American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
January-March 2021

Household Food Procurement, Gender, and COVID-19

Michael Carolan, Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts, Colorado State University

Michael Carolan

Michael Carolan

The world is going through an unprecedented pandemic. In March 2020, one in five people around the world were under lockdown. By the end of that month, three in four Americans were following stay-at-home orders. Throughout 2020, public health officials have pleaded with the general public to maintain social distancing and restraint when engaging with others. This messaging has only become amplified during the holiday season.

As we approach the one-year mark from when reports of the coronavirus were initially picked up by the U.S. media, a picture is taking shape about certain impacts of the pandemic—from the psychological impacts of social distancing to the economic costs of lockdowns and the impacts (mostly positive) related to reduced travel and industrial output, as evidenced in data pointing to reductions in CO2 emissions, noise pollution, and improved water quality

Sociologically speaking, it is still too early to know the pandemic’s full effects, although there are preliminary data to draw from. Consider virtual schooling—a responsibility that my wife and I, like many parents across the country, have had to negotiate for most of 2020. A The New York Times poll found that nearly half of the fathers surveyed with children under 12 reported spending more time on home schooling than their spouse, with only three percent of women agreeing with that assessment. Meanwhile, 80 percent of mothers surveyed reported spending more time on school matters than their partners. While peer-reviewed literature on the subject is only beginning to be published, what is available supports the thesis that the pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities. 

A High-Level View of Food Practices

We also have some clues on how people procure, prepare, and consume food since the outbreak, suggesting changes to these practices. In one survey of more than 1,000 American adults conducted in early April 2020, over half reported cooking more (54 percent), and almost as many said they were baking more (46 percent), than before the pandemic. Three-quarters of those claiming to cook more reported being more confident in the kitchen (50 percent) because of those experiences, with 73 percent saying they are either enjoying cooking more (35 percent) or as much (38 percent) as before.  

The International Food Information Council conducted a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults during the same time period. Fifty percent of that sample reported doing less in-person shopping and 47 percent were eating more home-cooked meals. This is supported by data from Instacart, an independent grocery-delivery service in the U.S. and Canada, which has emerged in 2020 as a leader in grocery delivery with a 48 percent share of the market as of August, according to data analytics provider Second Measure. The company saw their order volume increase 150 percent from early March to early April, with downloads of their app multiplying sevenfold during that period. There are also survey data and countless media stories indicating that more people are buying in bulk now than prior to COVID-19. Finally, we have all likely experienced in some form how the pandemic has upended the food system and the supply chains upon which we are so dependent; not to mention the role played by the “essential workers” who populate those spaces, and who have risked their lives, so we can eat.

And yet, all these data lack granularity save for whatever we have been able to glean from our own lived experiences. We know that food practices are neither evenly distributed across nor within households. But we currently lack post-outbreak data to effectively tell that story, which means we have a long way to go before we can unpack how COVID-19 has impacted food experiences at the level of everyday life.   

Gender Behaviors 

I would like to spend the remainder of the essay discussing my efforts to fill some of these gaps, empirically. Data were collected over two stages. Stage one (late 2019) involved 41 households—70 respondents—from three Colorado localities, two rural and one located in a metropolitan county. Baseline interviews, which lasted approximately 45 minutes, were then followed by a 30-day tracking period, where respondents had their macro-mobilities tracked using a GPS tracking app—Prey—that was loaded onto their mobile phones. Stage one concluded with follow-up interviews that lasted roughly two hours. 

I wanted to examine how households procured their food and how these practices and mobilities varied across communities while interrogating such variables and concepts as gender, life course, care, food access, and a community’s physical location. Findings from Stage one have been reported in the journal Agriculture and Human Values

Enter COVID-19, which led to Stage two taking shape. Shortly after the Colorado governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 25, 2020, participants were contacted again and asked for a little more of their time. Sixty-one of the original 70 participants—or 36 households—agreed to participate in the second stage, which was a combination of virtual interviews and having their movements tracked using Prey for two weeks. All tracking was completed before the statewide stay-at-home order expired on April 26. A thorough explanation of Stage two’s methods and conceptual orientation can be found in a new issue of the journal Sociological Quarterly

I would like to first run through some of the descriptive data, which document changes in food procurement across households between Time 1 and Time 2. Since the outbreak, respondents reported cooking/baking more frequently, from 3.6 (σ 2.71) to 5 (σ 1.81) times per week. They also reported higher rates of food hording, estimating having 5.6 (σ 4.42) days of food at Time 1 versus 18.33 (σ 5.45) days at Time 2. Respondents also expressed greater interest in gardening—either in terms of “expanding existing” or “starting one”—during lockdown than when interviewed prior.  

Yet aggregated data gloss over heterogeneity, which in this case reflects differences not only in terms of class, gender, and age—the sample population was overwhelmingly white across all three communities. Geospatial location was also important, playing a significant role explaining why some households traveled in excess of 100 miles each way for groceries while others could get by traveling far less, with some residents hardly ever needing to leave their homes because of home-delivery coverage available to metropolitan residents. 

All respondents reduced their travel, on the whole, during the stay-at-home period: 27 respondents reduced their travel by 81 percent to 100 percent; 14 respondents by 61 percent to 80 percent; 5 respondents by 41 percent to 60 percent; 5 respondents by 21 percent to 40 percent; and 11 respondents by 1 percent to 20 percent. Filtering for food procurement-related trips for each household, however, reveals a very different picture. This is especially apparent by the fact that, for some individuals, trips to grocery stores increased. Gender proved a significant variable for explaining this variation.

Men made up every instance (n=7) where the tracking data reported an increase in food procurement-related travel recorded from Time 1 to Time 2. In addition, for the remainder of participants, where travel reductions where recorded men on average recorded lower percent changes than women, at least when the trip involved purchasing food for the household.

This finding is significant because the data also point to evidence supporting normativities tied to being, and reinforcing conceptions of what it means to be, a “good mother.” Broadly speaking, this literature speaks to, quoting a seminal piece of scholarship on the subject, the “intersecting ideals of motherhood and ethical food discourse, whereby ‘good’ mothers are those who preserve their children’s purity and protect the environment through conscientious food purchases.” Not only do these societal expectations place an asymmetrical burden on women by making it their responsibility to procure “good food” for the household, they also reinforce neoliberal worldviews by emphasizing mothers’ individual responsibility for securing their child’s wellbeing.

This provides an important conceptual backdrop to understand some of the data. One father, for instance, talked about putting his “extra time to work” during lockdown by learning to bake because his wife “just can’t do it anymore” due to all of her other new household responsibilities—homeschooling, extra at-home meals, additional house cleaning now that everyone was home 24/7. This aligns with prior scholarship, where men tend to “help” with housework, during times of crises and stress, rather than assume a leading role in feeding the family.

So, why the uptick among some men choosing to take up grocery shopping in the middle of a global pandemic? Think about this question in the context of established links between gender and responses to the pandemic, specifically, the finding that men are more likely to downplay the seriousness of the virus. A number of polls find that men in the U.S. are less likely to wear masks compared to women. The idea that “real” men respond in a particular way to the pandemic came out during the interviews. To quote one father talking about the stay-at-home order and the public health risks associated with the virus: “I’m not going to let some little ol’ virus keep me from making sure my family is fed. Not now, not ever.” 

While minimizing risks associated with COVID-19, some of the fathers interviewed also played on those heightened risks to justify engaging in practices that were previously not their responsibility. The virus, you could say, helped to de-feminize—or perhaps even masculinize—particular tasks, which in turn provided men symbolic cover to participate more directly in feeding the family because of the dangers involved rather than despite them.

Curiously, I also witnessed some of this hegemonic, performative masculinity on display among some of the women—rural women especially. One of these rural mothers, for instance, talked about how rurality to some degrees requires women to be “risk takers” if they and their children wish to succeed in this environment. “Living out here you got to be a risk taker,” she said. “Blizzards. Forest fires. COVID is just another thing you learn to deal with.  … I’ve got a family. You got to be fearless, for them—to take care of them but also to show my kids that you’ve got to be tough. Life throws you a curve, you have to suck it up.” 

Another way to interpret these data: As opposing to doing masculinity, quotes such as the above demonstrate women who were challenging hegemonic femininity. This would parallel arguments made elsewhere, looking specifically at females in rural agricultural settings, such as an earlier study of French women farmers. 

Long-term Impacts 

Admittedly, my longitudinal project ends up asking more questions than it answers. Take the question of whether the above changes will stick. The data do not provide a clear response, though we cannot entirely dismiss the power of new habituations and the competencies and materialities therein implied. Regarding those materialities, for instance: a number of respondents talked about buying new freezers post-outbreak, which aligns with reports of a rush in freezer sales in March and April. And as we know, storage space is positively correlated with over-consumption.   

A non-COVID-related question raised by the study involves how we think about gendered household food practices in relation to metro and non-metro households: Namely, to what degree should place matter in all of this? Put another way: How do performances of rurality shape conceptions of being a good mother?

What I do know is that the sociological impacts of COVID-19 will be discussed, debated, and empirically tracked for many years to come. Finally, as we read reports about how food procurement and family feeding have changed since the start of the pandemic, let us be sure to ask how these changes are distributed within those homes. 

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.