Much has already been said about the way COVID-19 self-isolation has impacted our eating habits; we’ve discussed the bread we may or may not have baked, the cans of beans that were larger than we bargained for, and the kitchen fires we started along the way. These stories revolved around the idea of self-reliance. We stumbled as we tried to replicate the culinary pleasures of the outside world in our own kitchens, sure, but at least we tried!
The New York Times, however, wants to paint a very different picture of what our quarantine diets looked like: according to a report from June 16, processed food sales have increased globally since mid-March. This, according to the Times, points to the fact that self-isolation has promoted continuous snacking, also known as “grazing,” which has “[turned] our kitchens into one huge vending machine.”
The article largely ignores one of the biggest motivators behind buying processed foods over “whole ingredients”: Processed food is cheap, and we are in an economic crisis.
Gwyneth Paltrow already hammered this point home in, like, 2015 when she failed the “food stamp challenge” and demonstrated that cooking cost-efficient, healthy meals on a daily basis is literally impossible given the time and energy required. COVID-19 and the subsequent nationwide shutdowns sparked record unemployment numbers, especially among the very demographic making the return to snack items: young people between ages 18-29.
The mood in the last few months, whether it ended up being correct or not, also skewed very “prepper,” with plenty of people buying up essentials and shelf-stable goods. Between fresh vegetables and a packet of Oreos, we know what we’d stock up on.
It’s easy, though, to chalk spiking processed food sales up to slovenly millennials pigging out, mere hypocrites who nagged their parents about the benefits of clean eating and buying organic only to crawl back into the arms of boxed mac and cheese when the going gets tough. It’s much less amusing to consider that maybe the prospect of being jobless and hopelessly in debt for the foreseeable future influenced people’s decisions to grab canned soup instead of fresh produce.
Also, hey: One thing all vending machine food has in common (except like, M&M-free trail mix) is that it tastes amazing, and I could use a pleasant experience right now. Sorry for buying Gushers mid-pandemic… the store was all out of lettuce, or whatever the Paper of Record thinks we should have been eating instead.
As restaurants reopen (whether servers and epidemiologists like it or not!), quarantine food discourse will soon feel dated. But it’s worth remembering that, if the next food trend story is about how weird and silly it is that people are picking fast food over fine dining post-pandemic, price trumps “taste” when push comes to shove.
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