For the past 25 years, U.S. food expenditures generally followed several predictable trends.
Most notably, annual total expenditures and the share of food-away-from-home showed steady increases. The highest share of food-away-from-home spending occurred during the summer. However, the COVID-19 pandemic limited consumers’ mobility and led to an economic recession for most of 2020, disrupting historical trends in food spending.
In 2020, people in the United States spent approximately $1.56 trillion on food.
This was a 5.3% reduction from the $1.65 trillion spent on food in the U.S. in 2019, marking only the second time annual total food expenditures decreased in the last 25 years. The other time spending decreased was in 2009 during the Great Recession.
The 2020 decrease in total food spending was driven by an 18.3% drop in spending at restaurants, cafeterias, and other places where people eat out. Because of the additional cost of eating away from home, that decrease outweighed an 8.5% increase in food-at-home spending as consumers shifted to buy more food from retailers, like grocery stores, supercenters, and convenience stores.
In April 2020, U.S. consumers spent about two-thirds of their food dollars at food-at-home retailers, the highest value on record.
Food-at-home and food-away-from-home spending increased 7.9% and 36.2%, respectively, from April to May 2020.
This increase may be due, in part, to the stimulus checks and increased unemployment benefits that were provided with the enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act at the end of March 2020. However, food-away-from-home spending in May 2020 was still lower than the previous year, while food-at-home spending was higher.
The last quarter of 2020 saw monthly increases in food-at-home spending, an expected outcome of colder weather and holiday meal preparation that resulted in record-high food-at-home spending in December. Food-away-from-home spending decreased in November by 10% and showed a slight increase in December but remained well below 2019 levels.
While COVID-19 vaccine distribution for select groups began in the U.S. in December 2020, the post-pandemic landscape of the food economy remains unclear. USDA Economic Research Service will continue to monitor the effects of the pandemic on food expenditures as more data become available and will examine possible long-lasting behavioral changes in the way people purchase food.