With the help of citizen scientists from across the five boroughs of New York City and New York State, the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute conducted an environmental scan of food availability at NYC food retailers during the COVID-19 outbreak. Our survey gathered information on the impact of COVID-19 on food availability and our findings offer the public and policy makers with useful real time information on the state of food access in New York.
Between March 24 and June 25, we received 318 responses from New York shoppers representing 115 unique neighborhoods (92 in New York City and 23 from Upstate New York and Long Island.) In a sub-analysis of NYC specific shoppers (n=293), using the 2018 NYC median household income ($60,782), we explored differences in reported food availability and respondent experiences between lower-income (n=115, 39%) and higher-income (n=178, 61%) neighborhoods.
The primary retail environment frequented by all respondents was supermarkets (78%), but shoppers also reported their experiences with online retailers offering delivery (12%), online retailers offering in store pick up (2%), bodegas (2%) and pharmacies (3%). Shoppers reported shopping at their preferred, regular retailers (68%) and at retailers new to them (3%) or previously infrequently visited (29%). At least 71% of respondents reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed where or how they purchase food, report low availability of supermarket staples, and note an inability to purchase everything on their shopping list. Reported shopping patterns did not differ significantly between low income and high income neighborhoods.
Shoppers reported that food workers they encountered during their shopping experience were largely (88%) wearing personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves, with no significant difference between income groups.
When asked for their overall impression of the store using a green, yellow, red rating system – the majority of shoppers (80%) report a “green” level of food availability – meaning that “most essential items were in stock and available.” Just 20% of shoppers reported a “yellow” level of availability (“many items were out of stock.”) No respondents indicated a “red” level of availability (“significant number of items out of stock.”) Of interest, shopper impressions of store supply differed significantly between low income and high income neighborhoods, with shoppers from low income neighborhoods reporting “green” store status significantly less often, and “yellow” store status significantly more often, than shoppers from higher income neighborhoods.
Respondents were asked to assess their current diet against the quality of their diet before the COVID-19 crisis. While 52% of respondents report that their diet is “about the same,” 28% of respondents reported that their diet is “more healthy,” and 18% said it was “less healthy.” No significant differences were reported in diet related behavior changes by low income and high income shoppers.
Among the changes shoppers report making to their normal routines, the most frequently reported adjustments involve respondents shopping less frequently but purchasing more in a single trip, using different stores than before, and shopping at more stores than before to get everything they need. No statistically significant differences between neighborhoods were observed using a chi2 analysis (p<0.05).
Shoppers from both low income and high income neighborhoods alike report observing empty shelves for a number of food products and decreased availability of products overall. Empty shelves for household products and non-perishable products (canned goods and frozen food) were reported with the greatest frequency. Shoppers report limited fresh food availability, but less so than for other products. Perceived availability of food products did not differ significantly between income groups. However, shoppers in high income neighborhoods did report significantly higher (p<0.05) frequency of COVID-19 related signage.
Nearly half of shoppers (45%) report not being able to purchase everything on their list during a single trip, while 21% report making substitutions or swaps for specific brands or products in order to meet their needs.
When asked for specific products that were unavailable (“if you were not able to purchase everything on your list, please list the products that were unavailable to you?”) respondents listed a wide range of items. We grouped responses into categories of like products: fresh fruit/vegetables, dairy and alternatives, meat/seafood and alternatives, bread/pastry, shelf stable food, drinks, frozen food, paper products, cleaning supplies, and other. By group, specific shelf stable foods, meat, fresh fruit/vegetables and cleaning supplies were the most frequently cited unavailable products, with dairy/dairy alternatives rounding out the top five. Taken together, responses to this question, coupled with our inquiry into which shelves were observed to be empty, indicate that while stores were able to keep shelves for fruits and vegetables well stocked, shoppers have frequently not been able to purchase specific fresh food products.
Finally, shoppers were asked to note anything unusual or interesting about their shopping experience. Among the comments provided, respondents most frequently noted limited availability of food products. The second most frequent type of comment referred to social distancing measures (or lack thereof) at stores, as well as shopper interactions with other New Yorkers during their shopping experience. A few select quotes are provided below.
Some shoppers provided in depth comments on their store experience and their observations of store employees. One shopper said,
“The stores are taking the restriction seriously. There is long wait, no more than ten people are allowed in the store at the same time. One employee stays by the door- his job is to make sure to keep a distance at list 5 feet between the customers. While waiting outside, he provides a pair of rubber gloves to wear to each customer before entering the store. He does not allow you to use your own gloves for the safety of everyone. Also, only he can open the door for one customer to go in after another one leaves. Usually, I buy my meat, and fresh produce from the store. I used to go every other day, but now I only go once a week. The store added glass sheets to all the counters to protect their employees. There is availability for almost everything. I felt much safer going to this (smaller, local) place rather going to huge supermarket.”
While other shoppers noted:
“This was my third or fourth time in the store since we started social distancing. For the first time, our cashiers had PPE (masks and gloves) and there were markers to space out the lines. However, the people stocking shelves did not wear protective gear.”
“I waited more than an hour to get into the store. The shopping experience was extremely stressful.”
Some shoppers commented on price and the limited availability of products and delivery options:
“While I was able to largely fill my shopping list, there were significantly fewer product choices than before the pandemic. Often what’s left are the most expensive options of a type of product. So on top of groceries being more expensive in general, the more affordable options are yellow by above, many lower priced items are out of stock.”
“I didn’t know when a delivery window would open up for my online order, so I had to fill multiple carts on various platforms (Fresh Direct, Amazon Fresh, Peapod, Target etc) and kept refreshing throughout the day to see when a new delivery window would open up. The first one that opened up was on Instacart with the store DeCicco and Sons which is a small local store (I believe the fact that it’s small and local is the reason why a delivery slot opened up more quickly).”
“I missed getting my usual frozen vegetables. The assortment is kind of bleak. The meat/poultry prices have increased. I have not been able to get my usual cleaning products in the longest time I’m making due with other items.”
Other shoppers were very positive in their comments, some recommending locations with good availability, or helpful tips for securing online delivery slots. One shopper in particular highlighted a desire to support small businesses:
“I just want to point out anecdotal observations that my friends and I have exchanged- which is that many people are going to smaller (usually minority-run) businesses because they still have plenty of stock, and there’s an urge to help small businesses!”