Not so fast.
The history of how we eat in America suggests that skepticism is in order — especially when it comes to bets on anything but convenience. Despite all that cajoling and guilt, Americans in 2018 spent an average of just 35 minutes a day cooking and cleaning up, virtually unchanged from 2008; direct-to-consumer sales languished at less than 1 percent of total food sales.
The reason people are joining CSAs and cooking at home is that they have few other choices. And even as they soak pots of beans and plant tomato seedlings behind the house, they are embracing delivery and ready-to-eat meals like never before. When it is all said and done, the real change brought about by the coronavirus won’t be a back-to-the-kitchen movement. It will be a rush toward hyper-convenience at mealtime that could make us more reliant than ever on food prepared by other people.
At the start of 2020, going to the grocery store was a deeply ingrained habit, and the idea of subcontracting your food shopping felt wrong. What if your personal shopper chose green bananas instead of the super-ripe ones you like? No wonder just 4.5 percent of all grocery sales in the United States happened online, according to Deutsche Bank. Sales were expected to reach 5.7 percent by year’s end.
But by mid-March, pandemic stay-at-home orders made trips to the store downright scary. Downloads for Instacart, Peapod and Target-owned Shipt surged 620 percent, 472 percent and 298 percent respectively between February and April, according to mobile data consulting firm Apptopia. Instacart reported a tenfold rise in grocery orders — twentyfold in California and New York. Thrive Market, an online natural and organic grocery that started the pandemic with 800,000 members, added an additional 100,000, a nearly 13 percent increase, in just six weeks.
A lot of people have found that, minus the stress of getting a delivery slot, shopping online for groceries is pretty great. Fabric, a fulfillment company that helps retailers with digital strategy, reported that 70 percent of consumers it surveyed said they will probably continue shopping online for groceries. By the end of the year, it estimates that more than 10 percent of Americans will buy groceries online. People will return to stores, but “most of the newcomers will continue to supplement their shopping with online orders,” predicts Thrive Market chief executive Nick Green. “By now they’ve had five, six, eight experiences online, and the longer this goes on, the more comfortable they get,” he said.
The lockdown has also hastened some trends that were already underway. Before the pandemic, eating in America was rapidly becoming an app-driven, on-demand, customizable experience. Virtually anything could be delivered to your door, or ordered ahead on a smartphone and picked up without ever speaking to another human. Delivery by non-pizza restaurants rose 18 percent year over year before the pandemic, according to research firm NPD, while third-party orders through DoorDash, UberEats and Grubhub jumped 40 percent in 2019. Even McDonald’s and Taco Bell offer delivery nationwide.
Thanks to the shutdowns, many restaurants have shifted to takeout to pay their bills, which means you can now eat meals cooked by a Michelin-starred chef at home — and save money on the booze. Some top restaurants, such as Rose’s Luxury in Washington, sell multiday meal kits with heat, eat and garnish instructions for dishes like lychee salad with sausage, habanero and peanuts. (And scoring a reservation can be as hard as it was when the restaurant was open.) It may not earn restaurants as much as when diners sit at a table, but if customers like it, to-go could provide an additional revenue stream once social distancing ends.
It isn’t just tonight’s dinner that can be dropped on your doorstep. Frozen meals, long an icon of lowest-common-denominator dining, are also undergoing a renaissance — in part because of their convenience — with restaurant-quality food replacing the Salisbury steaks and tater tots. Among the things we’ve stashed in our freezer in recent weeks: pizzas made in Naples; boil-in-bag ramen kits from a Japanese chef in San Francisco; chicken pot pie and Korean beef stew from a New York City start-up. Talia di Napoli, the pizza company, saw orders spike by an incredible 1,450 percent in March and April — Americans clearly need their artisanal pies. (The other two outlets have seen sales increases of a not-modest 50 percent.)
Even the spike in CSA memberships can be understood as an act of convenience. Both of us are avid cooks and regulars at the farmers market, but until last month we had never joined a CSA. After weeks of scrambling for a delivery spot with FreshDirect or Whole Foods or Costco, we reached out to Full Cellar Farm, in Frederick County, Md., one of our favorite vendors at our neighborhood farmers market. The prospect of a guaranteed weekly box of produce, delivered to our door or picked up at a designated drop spot, just made sense.
Kip Kelley, who runs Full Cellar, confirmed that his CSA has grown by 20 customers, or 40 percent. But most of his new customers are like us — market regulars who saw the CSA as a convenient, safe option. So Kelley says the surge is less a new embrace of local food than “a change in how people are getting it.” He has a point: We don’t plan to continue with the CSA once we are free to go out and shop again. And for that matter, Kelley may not even offer it. Indeed, a lot of the new CSAs, which were bids to replace the farms’ restaurant customers, may disappear once the shutdown is over.
The virus has been a major systemic shock. Some people will certainly stick to a slower, more local and more considered way of eating on the other side of this quarantine. But convenience at mealtime has been an American pursuit over generations. The automobile and the microwave made feeding ourselves easier, as did innovations like Gail Borden’s “meat biscuit” (the original 19th-century breakfast sandwich), frozen dinners and fast-food restaurants after World War II. America’s history of feeding itself can be summed up as a persistent and occasionally brilliant effort to make it as easy as possible.
When the crisis subsides, the realities that drive our embrace of convenience will still be there: women working outside the home; men not contributing to housework; the priority of screentime; the erratic schedules of service-sector jobs; the fact that planning and preparing meals day after day are simply not things a lot of people want to do.
We once asked Harry Balzer, a now-retired market analyst for NPD Group who studied Americans’ eating habits for 40 years, when convenience first became a primary concern. “Do you believe that Adam was the first man? If so, that’s when it started,” he said. “If you believe in evolution, then it was before that. Food is fuel. People have always wanted to make feeding themselves easier.”