By now, consumers and companies are familiar with the food industry’s challenges during the coronavirus crisis. Restaurants are shut down except for pickup/delivery services and drive-thru windows. Grocery stores still have empty shelves. Fresh dairy and produce meant for restaurants, schools and other dining establishments are being tossed away. Many meat plants have shut their doors due to workers infected with the virus.
But beyond these tribulations, another issue has revealed itself: the obese are suffering from the virus at a disproportionately high rate. This pandemic has not only exposed the inequities in the US healthcare system but also its people’s access to healthy food. Supply chain problems are not the food industry’s only worries. Food companies have not fully embraced healthier products and now must commit to making them their priority.
In the largest study to date, researchers identified obesity as the biggest risk factor for people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19, along with age (being over 65). Research conducted in Shenzhen, China and published in The Lancet health journal showed that obesity significantly increased the risk of patients developing severe pneumonia while afflicted with the novel coronavirus.
Per capita death rates from COVID-19 in New Orleans, whose population suffers from high levels of obesity and related ailments such as diabetes, have been reported at twice the rate of New York City. Since the US has an adult obesity rate of 42.4 percent, this figure is cause for worry.
While some companies, including packaged food companies like Unilever, Nestlé and Danone have made progress in improving product nutrition, restaurants and supermarkets are lagging. The former have been slow to add healthier meals onto their menus and the latter have stuck to tried-and-true promotions of cheaper, less healthy offerings.
The health crisis is likely to boost unhealthy eating habits even further. Studies have already suggested that the pandemic may exacerbate childhood obesity rates. Even typically healthy consumers have been stress-eating and indulging more often than usual. More needs to be done to make healthy foods appealing enough to purchase and consume, especially as junk food sales are on the rise.
Food makers, food retailers and restaurant chains need to step up quickly by preserving the health of consumers. They must stop treating healthier foods as second-class items. The industry must take advantage of the movement toward more plant-based proteins, less fat and sugar, fewer calories and more fiber.
While their supply chains and facilities must operate efficiently, food companies need to reconsider what they are delivering through their supply lines. The coronavirus crisis has amplified the trend of embracing healthier food that is sustainably sourced. Food companies that capitalize on it will come out of pandemic stronger.
It’s time for the industry to recognize its part in creating customers’ health problems: poor diets that have led to greater obesity, illness and death. Their future will depend on it, long after the coronavirus crisis is over.