Barriers, access and what happens next

The front porch of an apartment with a welcome mat saying “Be Kind” and two bags of groceries sitting to the right of the door. 1 credit

When the COVID-19 pandemic first swept through North America and led to emergency shutdowns in the spring of 2020, the way people got hold of food and basic necessities was dramatically changed. touched. As stay-at-home orders have minimized personal travel, public transit services have been curtailed and many stores and restaurants have closed or modified their operations.

Some of the gaps have been filled by online retailers and delivery services. However, access to goods and services varied considerably according to age, income level and individual abilities.

A new multi-university study has captured how households reacted as local, state and federal governments imposed and lifted restrictions, physical establishments closed and reopened, and e-commerce and delivery services adapted to changing conditions .

The results of this research are essential for contingency planning, but also for understanding the ever-changing mechanisms used to access retail and service opportunities (whether in person or online). The research identifies opportunities for future interventions to address barriers to food access, which will remain relevant even after the pandemic recovers.

The research

The project was led by Kelly Clifton of Portland State University (now a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia), Kristina Currans of the University of Arizona and Amanda Howell and Rebecca Lewis of the University of Oregon. The research team also included Paula Carder, director of PSU’s Institute on Aging, and graduate students Max Nonnamaker and Gabriella Abou-Zeid. Nonnamaker used the focus group information to complete her master’s degree in public health. Abou-Zeid, now a transport data specialist at ICF, wrote his master’s thesis on the adoption and use of online grocery shopping in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which she presented at TRB 2022.

The researchers used a mixed-methods approach to assess the extent to which people changed their shopping behavior during the COVID-19 crisis and after the recovery. They administered four waves of online cross-sectional household surveys in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, from September 2020 to November 2021. These surveys were designed to include:

  • How do people access essential goods during the pandemic crisis and times of recovery?
  • What barriers did some subgroups face in accessing essential goods?
  • And to what extent do online platforms help/can meet the demand?

The four waves of surveys in five states produced a unique and rich dataset documenting consumer behaviors, preferences and attitudes towards grocery shopping during important phases of the pandemic, including: the initial economic reopening in 2020 ; the easing and tightening of restrictions in the fall and winter of 2020; the emergence of the vaccine in January 2021; and the surge in cases associated with the Delta variant in the summer and fall of 2021. Data from the surveys have been made public for future use by researchers.

To supplement the survey data, the researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with a subset of the population — seniors, friends and family members who had helped them order online — to find out how they adapted to the conditions of COVID19 in their races. The researchers chose to focus on older people because they are more likely to experience mobility barriers, COVID vulnerabilities, and a lack of digital resources or knowledge.

Main conclusions

The results indicate that in-store food purchases are a mainstay of household provisioning and will likely remain so in the future. Yet, during the pandemic, many households experimented with online shopping and reported high levels of satisfaction with it. Even when people returned to stores, online shopping did not decline and instead showed a gradual increase over the four waves of the survey. Survey respondents predicted that they will continue to use online shopping at the same rate or at a higher rate in the future.

Shoppers primarily went to retailers to buy food, but there have been shifts in fashion shares during the pandemic. Walking, cycling, public transit and carpooling all saw their use increase over the four waves of the survey.

The main obstacles to the future growth of e-commerce in the food sector are the inability to inspect the quality of items and the cost of delivery. While some barriers to online grocery shopping persist, it clearly can and does fill important gaps for people. This is a popular option in situations where people have mobility limitations, are quarantined or sick with COVID, face time constraints, or stores are not easily accessible.

When asked about barriers to accessing food, more people cited barriers to mobility, such as not owning a vehicle or having a mobility-limiting condition, than technological barriers, such as access to smart phones or broadband internet. Focus groups with seniors provided more context. Most respondents rated their digital acumen as high and they were mostly confident in their technology skills. Being on a fixed income, their desire to minimize costs, use coupons and in-store sales reinforced their preferences for in-store shopping.

“Online ordering can help overcome barriers to mobility. However, our quantitative and qualitative data findings indicate that many people still want to be able to inspect food products to check quality and freshness, and that is not not something that’s going to be easily solved by technology. I think that underscores the continued importance of making sure we close the mobility gaps and using all the tools available in the practitioner toolbox to encourage local stores in every neighborhood.These don’t have to be big grocers, just places that offer a variety of fresh foods that can complement dry/bulk items and other household items that people are more comfortable ordering online. It’s probably easier said than done, but I think it’s important to always come back to this idea that the technology is a tool but not a solution in itself,” Howell said.

Implications for practitioners

These findings have implications for planning for food access in the future, including generalized emergency events such as the pandemic, as well as changing circumstances that individuals may encounter.

“Practitioners, whether working in public, private or advocacy institutions, need evidence and data to identify opportunities to tailor their services to those who need them most and to support requests for funding that allow them to provide new or different services. One of the greatest contributions of this work is the data itself, capturing behavior in a multitude of built and social environments over the course of a year,” Currans said.

Understanding the impacts of the pandemic on access to food and the adoption and use of e-commerce platforms has benefits for transportation planners and urban planners (results can likely inform parking provision, land use, road capacity and internet connectivity), as well as public health professionals. The popularity of ordering online but picking up in-store indicates that people appreciate the time savings but don’t want to pay delivery costs. If this were to increase in the future, the number of parking spaces needed at these stores could be reduced, as there could be shorter downtimes and higher turnover.

The research offers insights into who lacks access to food resources, who embraces technology, how new behaviors intersect with old ones, and the potential “stickiness” of those behaviors as we are recovering from the pandemic.

Study examines food buying behavior at different stages of the COVID pandemic

More information:
Kelly Clifton, Data from: “Consumer Responses to Household Provisioning During the COVID-19 Crisis” and “Recovery and Accessing Opportunities for Household Provisioning Post-COVID-19”, (2022). DOI: 10.15760/TREC_datasets.19

Provided by Portland State University

Quote: Online Grocery During COVID-19: Barriers, Access, and What Happens Next (October 18, 2022) Retrieved October 18, 2022 from barriers-access.html

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