COVID-19 forces change in food experiences

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Njeri Osaak, of Oxford, reports enhancing her skills in the kitchen by cooking this dish of fried potatoes to spinach and lemon rice. She also likes to make salads and vegetables in containers to save for later. She said she is spending less on groceries now than she did before. Photo provided by Njeri Osaak

By Emma Hendy

Among the many changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are the ways in which we eat.

Life in quarantine has prompted many residents of Oxford and other communities to frequently order carryout meals. Still, others have been pushed to try recipes they had never before attempted, turning their homes into gourmet kitchens.

According to the US Census Bureau, retail food sales had a 30% increase from February to March 2020, including a 26% increase in retail sales when compared to March of 2019.

Despite those spikes in food sales, farmers have still been left having to dispose of crops because of lost markets resulting from the shutdown of restaurants, hotels and schools. Transportation and processing fees often are too costly to ship to other, more distant areas.

Meat and poultry shortages have been reported as packing plants shut down because of virus outbreaks. A key pork-packing plant, Smithfield, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, shut down due to the number of employees that had fallen ill from COVID-19. That plant is responsible for 5% of the nation’s pork products.

Tyson Foods closed its largest U.S. pork facility and a beef processing facility in efforts to contain the virus. The chairman of the company, John Tyson, told The New York Times that “the food supply chain is breaking.”  A total of 19 packing plants across the country have temporarily closed, according to the meatpoultry.com website.

With the food industry struggling, people’s lives revolve around the kitchen. Dozens of local residents responded to an Observer query on the Oxford Talk Facebook page about how the pandemic restrictions have changed their food habits.  

“I used to not really eat breakfast because I valued sleep over a morning meal and that wasn’t healthy,” posted Oxford resident Hueston Kyger. “Now, I eat breakfast and lunch, several lunches, a couple of dinners and multiple snacks,” he said.

“Haven’t cooked this much since my kids were little,” Elizabeth Ruff, of Oxford, said in another post. “I have been able to try new recipes because I now have the time.”

Some Oxford residents reported having increased their consumption of snacks with little routine and structure during the quarantine. Some are taking advantage of the extra free time. “We have planned a lot more meals at home since we have been home,” said Taylor Kist.

For others, the longer social distancing goes on, the more they struggle for new ideas about what to cook. Families have dealt with the issue by supporting local restaurants through carryout. “I’m tired of trying to think what to fix or make or what we haven’t had in a while,” said Beverly Foutz of Oxford.

Seniors have been challenged to do grocery shopping during senior hours at the supermarkets, but continue to cook at home. “Sometimes we would embrace the quarantine and cook away, but other times we settled for cereal,” said Susan Horn, who described herself as an Oxford senior.

Lindsey Herr, a registered dietitian, and Miami University alum, said she has noticed a great surge in workout apps and home delivery meals. “You’re at home more and have more free time, you’re going to want to be comfortable and that includes some of your favorite foods,” she said. “Just be sure to honor your cravings but balance it with good nutrition.”

Herr said a good balance can be found between cooking and ordering takeout. “I am thrilled to see how much people are cooking,” Herr said. “Getting to make your own food is an easy way to connect with your food and increase your enjoyment out of your meals. Cooking your own food is also just inherently healthier.”

Mary Vincent, of Oxford, provides this photo of a recently prepared meal. She has begun foraging greens from her yard according to her botanist husband. Foraged greens include dandelion, violet, purslane and deadnettle. Vincent’s family began foraging as they were concerned about not being able to get salad green from the store. Photo by Mary Vincent

Ellen Swary, a registered dietitian and professor of food science at Miami, said many dietitians are promoting a new way to think about healthy eating. Immunity health encourages high fiber, increased vitamin and mineral intake and more healthy eating habits. “It’s great to help people who are scared and who are immune-compromised through underlying conditions whether that’s prehypertension or diabetes,” said Swary. “Here is a way you can help protect yourself.

“We are seeing a lot of extremes all at once,” Swary said. These extremes eating behaviors in the pandemic have been from hoarding to switching diets but either way, everyone is all trying new things.

“Everybody’s habits, no matter what age and socioeconomic background, are changing in an extreme way and it is out of their control,” said Swary.

Swary has seen these changes in eating behaviors go along with the change in local food systems. Swary said there is an increased interest in local food systems because people don’t know what will happen to grocery stores long term.

At the Hyde Park farmers market in Cincinnati, where Swary purchases food items, the market experience is changing. “Everything is done online and you pre-pay, pre-order and come through a drive-thru on certain pickup days, where you don’t open the window and they place the items in your trunk,” said Swary.

Swary has also seen an increased interest in people wanting to grow their own food from building a garden to growing small plants on the porch. However, seed shortages have begun to impact small farms as seed companies could not have planned for the increased demand for seeds, she said.

Quarantine is a good time to try new plant-based products, said Herr. “It is a good time to get creative with vegetarian meals because some stores are placing limits on the amount of meat you can buy at one time.

Herr recommends chickpeas and other beans for vegetarian protein.

The pandemic is changing the food industry and Oxford residents’ routines in the kitchen. “So not only did I become an instant teacher, I became a personal chef,” said Stephanie Ruehl, Oxford resident.