Researcher notes that “no news is bad news” when it comes to COVID-19 and consumer eating habits

The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by uncertainty. As public spaces slowly reopened, people had to contend with the risk they were willing to take for activities like personal shopping or eating out at a restaurant.

Rigoberto Lopez, professor of agriculture and resource economics at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, found that one of the best ways to allay public concerns about eating out in public was to give them more information about the to provide current status of COVID-19 spread. Lopez published his findings in Agricultural Economics.

Restaurants around the world were hit hard when the pandemic hit, as their business model relies almost entirely on people being able to sit down and eat. According to the National Restaurant Association, 90,000 restaurants have closed because of the pandemic in the United States alone.

“It was a huge shock to the system,” says Lopez. “The restaurant system has been one of the most vulnerable segments of the economy to the pandemic.”

Looking at data from a restaurant chain in China, Lopez found those in cities where local regulations required Covid tracing recovered faster than those in areas that didn’t.

Residents of communities that required disclosure of infection information could use a mobile app to see infection hotspots around the city.

While the nationwide increase in Covid cases had an overall negative impact on the number of transactions in restaurants, having access to local infection rates made it more convenient for customers to eat out.

Restaurants in areas where this information was available saw 25% to 35% more transactions.

Lopez and his collaborators examined data from 87 restaurants in 10 Chinese cities between December 1, 2019 and March 27, 2020. This period captures the start of the pandemic and China’s “Great Lockdown” policy of gradually reopening restaurants in February and March.

“No news is bad news,” says Lopez. “When you take that kind of risk, providing consumers with information was more comfortable than keeping consumers in the dark.”

For this research, Lopez collaborated with his former graduate student Xiaoou Liu ’09 (CAHNR), who is now a professor in the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at Renmin University of China.

Lopez says that while this study specifically focused on a snapshot of the pandemic, the results provide a broader picture of consumer behavior during any crisis marked by risk and uncertainty.

“Consumer behavior is the main driver of the economy,” says Lopez. “The problem is more general than just Covid.”

Lopez recently published a related paper in Food Policy, addressing the impact of different periods of the COVID-19 pandemic on diet quality.

Lopez and his team analyzed data from nearly one million grocery purchases in China in 2020.

They discovered that during the active phases of COVID-19 infections, sugar, sodium and fat intake increased by 0.1 to 1%. But once COVID-19 infections were under control, people ordered healthier foods as they learned more about the importance of nutrient intake in the context of the public health crisis. The protein content of the food ordered during this period increased by 8% and the amount of fiber increased by 1%. At the same time, the amount of fat, sugar and sodium decreased by 7 to 16%.

This shows that learning about the importance of nutrition can overcome the impact of emotional eating and economic uncertainty that characterized the early stages of China’s COVID-19 outbreak.

According to Lopez, these findings suggest how policymakers can use learning tactics to improve individuals’ awareness of more enduring preventive health behaviors, leading to an overall healthier society.

“The long-term positive health effects of proactive health behaviors can mitigate the negative effects of health shocks in a society and likely survive the pandemic itself,” says Lopez.

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