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COVID-19 and Food Security

What You Need to Know

The questions below provide important information about food security during the coronavirus pandemic. We focus these questions on the United States; given the global reach of COVID-19, we hope the information below will be useful to individuals and policymakers beyond our borders. If you have questions you’d like us to address, please contact us at foodsecurity@csis.org.

Updated March 26, 2020



Food Safety & Health

What are some safe ways to shop for groceries right now? Should I wash and prepare foods differently once I get them home?

Although it is possible for a person to contract coronavirus from touching a surface or object and then touching their face or mouth, this is not the main source of infection. More often, the virus is spread by person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets.

In order to stay safe while shopping, experts recommend avoiding close contact with others and keeping six feet of distance with other shoppers. Tips to avoid close contact while shopping include shopping at off-peak hours, wiping down the cart before and after use, and using debit or credit cards to avoid hand-to-hand cash transfers. In areas where grocery delivery is not available, or is stretched to capacity, consider diversifying your procurement channels. In some areas, local farmers and producers may be offering direct purchasing options.

There is currently no evidence that supports the idea that the virus can be spread through food or food packaging. However, since COVID-19 can survive on hard surfaces for up to 72 hours, shoppers may consider disinfecting food packaging after bringing it home from the store, in addition to common-sense measures like washing hands with soap and water before and after preparing food, and following the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) four food safety steps: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

 

Are there particular foods I should avoid purchasing, like foods imported from certain countries?

Most coronavirus infections originate with the respiratory system, not the digestive system, so food itself is not a principal concern, according to the infectious disease expert Daniel Kuritzke. Nor have authorities recommended avoiding foods from any particular countries.

The good news is that, at the time of publication, the FDA reports “no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods.” If you cannot avoid buying perishable foods, then it is best to default to the aforementioned four steps for food safety from the FDA: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

However, you may consider avoiding perishable imports. Russ Webster, president of Food Enterprise Solutions, an international food safety firm, told CSIS, “In general, the more perishable the food, the more complex—and thus susceptible—is its supply chain.” Shelf-stable alternatives to perishable imports are fruits, vegetables, and meats that are canned, dried, frozen, or preserved.

What food should I eat to help boost my immune system?

Although there is no way to fully prevent illness in the case of exposure to the coronavirus, there are steps you can take that may boost your body's immune system. The best fortification for a well-functioning immune system is a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables and getting enough quality sleep helps safeguard your system against infection and disease. There is no “quick fix” for boosting your immune system, but nutrition is crucial for immune defense and resistance to pathogens.

Disruptions to nutritional status can impede immune response and lead to increased susceptibility to infection during nutrient deficiency. Studies suggest that five core micronutrients—vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc—play roles in maintaining immune function. The best way to get vitamins and minerals is from a well-rounded diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen are fine), legumes, whole grains, and lean sources of protein, along with healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil. 

Should I eat at restaurants right now? What about ordering delivery and takeout food?

In many areas across the country, restaurants and bars have been ordered to close to patrons, but some offer takeout and delivery options. Private companies, like Uber Eats, have waived delivery fees for small, independent food businesses—a vital step in supporting access to food for people who can’t cook for themselves due to disability or illness. Furthermore, announced in a presidential press conference on March 17, large fast food companies are keeping their driveway and delivery services operational during the federally recommended 15-day period of postponing travel, limiting social gatherings, and working from home, if possible.

In areas where restaurants and bars are still operating, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the White House includes limiting group exposure to 10 individuals or less; maintaining a distance of approximately six feet between you and anyone you do not know; and using drive-thru, pickups, or delivery options to avoid eating and drinking in restaurants, bars, and food courts.

Should I invite my friends or neighbors over for dinner right now?

Though closeness to loved ones and community is one of the most basic pleasures in life, slowing the spread of COVID-19 requires individuals to take precautions to keep themselves safe. In all social interactions, the official CDC guidance states higher risk individuals (over 60 and immunosuppressed) should implement the most conservative social distancing practices possible.

On March 16, the Trump administration released strict guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including avoiding groups of 10 or more people. Although sharing meals is common to nearly every food culture, people should be mindful of how and with whom they are dining. If you do dine with others who are not living under your roof, consider sharing meals only with individuals who belong to low-risk demographic groups and aren't themselves exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has suggested that if you enjoyed a meal with someone who has exhibited symptoms for the coronavirus and discover that they are positive for COVID-19, then you are considered a higher risk individual and should call your health care provider. In the event that you were in the same space as someone that was infected and asymptomatic, your risk is much lower, but you should follow strict social distancing practices.


Food Systems

For what period of time should I stock my pantry?

At this point, the CDC’s guidance is two weeks. This is consistent with advice from experts at Johns Hopkins University as well as with general advice on emergency preparedness from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Although “pantry loading” for items like dried beans, powdered milk, and canned meat is on the rise in light of COVID-19 concerns, the good news is that grocery store supply chains remain intact. Grocers have reassured U.S. consumers that their inventories are adequate to meet the surging demand. “For the long term, H-E-B is in a good in-stock position on many of the items our customers need, and we are working around the clock to restock our shelves,” the company said in a statement recently.

Grocery stores are handling the uptick in demand in a number of ways. H-E-B and Wegmans are limiting purchases on popular items like bread, eggs, and milk. Kroger is hiring more workers. Walmart is reducing its hours to allow for consistent restocking. Whole Foods is temporarily closing its hot bars, salad bars, soup bars, and self-serve pizza stations.

What are some tips for stocking my pantry on a budget?

For many Americans, the coronavirus is leading to smaller paychecks as retail and service industry employers temporarily shut their doors. But we all have to eat healthily despite tight budgets. Here are six practical ways to stretch your dollars at the grocery store.

Make Your Menu: Time permitting, write out a basic meal plan for the week and the groceries you’ll need for it.

Respect the Freezer : frozen fruits and vegetables are a cost-effective source of nutrition.

Play the Sale: Look for discounts, coupons, and sales, especially on store brands, which usually cost less.

Go Big: Buy in bulk when you can (e.g., purchase a whole chicken instead of just chicken breasts). Freeze what you don’t immediately need.

Go Home: If you have time, prepare food yourself instead of buying prepared or frozen meals. Thirty minutes will give you enough time to bring together simple, tasty meals.

Read the Fine Print: Compare unit prices (dollars per pound or per ounce) listed on price tags to find the cheapest brand.

Hold the Steak: Because meat can be a relatively expensive source of protein, look to supplement it with plant-based sources of protein like beans, quinoa, and whole-wheat pasta.

Shop the Season: Off-season produce is almost always more expensive and of inferior quality. Look for what’s in season in your area. For example, in many parts of the country, apples, carrots, onions, and leafy greens are good bets right now. Find the Department of Agriculture’s guidance on seasonal produce here.

Are we at risk of food shortages or price spikes?

Reuters reports that in the United States, food prices jumped 0.5 percent in February—the most since May 2014. That is likely driven by Americans stocking their pantries amid coronavirus concerns rather than by supply shortfalls.

The upshot, however, is that we still don’t know what the medium- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be on global food supply chains. For now, there are three issues to keep in mind.

First, the pandemic has the potential to impact global food security both directly and indirectly. As the Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition explained recently, the crisis is “already affecting food systems directly through impacts on food supply and demand, and indirectly - but just as importantly - through decreases in purchasing power, the capacity to produce and distribute food, and the intensification of care tasks, all of which will have differentiated impacts and will more strongly affect the poor and vulnerable.”

Second, global food prices have been on the increase in general. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that, in February 2020, prices were 8.1 percent higher than they were in February 2019. This means that further increases may not be directly attributable to the coronavirus pandemic.

Third, as Chase Sova of World Food Program USA points out, food supply and food security impacts from global crises differ greatly by region. During the 2014 Ebola crisis, for example, food prices rose dramatically in West Africa. A key dynamic to watch will be crop production in affected areas.


Vulnerability

There are people in my community who are especially susceptible to food insecurity right now. How can I help?

Official guidance encourages households to procure food supplies for two-week periods, but this poses extreme challenges for many families. Moreover, studies find that those who live in lower income communities are more vulnerable to chronic health conditions—the same conditions that can make the coronavirus up to 10 times more deadly.

However, there are a number of organizations that are working tirelessly through the COVID-19 outbreak to help meet the needs of the most vulnerable. If you’re not able to lend your time or financial resources to these organizations, consider buying only what you need at the grocery store so that others in the community can access supplies they need.

If you do have financial resources to contribute to the COVID-19 response, consider donating to food bank networks.


U.S. Government Response

What kind of help can we expect from the federal government?

On March 18, 2020, the Senate passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and President Trump signed it into law later that day. This emergency aid package increases funding for participants in The Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) who lose their jobs due to COVID-19; local food banks; emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance for students who receive free or reduced-price meals; and home-delivered and pre-packaged meals to the Senior Nutrition Program. Additionally, the new law suspends work and work training requirements for SNAP, which means more people will have access to food.

For the full list of benefits and appropriations, see: HR 6201

I am a public official. Where can I get guidance on food and nutrition for my community in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic?

Below is a roundup of guidance from different federal agencies:

White House

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Centers for Disease Control (CDC): Guidance for Businesses and Employers

Small Business Administration (SBA): Guidance for Business and Employers

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

U.S. Food & Drug Administration

How does the Families First Coronavirus Response Act address food needs?

In order to address the food needs for many Americans, The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allows the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and states to have greater flexibility in the implementation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Act’s provisions include:

  • All eligible households can receive the SNAP maximum monthly benefit. This act allows states to provide a short-term increase in SNAP benefits for eligible households. This does not apply to households who are already at the maximum SNAP monthly benefit.

  • Children with free or reduced lunches. States may apply meal-replacement benefits for SNAP and non-SNAP households with children who would normally receive free or reduced lunch.

  • Work requirements. This Act temporarily suspends the general work requirements for SNAP as well as the three-month time limit work requirement for the able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWAD). This will allow adults under the age of 50 without children to receive SNAP benefits. The work requirement suspension will take effect on April 1.

  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). This Act ensures that WIC participants continue to have access to their benefits. For recertifying participants or new enrollees in WIC, the requirement for an in-person appointment has been waived. Additionally, this act defers the requirements necessary to determine nutritional risk such as height and weight measurements and bloodwork.

  • Senior Nutrition Program. This Act provides additional funding for the Senior Nutrition Program in the Administration for Community Living. These funds will provide low-income seniors with home-delivered and pre-packaged meals.

For State-by-State SNAP waivers, see: SNAP State by State COVID-19 Waivers

For State-by-State WIC waivers, see: WIC State by State COVID-19 Waivers

For State-by-State Child Nutrition Program waivers, see:

WIC State by State COVID-19 Waivers