Global Pandemic Drives Fresh Produce Sales and Improved Eating Habits

Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of Produce Business.

By Rachael Ryan, Senior Manager of Research & Strategy, Provoke Insights

Read Jim Prevor’s Commentary below

Over the past three months, daily habits and routines have been uprooted. The impact that these shifting behaviors are going to have is unknown, so far. As we enter the post COVID world, consumers will have new brand expectations. The question is, will current patterns and practices become permanent? The global pandemic has had an impact on every industry, and food and grocery are no exception.

During the first weeks of June this year (June 5-15th), Provoke Insights conducted a 10-minute survey among 600 U.S. consumers between the ages of 21 and 65. Sampling was matched to reflect 2019 U.S. Census data, and a random stratified sample methodology was used to ensure a high degree of representation of the U.S. population (household income, age, gender, geography, and children in the household). Statistical differences between subgroups were tested at a 95% confidence level. Below are highlights of our findings:


Despite the CDC recommendation of avoiding close contact and staying at least 6 feet from other people, the majority of Americans (86%) are still visiting grocery stores in-person.

Of those who have steered clear of the supermarket, over half (55%) are concerned about the impact that COVID-19 could have on their health.


However, since the pandemic hit the United States, the number of consumers purchasing groceries online has soared (from 23% pre-COVID-19 to 39% in the past three months). This new trend is here to stay, with 40% of people saying they will buy groceries online in the next six months. Grocery delivery service is also expected to continue to increase into the future.


In all supermarket categories, the number of products purchased overall has increased. This increase is particularly true for cleaning items and fresh produce, followed by meat and salty snacks. Millennials and people in urban and suburban areas are significantly more likely to be purchasing much more fresh produce than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growth in fresh produce purchases is expected to remain high even after the pandemic. Ninety-three percent of those purchasing it more while restrictions were in-place expect to continue buying fresh produce the same amount or more once states re-open.

The growth of fresh produce sales correlates with over three-quarters of U.S. consumers trying to eat healthier now. These changes have come with over half of Americans saying they are cooking and baking more.


As Americans try their hands at being a head chef/pro-baker, their attitudes toward food and eating have shifted. Fifty-eight percent of consumers consider their at-home meals to be restaurant quality. Also, 58% have a more structured meal routine now that they are cooking for themselves more and staying in.

While cooking at home has helped improve eating habits, over half of consumers (53 percent) still say that they are snacking more often.

Provoke Insights is a full-service market research company specializing in advertising, branding, and content marketing research. For further information on this data, visit the website at, e-mail, or reach out to Rachael Ryan (

Will Habits Continue After The Pandemic?

By Jim Prevor

Retail sales at supermarkets, indeed, are showing massive increases over last year. It is not very hard to understand why.

First, foodservice sales have collapsed. With restaurants and theme parks closed or allowed to seat only in limited capacity, many hotels closed, airplane flights sharply reduced, and even prisoners being released, there has basically been a massive shift from people eating out to people eating at home.

Second, though people are buying more fresh produce at retail, it is actually canned, dried and frozen that is seeing the bigger sales increase. This is quite logical, as this product is amenable to storage.

Third, it is very likely that people are actually eating more food. We don’t have good statistics on this yet, but in the past we have seen food consumption go up under many circumstances common today: Nervous eating is common when people are worried about their jobs, their health or the health of family members. Working from home has its advantages — including proximity to the fridge! Family meals can become more of an event when, suddenly, everyone is at home and not at work or school.

The future timing is uncertain, both because it is unclear when concern about COVID-19 will subside and because, even after that, there may be legacy financial problems for a long time to come. Still, it is highly likely that there will be vaccine, or we will reach “herd immunity” and eating habits are likely to move back toward what they had been pre-pandemic.

Behavior is often driven by circumstances, and our habits of eating and purchasing are developed to accommodate behavior.

There is little question that behavioral habits developed under one set of circumstances can develop in such a way that they continue long after the circumstances giving rise to the habit have passed. For example, this author had quite a business selling Mexican watermelons to Finland. How did such a business come about?

After World War II, the Soviet Union and Finland entered into an agreement that trade between the countries had to balance every year. Finland was an advanced Western country, and the Soviet Union wanted to buy a lot from Finland. But there wasn’t much the Soviet Union produced that Finland needed. But under the rules, Finland had to make trade balance or it was just giving things away to the Soviets. So, someone lost to history noticed that in the Crimea they grew watermelons in the dead of winter. So Finland, needing to buy something, bought watermelons.

This was not a popular thing to eat in the middle of winter in Finland. But, it was sold very cheaply in abundant quantities, and Finnish consumers grew accustomed to having watermelons in winter — so much so that long after this deal collapsed, the Finns sought out winter watermelon. So accustomed were the Finns to this product, they paid premium prices to bring in Mexican watermelons.

So, it is likely that, to some degree, changes in habits will continue long after the cause of the habit has diminished. So, we can imagine that grandmothers who never bought online, but were taught to do so now to avoid going to stores and exposing themselves to a dangerous virus, might find it convenient and so continue to order on line long after the original pandemic justification has passed.

It is also true, though, that if people are no longer living in fear of a virus, either because of a vaccine or herd immunity, they will want to travel for business and leisure, their children will have late night rehearsals and will travel to do sports, and the vaccine or immunity will serve its primary purpose of allowing a restoration of normalcy.

Of course, people may remember this pandemic period of time through rose-colored glasses They may forget the inconveniences of the day and remember happy family dinners together.

Wistful, though, these memories may be, Junior will have basketball practice and his sister ballet lessons; Mom has to catch the flight out that evening. Dad is working late and will grab dinner on the way home. Grandma and Grandpa are back in the retirement home, and big brother is off at college.

In other words, behavior is often driven by circumstances, and our habits of eating and purchasing are developed to accommodate behavior. Although technology can create new ways of doing things, in the absence of such a change, the boys are going to be with the team on a bus going to a school to play football and their eating will go back to accommodating that.

In produce, a lot of the things restaurants do are difficult, expensive or wasteful to do at home. If you live alone and like a slice of raw onion on your burger, you might find yourself taking a slice and throwing out the rest of the onion. The waste might bother you, or the work of cutting the onion to get just one slice might be inconvenient. But free of fear of a virus, one can go back to the restaurant and let them give you the slice, and they can give other slices to other customers. It is just what you want, and the price is right.