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Are Cooking Habits Changing?

(post, Eamon Molloy)

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JudithK asked in her latest blog post if the current economic state "will cause the type of lasting generational changes of the Great Depression." I don't know if people are eating down their pantry but it looks like people are stocking the pantry differently.

From my perspective as a farmers market manager,eating and food buying habits were already shifting when the recession started. The economic climate has merely accelerated the change. Since I manage markets year-round, I am able to watch what people buy nearly every week. There is nothing more price sensitive and more competitive than food. Prices can change within a single market session and buying patterns within a few weeks. By May 2008, I was already noticing a shift in buying habits. Vendors selling the basics like produce, meats, breads, cheeses were seeing little variation in sales week to week. In fact, sales were much stronger than the same week a year before. Prepared foods on the other hand, were starting to see fluctuations in sales week to week. In mid-June, there was a noticeable decrease in sales for most prepared foods while the basics were selling at about the same rate. Most prepared foods were experiencing flat sales or a drop from the previous year too.

I had a hunch that the prepared food sales were payday dependent so I started asking regular customers when they were paid. Sure enough, prepared foods sales went down between pay periods. By July, I had figured out when most people were getting paid. Most of the prepared food vendors that I worked with changed their production accordingly and were able to minimize their shrink (food not sold at the end of the market). Most vendors were able to stay in business but I wondered what the winter was going to be like.

Since the fall, the shift has been more dramatic. Fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and to a lesser extent seafood have been selling extremely well. Several farms have been selling at a rate comparable to summer markets despite winter customer counts being about one third of the summer counts. It's really an amazing thing to see a fully stocked produce stall empty out in under an hour and need to be completely restocked. Certain prepared foods continue to sell well particularly breads, jams, coffee beans and dessert items. Basically, things that can't be easily made at home or might be considered a cheap thrill.

I've only talked to a few shoppers but they've all said that they were making changes. By and large, the changes were something they had thought about for a while and the economic downturn pushed them to make the change. Is the change permanent? I don't know for sure but the people I've talked to are enjoying the change and are happy with the food they are buying. It should be an interesting summer.