Lessons on eating in a pandemic

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Megan A. Dean, PhD

Though COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness, the coronavirus outbreak has drastically changed the way many of us eat. According to one survey from mid-2020, 85% of people in the U.S. “have altered their food habits as a result of the pandemic.”

Image description: Restaurant operating during the COVID 19 pandemic has a sign posted: “Please wait outside until your name is called, or if you received a text message. Thank you!” Image source: thom masat/Unsplash.

While the bare supermarket shelves of early March have been replenished (except for the bucatini shelf, apparently), many are still struggling to get adequate food. An estimated 54 million people in the U.S. now face food insecurity, “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” This is an increase of over 17 million since the start of the pandemic.

Another change is where people eat and with whom. Restrictions on indoor dining and shifts to online work and school mean that many are cooking and eating at home more often than before. Stay-at-home orders, gathering restrictions, and the closure of dining rooms in workplaces and institutions also mean that many are limiting their dining companions to those within their own households. For some, this means eating alone. For example, in summer 2020, 87% of nursing home residents ate most of their meals in their rooms alone, up from 32% prior to the pandemic.

Emotional or stress eating is also on the rise. It may come as no surprise to those of us who have endured 2020 and the first few weeks of 2021 that many are using food as “a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.” These are just a few of the ways the pandemic has impacted eating in the U.S., but each offers lessons about some of the ethical challenges we face regarding food and eating.

Who stays hungry?

In the U.S., many of those who face food insecurity are children: 30 million children regularly rely on schools for free or reduced-price meals. But due to pandemic-related school closures, only 15% of eligible kids are now receiving these meals. As Cory Turner notes, many school districts have shifted to a meal pickup plan, but lack of transportation and time off from work mean that some caregivers cannot retrieve meals during scheduled pickup times. While some school districts have made creative efforts to distribute meals in other ways, many children go without.

These logistical challenges echo ongoing issues with the distribution of other goods and services essential to good health. Mitchell Katz argues that the U.S. health care system assumes that patients are middle-class; accessing medical care often requires reliable transportation, time off during working hours, or paid sick leave, which many working-class people simply do not have.

Image description: People wearing gloves and face coverings work to package food into plastic bags for distribution. Image source: Joel Muniz/Unsplash.

Like health care, food assistance is only helpful if it is accessible to those who need it. Emergency food benefits programs like the Pandemic EBT give eligible children’s caregivers much more flexibility, enabling them to purchase groceries on their own schedule. However, only six states and Puerto Rico have renewed this program for the 2020-2021 school year.

The value of eating

Asked to look ahead to 2021, many people said that when it comes to food, they were most excited to once again share meals with family and friends.

This desire for shared dining highlights the fact that eating is a rich source of value that extends far beyond nutrition, pleasure, or ostensible effects on body weight, whatever those New Year’s diet ads try to tell us.

There is social value in sharing a meal with coworkers, friends, or neighbors; cultural value in holiday meals, wedding feasts, funeral receptions, graduation toasts; aesthetic value in enjoying food and drink in the ambiance of a restaurant, café, or bar. Eating with others can also have moral value; it provides opportunities to show respect for others, build moral character, and establish moral community.

Some of this value can be found in eating at home. But for many, foregoing meals with friends, dates, colleagues, and loved ones has impoverished day-to-day life. This is not an argument against public health restrictions on dining; there are good, evidence-based reasons for many of these regulations (though more should be done to support restaurants and food service workers while indoor dining remains high risk). But acknowledging these losses enables us to mitigate them where possible, and where not, at least recognize they are worth mourning.

Eating and self-control

A final lesson can be learned from emotional eating, which is often framed as a lapse in self-control, “giving in” to cravings for unhealthy but comforting foods. I have argued elsewhere against the idea that such “mindless” eating is necessarily bad. Here I’ll highlight one way that pandemic-related increases in emotional eating point to the limited role of self-control in determining how we eat.

Image description: A person is sitting down eating a bowl of popcorn with a remote in their other hand. Their face from their mouth up is out of frame. Image source: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash.

For many, the pandemic has meant the collapse of eating routines and schedules alongside significant changes in physical proximity to food. Instead of having access to food only in the work lunchroom or on scheduled breaks, some people now work all day next to their refrigerators. Parents who would normally spend the school day working, running errands, socializing, or exercising, may spend much of their day in the kitchen preparing food for their kids.

As Quill R. Kukla puts it, our routines, schedules, and social and material surroundings constitute scaffolding for our actions. They constrain and enable what we do. When we are able to exercise self-control or agency, it is often because we have supportive scaffolds in place. So it’s entirely unsurprising that we eat differently when our daily structures of living have changed so radically. Recognizing this can help us avoid unjustly shaming ourselves and others for our eating, and also help us strategize more effectively about how to change that eating, if we so desire. It is important to acknowledge that now—as always—our ability to construct and inhabit supportive scaffolding is limited by work and family obligations, resources, living situations, and the like. And as many of us have learned over the past year, sometimes much of that is out of our direct control.

Megan A. Dean photo

Megan A. Dean, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. She works in feminist bioethics, with a focus on the ethics of eating.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Tuesday, February 4, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons on eating in a pandemic

  1. Thank you for this thought provoking, important piece! I am especially interested in your point about the moral value that eating with others can generate. You show how these moral goods are jeopardized by the pandemic in many awful and heartbreaking ways (I’m thinking in particular of the folks in nursing homes eating alone you mention). Your point that eating with others represents a source of moral value is helpful because it helps validate so many people’s experiences with this loneliness: it’s not simply sad or regretful that people are eating alone—there are moral ramifications as well.

    Personally, I am in a very privileged position. I live with family, have a home, and have access to high quality, nutritious and delicious food options. Since the pandemic, I have actually started to do more cooking at home and it has led me to reap more of the moral value generated through eating with my family over home cooked meals. This is one more way that the pandemic creates massive disparities between us. People like me are able to spend more time eating with and cooking for those we care about while others are eating alone or not eating enough. It reminds me that material disparities also can result in disparities regarding who can engage in practices that generate moral value in one’s life (e.g. differences in who has the opportunity to establish moral community, show respect for others, be respected by others, etc.). These moral ramifications and disparities don’t get enough attention, in my opinion, and so I really appreciate your piece highlighting them along with all of the other points you make. Thank you!

  2. Thanks very much for your insightful comment! I especially appreciate your suggestion that material disparities can lead to disparities in opportunities to engage in morally-valuable activities. As you point out, when it comes to shared meals, the relevant material resources aren’t just money and access to food but also time and proximity to loved ones. Of course there are other ways to establish moral community, show respect for others, be respected by others–like participating in community social groups, activism, sports, art or theatre, or religious gatherings–but unfortunately many of those have also been curtailed by the pandemic.

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