As many Americans are spending more time at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a newly minted phrase – ‘the Quarantine 15’ – has crept into collective thought. But results from a recent nationwide survey conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) indicate that claims about the trending pandemic-weight-gain concern may not be credible after all.
“Only a tiny portion – around two percent – of our survey respondents reported gaining more than 10 pounds since the pandemic, despite experiencing considerable emotional stress and a general decrease in physical exercise,” said Dr. Zhengxia Dou, professor of agricultural systems at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet). The lead investigator behind the interdisciplinary project, Dou is coordinating the effort with other colleagues from Penn Vet, Penn’s School of Nursing (Penn Nursing), and Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences (Penn SAS).
Instead, the survey’s results point to other circumstances emerging from the pandemic’s impacts on households across the United States. The biggest concern? Household food insecurity.
“COVID-19 has posed a black swan event that has had profound effects on our daily life – particularly, how we view and value food,” said Dou. “From the moment that grocery store shelves started to become sparse, food suddenly emerged as a front-of-mind issue everywhere.”
Specifically, the Penn survey uncovered a sharp increase in households reporting food worries or experiencing food shortages since the pandemic. Low-income families and those with household members losing income during the pandemic were hit the hardest. With about one-third of respondents reporting income loss, there are many individuals seeking help putting meals on the table for the first time.
“The number of respondents worrying about their ability to feed themselves or their family was 11 times more during the pandemic than before,” Dou said. “In addition, the number of people that report skipping meals or going to bed hungry has doubled since the start of the outbreak.”
Many of the respondents expressing an increase in their food insecurity report relying more on alternative forms of food access through both government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), charity organizations, and free school meal programs.
Dou noted that the Penn survey findings correlate with data emerging from Feeding America – the umbrella organization for food banks across the United States – that has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of people seeking assistance from food banks during the pandemic.
“The United States is a land of plenty, but suddenly food has become a lot more precious to us in light of these events,” Dou said. “There is a dramatic shift in people’s confidence in the nation’s food supply security. The vast majority of our respondents are now somewhat concerned or very concerned about food security in general.”
Not all findings from the survey were bad, however. In fact, some household dynamics changed for the better - including renewed family ties around the dinner table and, perhaps, better nutrition from increased time spent meal planning and preparing at home. Respondents also indicated they are making more out of the food they have and wasting less.
“It is a good thing for family dynamics and relationships to have people sit down together to eat,” Dou noted. “In a way, being forced to stay together at home has given people an impetus to share mealtimes, talk about their day or current events, and simply reconnect as a family unit.”
The survey’s findings also indicated that food takeout orders have decreased during the pandemic, but many individuals have increased their use of curbside pickup – with a large segment starting to use this convenience for the first time – generating new opportunities for some businesses.
While the survey focused on examining household food dynamics specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Penn experts hope to use the insights on current food patterns, challenges, and distribution interruptions to develop more sophisticated response plans for future crisis situations.
“There is a lot to be learned from the current environment,” said Dou. “At the end of the day, our goal is to use this information to help avoid these circumstances from playing out again in the future.”
A further, in-depth analysis of the survey results is underway. For more details on the information currently available, visit: https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/64jwy
Dr. Zhengxia Dou is a professor of agricultural systems at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center.
Additional investigators behind the survey include Penn Vet’s Dr. David Galligan, Dr. Darko Stefanovski, and Margaret Lindem; Paul Rozin, BA, PhD, Penn SAS; Ariana M. Chao, PhD, CRNP, Penn Nursing; and Ting Chen, a visiting scholar from Zhejiang Gongshang University.