Tufts University

Stomaching the Recession

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Some researchers have proposed that the value of time changes during a recession, in some ways for the better. Because time is more lucrative during an up economy, people work harder, suffer more stress and pay less attention to their health. This translates to diet. Who hasn't planned on cooking grilled chicken for dinner, but opted to pick up a hamburger on the way home when they were hungry and running late? Lisa Mancino and Jean Kinsey, of the Economic Research Service, write that "because of time constraints and the desire for convenience—situational factors— [consumers] sacrifice good intentions for immediate gratification."


The U.S. obesity rate, which had been rising for a quarter-century, recently appeared to hit a plateau. As Professor James Tillotson, Ph.D., puts it, even if things go horribly wrong, "How could we eat any more than we do right now?"

Tillotson, who studies the influence of social, technological, economic and political factors on food policy, has been watching where shoppers are spending their food dollars. It's true that Wal-Mart has reported stronger than usual sales of peanut butter and spaghetti since the recession began, but "I don't think people will change much exactly what they are eating," Tillotson says. "The diet is pretty entrenched."

Restaurants may be suffering, particularly white-tablecloth and casual-dining establishments, but supermarkets are doing well, especially Wal-Mart. "The supermarkets might come out of this smelling like a rose," he says, as they will pick up business from consumers eating out less. In particular, he expects consumers will turn to more store-brand, private-label products, leaving more expensive national brands on the shelves. Over the last year, for example, sales of brand-name cookies and crackers have fallen.

"It isn't really labor-intensive to cook dried beans. But people have to have handled a dried bean in their lives."

— Jeanne Goldberg

"The problem is, brands are trying to hold onto their profit margins, which are high by historic levels," he says, adding that he is stunned that people are expected to pay $4 or more for a box of cereal. But, he says, consumers are catching on that store brands, which cost an average of 30 percent less than national brands, have improved in quality and are often made by the same companies selling national brands. Tillotson points to England, where 60 to 70 percent of the top-selling grocery store products wear major supermarket labels. "The American chains will be pushing this new opportunity," he says. Wal-Mart, for example, will have more than 800 of its own store-brand products on the shelves within the next few months.

Wilde agrees that consumers' first cost-cutting measures won't necessarily affect the nutritional value of their diet. "People are going to buy less food that's marketed as health food," he says, drawing a distinction between value-added foods that broadcast their "right carb profile" and those that are quietly nutritious. "So you'll get cereals marketed as health food that are more expensive than oatmeal you cook in your kitchen. I don't even know if they are healthier."

As for organic products, supermarkets' private-label organics will gain popularity over manufacturer brands, according to the research firm Organic Monitor.

Stomaching the Recession

"The recession is going to shift demand away from organic, but that doesn't necessarily mean that much less organic is going to be produced and consumed," Wilde predicts. Until recently, demand for organic ingredients was outpacing the supply, which drove prices up. Supply should come more in line with demand, which should bring prices down, Wilde explains. "It can certainly be good for organic consumers," Wilde says.

The change in supply and demand may also protect the local foods movement and community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. Jennifer Hashley, director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, said it is too early to know the effect the recession will have on sales of its farm shares, but so far, signups for the program, World PEAS CSA, are on par with last year. "A lot of the CSAs I know have huge waiting lists from prior years," she says. "If returning customers drop out, there are probably enough people on their waiting lists to fill the gaps." Aside from the benefits to the environment, buying a farm share, which costs $550 a season, is still a good deal economically, she says.

"Most farmers say their customers are getting 25 percent more in the box than the customer is actually paying for," Hashley says. "It's a risk-sharing agreement; if it's a banner weather year, you may get 10 times the value of tomatoes." She points out that because the produce is often picked fresh that morning or the day before, it has a much longer shelf life, which can mean less goes to waste.

She thinks the recession has increased the attendance in the project's farm business planning class, which recently graduated 30 students. "Some of the folks in the class are currently unemployed and looking to do something until they can find another job," she says.

In New England, the decline in manufacturing jobs may help local farmers who typically struggle with finding people to work on their farms. "I'm predicting that this year, people who may never have otherwise looked at farm employment as an alternative may do so," she says.


Wilde says he is painfully aware that the economy will bring serious hardship to many people. At the same time, he can't help but think that many Americans could stand to spend and waste less. "I'm worried about the future and about depression, but I think we should have perspective about what our spending level is now," he says. "I tend to not be satisfied with the food system that our prosperity has brought us. And it just focuses my attention on those things where more money hasn't brought us more health. I'm wrestling with this because I'm acutely aware of how this seems unsympathetic to people who are facing hard times. Nobody would recommend recession and depression as a good way of learning about good environmental resource use."

Goldberg says she is the last to criticize those families who will turn to inexpensive processed foods to get them through tough times. "Kids like them; they fill them up; you can go to Costco and buy them in giant quantities at cheap prices," she says. "So there is a pull and tug between trying to preserve sound nutrition and at the same time meet the needs of the family. It's tough. I wouldn't for a moment say that having less money for the general population is going to improve the quality of their diets."

She adds: "To state it positively, I think it's a challenge that people will meet in different ways, by saying everything from 'I give up' to 'I'm going to use this as an opportunity to pull back and stock my shelves with what we really need to have.' "

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Story written by Julie Flaherty, Editor, Tufts Nutrition, the magazine of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts

Photos by Vito Aluia

This story ran online on June 22, 2009. It originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Tufts Nutrition.