With the main transmission route of Coronavirus (Covid-19) being through direct human to human contact (Food Standards Scotland, 2020) precautions such as keeping a distance of two metres between anyone outside of your household, advice to sanitise anything bought from supermarkets, a focus on mask wearing and hand washing have become a normal part of our everyday lives. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, human life as we knew it has been inextricably altered, leading us to confront the way that we live our lives and, in a variety of ways, how food operates within it. I ask how this has changed the way we view food, fear around accessibility, how we use it to punctuate our days in isolation and provide us with joy. Will this act as a catalyst in transforming its function within society as something resembling normality begins to return? Has the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 changed the way we think about food and use it to connect to others for good?
The study of food can say a lot about the human condition as eating is humankind’s oldest social activity (Menzel and D’Aluisio, 2005, p7). In her book The Way We Eat Now, Wilson (2019) writes that it “might be more possible to eat in a more balanced way if only we didn’t have work, or go to school, or save money, or travel by car, bus or train, or shop at a supermarket, or live in a city, or share a meal with children, or look at a screen, or get up early, or stay up late, or walk past a vending machine, or feel depressed, or be on medication, or have food intolerances, or own an imperfectly stocked fridge” (2019, p12). With lockdown restrictions in place now all over the world, some of these factors no longer apply to everyday life.
Even though we have considerably more time at home, other factors such as ‘feeling depressed’ and ‘looking at screens’ are at an all-time high for a huge amount of people – does this make our eating more balanced? When we think about ‘balanced’ as a descriptive term for food, the connotations are of three reasonably sized meals a day incorporating vegetables, protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats. Yet ‘balanced’ eating is not solely about the healthiness of the food we put into our mouths but also about the joy this gives us (Wilson, 2019, p15).
Both positive and negative connotations that arise from the act of eating derive from the social context in which we have learnt to eat (Wilson, 2015). The family table influences every future bite that we take, with every taste evoking memory. This is because it is difficult to distinguish between food and love, passions and disgusts when you take into account the repetitive situation of the dinner table and the dynamics of family life (Wilson, 2015). Eating certain foods and meals during lockdown may help to remind you of your childhood, therefore creating a sense of home in an attempt to make you feel both cosy and safe. Whilst trying new recipes helps to act as a catalyst for new memories to be made as well as generate excitement and keep you both entertained and distracted from the wider context. During the pandemic, food has acted as a separate focus, a form of self-care through nourishment and time to be used in a proactive way. Recipes often emphasise how quick and easy they are but during lockdown the need to busy our hands saw a desire for more time-consuming recipes. With jokes often being made about the amount of banana bread being baked during this time, it being the most googled recipe during the lockdown period (Pearson-Jones, 2020), other articles discuss how ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ baking is a natural “response to present-day collective distress and working conditions” (Zhang, 2020). The making of which may be considered frivolous or unnecessary deserts, makes bakers feel like they are deserving of a sweet treat rather than buying it alongside other groceries, a way to channel mindfulness and control or decipher whether our cravings are simply boredom (Zhang, 2020).
Questionnaires sent out during Lockdown show that for most, food has been a way to punctuate the day and pass the time. Rather than focusing on convenience a shift to the more complicated and time-consuming meal prep has been favoured. Whilst others have mentioned that due to anxiety, food seems to have become less important – simply functioning as fuel. With one of the questionnaire participants writing that she now drinks Huel, a meal replacement drink, for two of her meals a day, as she finds it gives her sufficient energy to work from home and takes away the decision making around what she is going to eat, helping her to appreciate the one meal of solid food she eats a day far more than before. It also seems that individuals are also using food as a way to connect to friends and family that they are not isolating with – although platforms like Instagram have always been a way for people to share pictures of food and show other people what they are eating, with all restaurants closed the sharing has shifted to things we make rather than buy.
Although there is a romantic ideal when we think of the simplicity of the food of the past, of baking our own bread and cooking all of our own meals from scratch, this does not include the historical hunger or food shortages that came with this (Wilson, 2019, p19). The reality of the impending lockdown brought on by Covid-19 at the beginning of March 2020 saw Britain become known as a nation of ‘stockpilers’ (Kale, 2020). The danger of potential famine to a society largely able to procure food from the nearest shop at all times, where abundance of choice and an expectation of entitlement to accessible food sources within walking distance (Wilson, 2019), created panic. The need to feel prepared for unforeseen circumstances saw many individuals buying more than was necessary for their households, putting pressure on what we had previously assumed to be given, a right of many. Although a shortage never actually occurred the dramatic change in lifestyle brought on by the pandemic and the fear of this was enough to change the way that many individuals saw food and the accessibility to it in which we had come to assume and rely upon. Restaurant closures, avoidance of large supermarkets and empty shop shelves meant that there was a lack of ingredients undermined the prospect that we are able to eat “exactly what we want, when we want to” (Wilson, 2019). More seriously, this time also saw an increased reliance, up 175% In April 2020 from the same month the previous year, on food banks (Butler, 2020). Showing just how desperate many became to ensure food could be provided for their families.
It I clear that a lot more people are now thinking about where their food comes from. The need for reliable food sources to be accessed, environmental and sustainable choices becoming more important and the economic support of our communities has seen a shift in support of local and independent businesses. Although individual experiences during lockdown remain varied and unequal, it is widely recognised as having been a challenging time for all, emphasising this need to financially support the people in our neighbourhoods who run our markets, bakeries, local takeaway services and give us our morning coffees.
Since July 2020 a relaxation of restrictions within the UK has occurred, ushering in a new focus on the economy, whilst the virus that remains takes a back seat. Along with the reopening of restaurants came restrictions in how this was to occur safely, from track and trace details being taken, plastic barriers to separate diners and a three (down to a two) household limit per table. This was interestingly worked concurrently with the governmental scheme ‘Eat out to help out’ which provided diners with 50% off their food bill every Monday-Wednesday during the month of August, individuals have not just been allowed to visit restaurants but have been encouraged to do so. The social context of eating has therefore once again shifted, combining the novelty of finally being able to do so outside of the home, with feelings of irresponsibility as coronavirus remains a threat.
With coronavirus dying down in China and a new sense of normality returning, we now see a shift away from traditional communal meals, something that we may see replicated across the world (Kuo, 2020). Kuo (2020) describes this as a ‘dining table revolution’, with Chinese authorities campaigning for a move towards individual bowls and designated serving utensils. With the sharing of food being a sign of intimacy within not only China but across the world, out of necessity in stopping the viral spread, we may see a transformation in the very nature of connection through communal meals, to eating out, and ultimately to individual societal approaches to eating.
Butler, P. 2020. Record numbers used UK food banks in first month of lockdown in The Guardian, 3 June
Kale, S. 2020. How Britain became a nation of stockpilers: 'It just feels like something is going to give' in The Guardian, 24 February
Kuo, L. 2020. For the chop: 'dining table revolution' takes aim at food sharing in China in The Guardian, 1 May Online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/01/chinas-dining-table-revolution-takes-aim-at-shared-chopsticks
Pearson-Jones, B. 2020. Banana bread is the most searched for recipe on the BBC Good Food's website with brownies, scones and pancakes also featuring in the top 10 lockdown bakes in Daily Mail.
Wilson, B. 2019. The Way We Eat Now: strategies for eating in a world of change, London: Fourth Estate.
Wilson, B. & Lee, A., 2015. First bite : how we learn to eat, London: Fourth Estate.
Zhang, J.G. 2020. Quarantine Baking in Times of Crisis: As many self-quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19, people turn to making desserts for comfort in Eater