Food spending habits are changing

Published 4:48 pm Thursday, November 9, 2023

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Consumers’ food spending habits are changing, and recent data indicates a growing preference for time- and money-saving options. 

While COVID-19 lockdowns brought a slight resurgence in at-home food purchases, U.S. Department of Agriculture data revealed that away-from-home food spending in 2022 surpassed home spending by nearly $300 billion — the highest recorded margin, according to American Farm Bureau Federation economists. 

The USDA Food Expenditure Series tracks the U.S. food system by reporting on total food and beverage spending at home, on grocery store purchases and away from home. 

Away-from-home food spending has exceeded home spending by over $100 billion since 2015, except during 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns barred many consumers from public settings. After 2010, away-from-home food spending increased 7% annually — 9% when excluding 2020 pandemic-related anomalies — compared to 4% for food at home. 

These trends are not surprising to AFBF economists, as restaurants and quick service options have increasingly influenced U.S. food consumption culture. 

“Many of us prefer to grab a bite at a restaurant or through takeout options than to cook for ourselves,” noted AFBF economist Daniel Munch. 

“Typically, price and convenience are going to be top priorities for consumers,” added Tony Banks, senior assistant director of agriculture, development and innovation for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “With everyone working and running around, grabbing a quick meal is one less thing to worry about.” 

While the cost of many restaurant meals exceeds that of home-cooked recipes, the growth in low-cost, quick service options has amplified spending away from home. 

Between 1997 and 2022, food expenditures at full-service restaurants increased by 283% while spending at fast food restaurants increased by 317%. Food purchased and consumed at retail outlets or through vending machines saw the largest increase in market shares — making up 4% of away-from-home expenditures in 1997 and growing to 11% in 2022. 

Spending behavior for food consumed at home also has shifted significantly. Grocery stores, once dominating market shares by 72% in 1997, accounted for only 54.2% in 2022. Much of this decline has been attributed to growth in the warehouse and home delivery segments, with grocery store expenditures between 1997 and 2022 increasing by 109% while spending at warehouse shopping clubs increased by 679%, and spending on food delivery increased by 684%. 

The report notes that food spending behavior varies by state and region, with Washington, D.C., ranking first in away-from-home food expenditures. With Virginia’s vast assortment of population densities and cultural preferences, “it would be difficult to pigeonhole Virginia into one category,” noted Banks. 

How and where shoppers purchase food impacts the way farmers prepare and market their goods. With local and economic conditions and changing preferences constantly influencing spending habits, it’s important for farmers to stay ahead of emerging trends, Banks said. 

Subscribing to industry magazines and newsletters from food processors and retailers can help farmers closely monitor emerging market trends. 

“If there’s a growing interest for, let’s say, purple potatoes, buyers in industry magazines are going to start talking about it before you hear about it on the farm,” he explained.