call: Food System Realities Reimagined,” experts from across the AVENIR Global network and global food system are exploring five new “food system realities” brought on by COVID-19, paired with reimagined possibilities and thought starters to help bring these possibilities to life.

Reality: Food values have been flipped and face new trade-offs

COVID-19 is unrivaled by any other event in recent memory for the dramatic impact it has had on the public’s values and behaviors. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? During the pandemic, research shows that values typically at the top of the hierarchy, or those associated with materialism, self-fulfillment, adventure and other loftier aspirations, have plummeted in importance. Amid COVID-19, people are reprioritizing more foundational values, centering around family/close relationships, thrift and duty.

For food and beverage brands, this could translate to customers placing higher value on product attributes like comfort, affordability and of course, safety. With this reshuffling of priorities, it’s critical that a focus on health and sustainability do not fall out of reach or off the radar as we uncovered in part 1.

These new priority values may sometimes be perceived as at-odds, though. A comfort food might not necessarily be the healthiest. Packaging that conveys a sense of safety may not be the most sustainable. For example, many grocery stores are still enforcing bans on reusable totes, halting the momentum to reduce use of plastic bags.

With all this in mind, there are some questions for the food industry to navigate.

  • What are we willing to sacrifice long-term, if anything, from an environmental impact perspective to promote safety?
  • How do we treat the rise in demand for highly processed foods when these foods also face great public health pressures?
  • How do we ensure perishable and nutritious foods are not the most vulnerable to crises, as we experienced over the last few months?
  • How do we deliver safe, healthy, sustainable and tasty foods in times of economic distress?

Reimagined: Health, comfort, safety and sustainability can [and must] coexist

There are immediate and ongoing actions that can be taken to bring these different food values to life.

Possible Paths Forward: How can your organization meet consumers (and their evolving values) where they’re at?

  • Share practical information that supports and reassures the general public. This is a prime opportunity to invest in consumer education. Content development can be tailored to practical sustainable nutrition information, cooking on a budget advice, or addressing consumer anxieties about safety and wellbeing.
    • There is also an opportunity for industry to help the public reassess the pantry, and learn to adapt recipes and cook meals with what’s on hand (do you really need that coconut oil, or can canola work just as well?).
  • Identify opportunities to pull multiple dimensions of food values into products. Brands and products that have a well-established and authentic purpose – and stay true to that – will be better equipped today and in the uncharted waters of tomorrow. But now is also the time to consider ways to incorporate additional values that support a brand or product’s purpose.
  • Use your brand and platform to reflect your organization’s values. The Black Lives Matter movement has forced all sectors – including food industry – to confront long-standing societal problems, like racism and discrimination. This too provides another way to understand food as a reflection of values. In one month alone, Conagra Brands (Mrs. Butterworth’s), Mars Inc. (Uncle Ben’s), Dreyer’s (Eskimo Pies) and others announced they would be rehauling branding that had been based on racist stereotypes. Ben & Jerry’s – a brand known to stand up for injustices – has also called on Americans to “dismantle white supremacy.” A commitment to nutrition, sustainability and other attributes should be matched with a strong commitment to social justice.

Interested in discussing how we can help bring these possible paths to life? We have dedicated experts tuned in to the evolving consumer food values. We are in this together to build for resiliency – drop us a line at [email protected].

Moira Allison is a Senior Account Executive at FoodMinds. She is based in Chicago.