Big Food Is Boosted by All Our Pandemic Snacking

And it has big plans to keep the momentum going.

Group of Sweet and Salty Snacks, Perfect for Binge Watching
LauriPatterson / Getty Images

Snack companies are doing well these days. The pandemic has brought an unexpected boost to sales of products that, prior to March, had taken a downturn. Bags of chips, boxes of cookies, ice cream, and other sweet and salty prepackaged snacks are suddenly flying off store shelves – and being restocked just as fast by employees who work for the companies that make them, known as "direct store distribution agents." 

Writing for the New York Times, Michael Moss reports that the pandemic has turned our kitchens into one big vending machine. "We may think that we turned a corner on our eating habits with all that sourdough baking we did, but Big Food isn’t about to let us off its hook that easily." 

A sales report issued this spring to Wall Street analysts found that the future is rosy for junk food snacks. The CEO of Mondelez International said, "In-home there is more grazing, more continuous eating, and snacking takes up a much bigger role." Not good news for our waistlines...

Moss reported:

"Data from the research firm Nielsen that tracked Americans’ grocery buying from March to May bore this out. Campbell’s reaped a 93 percent increase in sales of its canned soup before settling back to a still-amazing 32 percent growth. At General Mills, breakfast cereal jumped 29 percent in late March, and jumped again to 37 percent in the third week of April. Deep into the pandemic, we were still buying 51 percent more frozen waffles, pancakes and French toast from Kellogg’s. And so on."

What's driving the change? 

There are a number of factors, not least of which is the obvious fact that we're all at home a lot more than usual and likely feeling less pressured to eat salad, rather than Oreos. There are strong emotions associated with life in lockdown, and food can be comforting; it creates a sense of normalcy. Apparently there's also surging curiosity about new products: "More than 40 percent of the soaring sales in Fig Newtons and Nutter Butter cookies came from first-time buyers." 

Not mentioned in Moss's article, but certainly experienced by myself, a parent who's working from home like so many others, is the endless struggle to keep children fed throughout the day. Pre-COVID, I'd send them off to school with a fully packed healthy lunch and wouldn't have to worry about food-related demands between 9 am and 4 pm. Now, the requests for snacks come at all hours of the workday, so I can understand why parents would have a sudden urge to stock up on fast, easy-to-distribute snacks.

Life in lockdown can be profoundly boring at times, so I imagine many people are purchasing special treats as a way to make things feel more exciting at home. I know I do this, buying a single bag of Miss Vickie's Sweet Chili and Sour Cream chips (a.k.a. the greatest flavor ever) every Friday night to eat during a weekly Scrabble game with my husband. We just completed our 16th consecutive week of playing, which means 16 bags of chips that I never would've bought otherwise.

A commenter on Moss's article raised the topic of nostalgia, and how she, too, has found herself buying treats she never usually buys, likely because all of these are associated with her childhood. "I had noticed myself getting nostalgic in the supermarket, but hadn't connected it to a broader trend or to the pandemic." It's an interesting point that could be linked to purchasing trends, too.

Regardless of why we're doing it, Moss wants people to realize that Big Food will be pulling out all the stops to keep this momentum going. Whether it's through more invasive advertising and engaging social media platforms, fiercer competition for shelf space, expansion into new markets, spinning products as healthier than they are, or presenting us with tricky situations that force us to buy things we don't need (think of the full online shopping cart that requires only an extra $5 to qualify for free shipping), we should prepare to be bombarded.

Food guilt is never a good thing, and there's no point being hard on ourselves for decadent pandemic habits, but the key is not to fall back into those habits permanently. Processed, prepackaged snack foods should remain in the treats-only realm and not become a regular part of our daily diets. The easiest way to do this is not portion control, as the companies love to proclaim ("Take a pause between each bite [of Oreo], check in with yourself, and ask, 'Am I still hungry?'"), but simply not to buy.