Experts suggest pandemic could change future of food industry

Screen capture of McLaughlin, Hitt, and Brown during the webinar

Looking at the future of the food industry

Jennifer Gerarda Brown, dean of the School of Law, top right, discussed the future of the food industry with Betsy McLaughlin, board member of Veggie Grill, top left, and Jack Hitt, a food writer, bottom, during the president's speaker series, The Way Forward.

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OVID-19 has negatively impacted the food and restaurant industries throughout the country. With many states shutting down restaurants for at least some period of this year and the threat of national food shortages, the pandemic has changed the relationship many Americans have with food, two experts said on August 20 in Quinnipiac’s virtual presidential speaker series, The Way Forward.

As the number of people cooking at home has increased, Jack Hitt, a food writer, said that it’s been really interesting for him to see people wanting to learn how to cook.

“I like to think I was a pretty decent cook before this started,” said Betsy McLaughlin, board member of Veggie Grill. “And I’m a really good cook now — partially because I’ve tried new things and because there’s time now. It’s OK if I mess something up and do it again.”

With more people learning about the pleasures of cooking and how food has the potential to taste as good when it’s cooked at home, there’s increasing pressure on the restaurant industry.

“The pressure is on for everything from the seashore lobster shack to any restaurant in any downtown to really put out some good food,” said Hitt. “Because for most of us now, it’s always a special night out.”

Hitt said that we have to rethink every step of cooking and how much it’s become a part of daily planning. People are far more deliberate about eating because of this.

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“I have spent more time thinking about when to go to the grocery store, how to navigate the grocery store, which grocery store to go to based on what I think they’ll be out of, how do I get to a farmers market, how do I prepare, what meal am I preparing for, what’s my next meal as I’m preparing the current meal,” McLaughlin agreed. “Food has really taken over a portion of my daily routine.”

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Trends in food subscriptions

A question from the audience prompted the experts to talk about trends in food, specifically about subscription services like Sun Basket, Blue Apron or Home Chef and how restaurants are holding up against them.

“We've definitely seen a shift in choices. We've seen customer expectations rise because of it,” said McLaughlin. “On the business side, when COVID-19 first happened, restaurants had to shut down and, in order to preserve any kinds of jobs, they needed to do something. So they offered pantry items for sale.”

McLaughlin explained that while this supported restaurants’ farmers and vendors, it also was a game-changer for many people because it was the first time they had access to restaurant-quality ingredients. And now, more restaurants are preparing family meals for consumers to bring home.

“It used to be that you cooked at home, you went out and dined at a restaurant, and the subscription meal business really came into play because you wanted something in the middle,” said McLaughlin. “Over time, so many more options became available for how you can prepare a meal at home or how you can have a meal feel like you prepared at home, which is fantastic for a consumer. The expectations have definitely increased and, as we move past COVID-19, my expectation is that all of those options will remain available to consumers.”

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Food and socioeconomic status

However, not all communities have seen a benefit — with the most noticeable change occurring in low-income areas, the experts agreed.

“I think a lot of it has settled down. But, depending on your socioeconomic status, you had different things that were missing,” said McLaughlin. “There’s been a lot of shortages in many of the underserved communities that are more basic needs — like not being able to get milk or fresh bread, and I don’t know if that has changed in the past five months.”

In areas where food insecurity is an issue, there’s typically more “essential workers” who are outside of the home more often and actually have less time now to be able to prepare anything inside the home, McLaughlin added.

Food is a part of socioeconomic issues, but it is also important to recognize that food and public protest go hand in hand, according to Hitt.

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Food, organization and public protest

Hitt said that it was no coincidence that the lunch counter was one of the places that helped make the civil rights movement in the 1960s famous. One of Hitt’s examples was Georgia Gilmore, who was involved with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s movement. People would go to her place to meet and greet, to organize and to plan, he said. She also started selling her food as a way to fundraise, he added.

“One of the reasons why Taco Bell and McDonald’s have issued pro-Black Lives Matter statements along with these other restaurants is because those people are out there and they are interacting with these restaurants on a regular basis,” said Hitt. “Historically, it’s worth saying that that has always been the case — food, public protests and freedom of assembly go hand in hand.”

“There was a kind of a discombobulation of society and a reorganization of how we interacted,” said Hitt. “And food is always at the center of any interaction among humans.”

McLaughlin added that many businesses in the United States, restaurants included, are talking about ways they can be more supportive to the community.

Video Recap

Watch the on-demand recording

The Way Forward President's Speaker Series: Pandemic Effects on Food: Food Insecurity and the Restaurant Business video

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The Way Forward

Presidential speaker series

The presidential speaker series is designed to connect members of the university community with leaders, visionaries and established professionals from across the country. “The Way Forward” will offer a virtual forum to showcase and share innovative ideas and critical thinking about some of the most current and pressing challenges facing society.