The health value of organic food has been long recognized, so it is natural that consumer interest in organic products has grown during the pandemic as people have placed a greater priority on wellness. In a recent study from the International Food Information Council, 85 percent of the respondents stated that the coronavirus has changed their food habits, with the majority responding they were eating healthier than they usually do because of the pandemic. Another research study linked the public’s increased awareness of organic food’s health benefits with the higher demand for organic products since COVID-19’s arrival.
The numbers bear out these theories. The Organic Produce Network’s latest report showed increases in organic produce dollars (22 percent) and volume (25 percent) from March 2019 to March 2020 as well as jumps in organic produce sales, volume and market shares during the first quarter of this year. All of these increases surpassed gains by conventional produce during these same periods.
Fruits and vegetables, traditionally the most popular organic items, not only remained in the top slot this spring but also experienced a 20 percent jump in sales during that time period. Consumer spending on organic items, however, grew for more than just produce. Organic milk and eggs were in high demand and there was a double-digit increase in purchases of packaged and frozen organic foods. Organic meat, poultry and fish, the smallest organic food category in 2019, has grown by 10 percent this year, according to figures from the Organic Trade Association.
Grocers specializing in organic and natural products have seen a huge boost in business during the pandemic. Sprouts Farmers saw a 16 percent bump in first-quarter sales compared to 2019’s totals, while Whole Foods was forced to have some stores temporarily handle only online orders due to such overwhelming demand.
Stores weren’t the only places where people purchased organic food. Consumers also were going straight to the source: farms. Yelp’s Coronavirus Impact Report charted a 579 percent increase in business for community-supported agriculture (CSAs) from the beginning of March through mid-April. The Washington Post similarly noted that CSA subscription services have jumped significantly since mid-March. Full Cellar Farm told the Post that its customer base grew 40 percent this spring. ButcherBox, which sells grass-fed, humanely raised meat online directly to consumers, is so busy that it has a waitlist for new customers.
That people have turned to buying directly from farms reflects the Yelp report’s findings that customers are putting more emphasis on knowing the source of their food. The bigger interest in getting produce straight from organic farms also coincides with a recent Natural Grocers’ survey that found the main reasons people buy organic foods were to avoid GMOs and pesticides and that they felt organic items were more nutritious.
While COVID-19 has resulted in a big boost in sales for organic goods, this increase also is part of a larger trend. The organic food world has seen steady growth over the past few years. This over $55 billion business no longer is considered exotic, but – in the words of Organic Trade Association CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha – “is now considered mainstream.” So it is easy to put faith in a recent poll where 90 percent of the participants stated that they place greater importance on organic food than ever before – and over 55 percent plan to make healthy eating a permanent part of their lives – and foresee a rosy future for organic foods.