Consumer spending dropped 9.8% early in the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the same period in 2019. One year later, in the second quarter of 2021, the economy as a whole had hardly recovered, but a large number of businesses and consumers had started to adapt. Consumer expenditures in the first and second quarters of 2021 were even higher than in the first quarter of 2020, which was mostly unaffected by the pandemic. We wanted to find out how these swings in spending affected our food purchases (and consequent health decisions), so we turned to the USDA and U.S. Census Bureau to find out.
Of these swings in spending, two of the most notable were dining out and alcohol consumption. And as far as the performance of individual states in these areas, our study turned up a range of interesting trends in terms of which states consume the most (and least) amount of alcohol, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and other dietary elements. Read on to find out what else we uncovered got us through the worst of the pandemic.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has kept weekly records of retail food sales since 2019 based on 51 different food categories for 43 of the 50 states (nor Washington, D.C.). Data was not collected for the following states:
Using this data, along with data from the U.S. Census Bureau and one of our own surveys that looked at how inflation has changed people’s spending habits — specifically when it comes to food — we sought to better understand how the pandemic has changed many Americans’ relationship to consumable products like food, sweets, beverages, and alcohol.
Specifically, we wanted to know how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our eating habits. Which state consumed the most alcohol per capita? Which state consumed the most sugar and artificial sweeteners, the most fruits and veggies, and the most meats, eggs, and nuts? We also wanted to know, as these habits continue to change, how much does the average American spend on these items?
Upon reaching an estimated $20 billion, weekly retail food sales in the U.S. peaked during the week of March 15, 2020. As uncertainty surrounding the pandemic raged across the country and the first nationwide lockdowns began to take effect, millions of people began panic-buying an unnecessarily high amount of products they believed would become scarce in the weeks or months ahead. (This behavior resulted in loads of perishable goods and household essentials being left to waste, ultimately depriving other consumers of the minimum amount of these essential goods.)
Potentially inspired by that same fear and uncertainty, many of the peak purchasing periods to follow — not just in the U.S. but globally — corresponded with spikes in COVID-19 cases and subsequent COVID-19 infection waves.
A year later, in March 2021, total retail food sales settled at around $15 billion, and by the same period the next year, sales had risen only slightly to around $16 billion a week, according to the USDA.
Below, we’ll break down spending patterns for major food categories defined by the USDA — meats, eggs, and nuts; fruits and vegetables; commercially prepared (processed) foods; alcohol; and sugar and sweeteners — across time to find patterns by state, region, and more.
The sale of meats, eggs, and nuts all peaked in 2020, grabbing 18.1% of total weekly food sales in the U.S. But since then, these essential foods rich in protein have seen a moderate but steady decline, totaling just 17.7% of overall sales in 2021 and 17.6% in 2022.
Of the top five states in terms of increased weekly spending on meat, eggs, and nuts over the course of the pandemic, all were found to be spending 30% or more than the national average:
A study conducted by Statista found that about half of Americans (47%) were consuming the same amount of meat during the peak of the pandemic, while 26% claimed to be eating more and just 24% claimed to be eating less. The study looked at other common sources of protein, as well.
|Animal products||Protein from plant sources||Protein from meat alternatives|
|Didn’t consume this protein||2%||10%||31%|
Roughly one-quarter of Americans increased their consumption of various protein sources during 2020, which likely accounts for the increase we saw in the USDA’s data for meat, eggs, and nuts.
Some things that may have influenced this decline are the extreme fluctuations in demand and supply chain issues that contributed to increased volatility in import, export, producer, and consumer prices during the first months of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, industries dealing in meat, fish, dairy, and eggs were affected the most. Early outbreaks in several U.S. meat processing facilities led to a domestic meat shortage, increasing the demand for imported meat and ultimately causing prices to rise by 16% by May 2020.
Import and export prices for both fish and shellfish also fluctuated around the peak of the pandemic, largely due to the reduction in demand from restaurants, as well as the cruise ship industry, which was effectively shut down.
Early on, when nearly the entire food service industry was on hiatus, an oversupply of both milk and cheese led to declines in export prices for dairy products and eggs — with prices falling 5.3% between January and April 2020, before declining another 11.9% in May 2020. From June 2020, as more states began to open up and food service slowly resumed, dairy prices increased by 24.5% as demand appeared to be recovering. Due in part to large government purchases, though, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box program, the price of milk and cheese remained high.
The sale of fruit, on the other hand, has been on the rise since before the pandemic began. It jumped from 5.2% of total weekly food sales in 2019 to 5.8% in 2020 and continued to rise to 6.2% by 2022.
Of the top five states in terms of increased fruit sales over the course of the pandemic, all were found to be spending 50% or more than the national average:
However, Americans did not show the same sustained affinity for vegetables, with the percentage of total food sales dropping from 7% in 2020 to 6.4% in 2022 — an even lower number (6.2%) than in 2019.
Of the top five states in terms of increased weekly vegetable sales over the course of the pandemic, none were purchasing at a rate more than 25% above the national average:
The fluctuating consumption of fruits and vegetables surrounding the peak of the pandemic could have been caused by corresponding effects on U.S. agricultural production. Due to the conditions under which many agricultural workers live and work, this population group saw a disproportionate number of large COVID-19 outbreaks, contributing to ongoing outbreaks in some of the country's largest fruit- and vegetable-producing regions (mainly Central Washington, Central Florida, and much of Central and Southern California).
However, none of these three produce-producing states also turned up on the USDA’s list of the five states showing the highest increase (or decrease) in fruit or vegetable sales.
Likely thanks to their accessibility and convenience — but not necessarily their nutritional value — consumables in the commercially prepared items category have claimed the highest percentage of overall food sales in the U.S. over the last four years, accounting for nearly a third of the market (31.3%) in 2019.
During the peak pandemic years, however, sales of commercially prepared items — such as frozen foods, TV dinners, canned soups, boxed meals, etc. — declined to 29.4% in 2020, and increased only slightly (29.9%) in 2021. But as we near the end of 2022, the market for commercially prepared items, increasing to 30.2%, has nearly recovered to its pre-pandemic status.
According to the NYU School of Global Public Health, in the early days of the pandemic, people were shopping less frequently, yet the sale of processed food items significantly increased. Therefore, the decrease noted in the USDA’s data could be due to the decrease in shopping overall, not a drop in sales of commercially prepared items specifically.
Over the past twenty years, across nearly every segment of the U.S. population, the consumption of processed foods has steadily increased. As evidence linking these foods to a range of chronic diseases piles up, health researchers have begun recommending policies designed to reduce their consumption:
A number of government bodies and institutions have already implemented support programs and policies intended to increase the availability and affordability — especially among disadvantaged populations — of more nutritious whole foods. This may also be why we’ve seen an uptick in fruit purchases, even if veggies are slower to catch up.
According to our research, alcohol purchases peaked in 2020, accounting for 9.2% of total retail food sales in the U.S. That’s more alcohol purchased than both fruits and vegetables. That number has since dropped back down below pre-pandemic levels (8.3% in 2022 vs. 9% in 2019).
Of the top five states in terms of increased weekly alcohol sales in the U.S. before and after the peak of the pandemic, all were buying alcohol at a rate at least 24% higher than the national average. The number one state, Colorado, was purchasing alcohol about 43% more than the national average.
Here’s how the top five heaviest drinking states ranked:
The top five states in terms of decreased weekly alcohol sales from the start of the pandemic to the present day varied from a 2.8% drop (in Indiana) to a 10.3% drop (in Wyoming).
Here are the top five increasingly sober states:
Excessive drinking (such as binge drinking) increased by 21% during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. They also estimated that a one-year increase in alcohol consumption — such as the one many Americans experienced during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic — will likely result in 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure, and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by the year 2040. By the end of 2023, the increase in alcohol consumption largely caused by COVID-19 is expected to result in 100 additional deaths and 2,800 additional cases of liver failure.
While the weekly retail sales of sugars and sweeteners have remained fairly consistent through the peak years of the pandemic — 0.5% in 2019 and 2020, and 0.4% in 2021 and 2022 — a handful of states have seen a significant decrease, dropping anywhere from 15% to 19% below the national average.
When we compared the top five list above with the number of U.S. adults 18 or older diagnosed with diabetes, we found an interesting correlation: every state on our list also happened to fall below the country’s median percentage rate of 9.8%.
In comparison, Florida, the state with the highest increased consumption of sugars and sweeteners (4.2%), also had a noticeably higher than average percentage (10.5%) of adults 18 or older diagnosed with diabetes. South Carolina, the state with the second highest increased consumption of sugars and sweeteners (3%), had an even higher number of adults that’d been diagnosed with diabetes (11.6%).
Looking at the map above, we can see that in 2022 a cluster of three northeastern states were consuming alcohol at rates more than twice or nearly twice the national average:
Following a relatively steep drop-off, the next closest contenders for alcohol consumption were South Dakota (56.1%) and Louisiana (50.7%).
According to data from Statista, New Hampshire had the highest per capita alcohol consumption of any U.S. state in 2020. Although New Hampshire was consuming more alcohol per capita than any other state (4.8 gallons of ethanol per person), it did not have the highest rates of binge drinking. The states with the highest rates of binge drinking were found to be Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Montana — none of which, we were surprised to find, ended up on our list of the top 20 states for alcohol consumption in 2022. Considering Wisconsin is known for its alcohol-heavy culture, it’s possible they simply maintained their habits throughout the pandemic that no one was able to topple.
Nationally, prior to the pandemic, 63% of adults reported drinking a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once a day, such as soda, sweetened fruit drinks, sports or energy drinks, or sweetened coffee or tea. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the five states with the highest percentage of adults consuming at least one sugary drink a day were:
None of the top five states for (nonalcoholic) beverage consumption in 2022, however, were also on the list above.
The top five beverage-consuming states, in general, include:
Just because the five states above consumed the most nonalcoholic beverages in 2022, it doesn’t mean that the drinks they had were unhealthy. In fact, these five states all landed somewhere near the middle in terms of past consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, according to the CDC.
Among the top five states for increased intake of sugars and sweeteners during the pandemic, several of those states also appeared near the top of the CDC’s list for consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages prior to the pandemic.
The top five states for increased consumption of sugars and sweeteners during the pandemic include:
A few states also near the top of the CDC’s list for daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages prior to the pandemic were:
According to the CDC, the most frequent consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages are adults and adolescents who tend to smoke, not get enough sleep, exercise infrequently, regularly eat fast food, and rarely eat fruit. Additionally, this population also tends to spend more time watching TV, using their cell phones or computers, and playing video games — all behaviors that increased dramatically during the pandemic. It seems when one unhealthy habit increases, many others follow.
When we compared weekly food sales in 2019 to those in 2022, we found that every state (for which there was data available) saw an increase in every category except alcohol, fats and oils, and sugars and sweeteners. This prompted a debate: Did Americans consciously decide to start eating healthier after the peak of the pandemic? Or could it have been a combination of other factors — such as inflation or supply chain disruption — that gave us this result?
In a previous Innerbody Research study, we compared data from January through May 2022 to data from the summer of 2022 to determine how the spending habits of Americans had changed in the wake of increasingly higher inflation rates.
Specifically, in terms of food spending, people’s meat purchases were one of the most notable changes in behavior:
More than half of our respondents (61.4%) said they were buying less meat or no meat to soften the burden of inflation. This cost-cutting behavior, one could argue, contributed to the steady decline in sales of meats, eggs, and nuts through the peak of the pandemic, and could also be connected to Statista’s finding that nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) were eating less meat in 2020.
Likewise, almost two-thirds of our respondents bought less coffee from large chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Perhaps the steady increase in retail beverage sales overall, which occurred through the peak years of the pandemic, was due in part to the high number of people (61.3%) who were buying less coffee or no coffee from major chains to reduce spending in the wake of rising inflation rates.
Finally, 2022’s inflation rates saw a lot more people willing to cook at home to spare themselves rising delivery prices, among other things.
Looking at just this last category, it appears that nearly three-quarters of our survey participants (74.3%) were willing to cook more at home, as opposed to eating out, in order to save money — which, in theory, is a great way to save some cash. Eating at home and cooking from scratch, rather than buying packaged foods, are just common two broad strategies many people are using to cut food costs.
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To further understand how the pandemic has impacted food sales in the U.S., we continued our analysis by comparing weekly food sales per capita by category and by state for 2022. And when we did, we immediately saw that New Hampshire and Maine again stood out. Not only New Hampshire and Maine, though, were in the top 10 for all five of our major categories.
These ten states were spending a lot compared to folks in Utah, who were on average only spending half as much ($5.38) on meat. Rhode Island citizens spent a meager $0.07 per person on alcohol. People in Mississippi — who landed in the top 10 for sugars and sweeteners, as well as meats, eggs, and nuts — were spending the least per week ($2.33) on fruits.
Texas, surprisingly, didn’t make it into the top 10 for any category; Texans, however, were found to be spending less per week per person than anyone else on vegetables ($2.25). California also, surprisingly, didn’t make it into the top 10 for any category; residents of the Golden State, however, were found to be spending about half as much as anyone else, just $0.13, on sugars and sweeteners.
We also found that residents of Maine, sticking to the state’s overall trend, were spending the most per week per person on alcohol — but also on vegetables. People in Rhode Island spent much less than anyone else on alcohol, followed by Connecticut, then Maryland. Mississippi spent the most on sugars and sweeteners but bought the least amount of fruits, opting for added sugars over natural ones. And Utah ended up in the bottom 10 for all five categories, spending little on food overall.
Even though sugars and sweeteners were found to have the overall lowest sales per capita in 2022, we did find that 8 out of the top 10 states with the highest weekly sales in this category were located in the South:
Interestingly, the South also had the highest weekly sales per capita in the nonalcoholic beverages category. Across 18 states, over 26% of adults consume a sugar-sweetened beverage at least once every day, making sugary drinks one of the primary sources of added sugar in the standard American diet. And of the top five soda-consuming states in the U.S., three — Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee — were also on our list above. It’s easy to see how the South’s sweet tooth might be the result of prolific soda, iced tea, and other sugary beverage consumption.
California, Oregon, and Washington all landed in the bottom 10 for sugars and sweeteners, as well as meats, eggs, and nuts — and other than California’s appearance in the bottom 10 for vegetables, the West Coast didn’t appear on either list for any other category. This could lead one to speculate that these three states, in general, take a more balanced approach to their respective standard diets.
Backing up our findings was a report detailing the top 20 most health-conscious cities in the U.S., in which nine were found to be located in either California, Oregon, or Washington. The second most important thing this study looked at was the quality, access, and affordability of healthy food options, in line with our findings.
Since 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has kept weekly records of retail food sales, based on 51 different food categories, for 43 of the 50 states (data was not collected for Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C.). Using this data, as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau, we analyzed the eating and purchasing habits of Americans, then compared these metrics by state and noted any interesting differences between regions. We also took a look at before and after peak pandemic trends, the top food choices in each state, as well as spending trends.
Innerbody Research is committed to providing objective, science-based suggestions, and research to help our readers make more informed decisions regarding health and wellness. We invested time and effort into creating this report to understand food spending patterns and eating habits within the U.S., before and after the peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic. We hope to reach as many people as possible by making this information widely available. As such, please feel free to share our content for educational, editorial, or discussion purposes. We only ask that you link back to this page and credit the author as Innerbody.com.
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