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How the 21st century eater is shaping food’s future

Food expert Mike Lee explores the trends shaping food choices.

Fran O'Leary, Wisconsin Agriculturist Senior Editor

August 13, 2020

3 Min Read
A family cooking a home made pizza with fresh ingredients
HOMECOOKING: COVID-19 has forced consumers to return to cooking at home. Maryna Andriichenko/Getty Images

Midwest Dairy hosted the third annual Dairy Experience Forum on July 15 by virtually convening more than 400 members from the dairy supply chain to discuss trends, opportunities, innovation and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The theme, “A Disruptive Forum on Today’s Consumer and Dairy’s Opportunity,” built upon the past two years of learning and examined how current events have created unique circumstances influencing consumer behavior in 2020 and beyond.

Mike Lee of The Future Market and Alpha Food Labs based in New York City, explored the trends and consumer behaviors that are shaping the future of food, with a focus on the dairy industry.

“Emerging signals we are seeing is this year has been eventful to say the least,” Lee says. The biggest thing to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is the end of one-size-fits-all-food.

“Never has food been more tied to one’s identity,” Lee says, adding that food and identity are intrinsically linked in the 21st century eater. “What makes this person tick?”

Their food choices revolve around sustainability, health and experience all at the same time, he says.

Before COVID -19, Lee says 21st century eaters were focused on the sustainability of their food, reducing the impact of food production on the environment, regenerative agriculture and reduced food waste.

“Then COVID -19 happened,” Lee says.

 What are the enduring changes because of COVID-19?

“COVID-19 highlighted some of the cracks we saw in the food system,” Lee explains. “Maybe they were there all along, but COVID highlighted them. A lot of cracks have been exposed.”

When COVID-19 hit, people immediately returned to eating comfort foods like Gold Fish crackers and Campbell’s soup.

“Once COVID hit, they didn’t want to explore new brands. They wanted to consume familiar foods,” Lee says. “Campbell’s has had a rough couple of years, but a lot of people wanted Campbell’s soup at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Making choices

What drives consumers food choices?

“Taste, cost, nutrition and convenience; sustainability doesn’t have taste,” Lee notes. “If you are a single parent and you get home from work, you just need to feed yourself and your kids, and not solve climate change.”

When it comes to food, Lee says there is a hierarchy of needs.

“If you don’t have access to food, it’s really hard to think about the sustainability of your food or the health of your food,” he says. “When was the last time you talked about plastic straws? It’s interesting to watch that shift. Would you rather be safe and clean, or would you rather have a plastic bag?”

COVID-19 has re-centered our values.

There are lines at food banks, Lee notes. “Who are we trying to create food for? High-tech food should exist, but low-tech food should exist, too.”

We will be reinventing restaurants, too.

“Some estimates I’ve heard are 30% to 50% of the restaurants won’t come back after COVID-19,” Lee says. “Every restaurant needs to develop service, products and off-site food.”

COVID is also redefining what it means to go out to eat.

“Things are going to be a lot more focused on the products,” Lee explains. “When you are eating a meal without the environment, we aren't going to have the romance of a dining experience. Food quality in restaurants will have to improve.”

COVID-19 has forced consumers to return to cooking at home.

“Part of that is built on fear,” Lee says. “I think it will be a delay before people go back to restaurants.

Once you cook, you start to get more familiar and your cooking improves.”

E-commerce in grocery stores is slated to grow 40% in 2020.

“People are scared to go out to grocery stores,” he says. “This is accelerating E-grocery store commerce by five years.”

Lee says food is sold one bite at a time.

“Don’t undersell the small conversations you have about food with consumers. We have to learn as an industry how to tell our story. That food demo in the grocery store isn’t coming back anytime soon,” he notes. “So, this makes telling our story more important than ever.”








About the Author(s)

Fran O'Leary

Wisconsin Agriculturist Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Fran O’Leary lives in Brandon, Wis., and has been editor of Wisconsin Agriculturist since 2003. Even though O’Leary was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, she has spent most of her life in Wisconsin. She moved to the state when she was 18 years old and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Before becoming editor of Wisconsin Agriculturist, O’Leary worked at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson as a writer and editor of farm business publications and at the Janesville Gazette in Janesville as farm editor and a feature writer. Later, she signed on as a public relations associate at Bader Rutter in Brookfield, and served as managing editor and farm editor at The Reporter, a daily newspaper in Fond du Lac.

She has been a member of American Agricultural Editors’ Association (now Agricultural Communicators Network) since 2003.

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