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Food Environments in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Impacts and positive policy actions to deliver sustainable healthy diets for all

Last updated by the UNSCN Secretariat on 8th April

Food environments are rapidly changing

The current global pandemic of Coronavirus (COVID-19), and measures taken to reduce its spread, have disrupted food environments around the world. Never has a larger spotlight been placed on the ways people meet the food systems for getting the nutrition they, and their family need. Disarrangements in day-to-day food supply mechanisms and disturbances in various components of food systems are increasingly felt on an individual level.  

These disruptions to people’s food environments and restrictions to their personal freedom give even more reason to ensure that human rights are not being compromised in the long term. Everyone has the right to adequate food and the right to health. Realizing and protecting the human rights of every man, woman and child is essential at all times, including during times of crises.

As the pandemic spreads the interaction between people and the food system is changing at an unimaginable speed and taking on greater importance in everyday life. With strict rules placed on people's personal movement to limit the spread of COVID-19, shopping for food is one of the only points of contact with what people knew as normal life. Even so, supermarkets, grocers and markets have become a confronting barometer of the scale of the pandemic. Physical distancing measures are implemented, marketplaces are shut down, vendors are banned from selling, limits are imposed on the number of shoppers, long queues are encountered at points of food purchase and empty shelves serve as a sign of the coping mechanism many are adopting.

Unhealthy diets are the leading cause of ill-health. Without dedicated action on nutrition, all forms of malnutrition are likely to increase as a result of the pandemic’s impact on food environments. Financial hardships, reduced physical activity, and altered purchasing patterns favoring products with longer shelf life and often poorer nutrition profiles can lead to higher levels of food insecurity, undernutrition, and overweight/ obesity.

Food environment disruptions are the result of many more changes than those observed at the point of sale. Both external and personal dimensions impact on people’s food environments. External dimensions include food availability, prices, vendors- while personal dimensions include geographical access, affordability, convenience and desirability. 

Figure 1. Possible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food environments

Source: adapted from Turner et al,  Concepts and critical perspectives for food environment research: A global framework with implications for action in low- and middle-income countries, available at

 Specific examples of positive policy actions to mitigate changes and improve food environments  

Many governments at all levels, as well as civil society organizations and the private sector, are already applying positive policy actions to protect food environments. The objective is to try and adapt to unavoidable changes and support sustainable healthy diets for all.

Some examples of actions taken are detailed below:

External Food Environment Domains

  • Promote the smooth and secure flow of food trade in support of food security and nutrition;
  • Support and protect smallholder farmers and their value chains/ market access;
  • Support the continuation of planting and harvesting cycles to prevent agricultural production disruptions
  • Utilize Food Based Dietary Guideline’s (FBDG) which include sustainability criteria to inform positive action by all stakeholders throughout the food system- from guiding agricultural and food production strategies, to informing policy makers priorities and promoting sustainable healthy diets;
  • Support local food systems, through linking them with major food supply chains;
  • Monitor food prices, food security and malnutrition indicators;
  • Adopt subsidies and taxes which promote the purchasing and consumption of nutritious foods based on food based dietary guidelines (FBDG);
  • Strengthen and adapt social protection programmes in light of price fluctuations, income losses and nutritional needs to protect the right to food for all, leaving no one behind;
  • Include food system and food supply chain actors as essential services to ensure availability, while protecting workers with sanitary measures;
  • Upkeep of food fortification programmes;
  • Support major food providers to undertake needs-based purchasing that ensures the availability of basic food items, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Personal Food Environment Domains

  • Adapt the delivery of social protection programmes to improve accessibility and affordability in a manner that complies with movement and crowd restrictions, harnesses volunteers and creates employment opportunities;
  • Explore food rationing systems based on health, nutrition, equity and decency that protects the right to food for all
  • Use FBDG’s as a guide to the promotion of sustainable healthy diets and to guide policy actions throughout the food system
  • Strengthen nutrition education and messaging to protect breastfeeding and promote nutritious food products, dispel myths, encourage healthy cooking techniques and place emphasis on food safety and waste reduction in line with the latest nutritional advice;
  • Invest in, scale-up and explore digital and other innovative and solidary approaches for food provision and grocery shopping platforms to enhance convenience; reach vulnerable populations; and improve wholesale markets, smallholder farmers and local producers’ access to larger points of sale and consumers;
  • Support local government level action to strengthen food supply and food environments – including those that look to improve accessibility through home delivery of food for vulnerable populations and create employment opportunities.

Policy actions during the COVID-19 should be human rights based – aiming to protect every person’s right to food, reducing inequalities and ensuring even the most vulnerable groups needs are met, leaving no one behind.

Nutritional advice during the COVID-19 Pandemic

 Nutritional advice does not change because of the pandemic, but it does take on added urgency:

  • Consult trustworthy information sources such as UN agencies and government health/ nutrition platforms.
  • A healthy dietary pattern based on national or regional FBDG which is diverse and abundant with fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds; plain water, modest amounts of animal source foods and minimal in amounts of processed meats is important to ensure all bodily functions work well, including immunity.
  • Unhealthy diets, leading to overweight and obesity, are the leading cause of ill health and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory disease. Unhealthy diets are also a primary cause of poor control of NCDs and resulting adverse health outcomes. People with NCDs are at a heightened risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19.
  • Watch your intake of fats, sugar, and salt. Many people in times of high stress, use foods high in fat, sugar and salt as a comfort, which can lead to over eating and weight gain.
  • Faced with fear and uncertainty it is natural to be tempted by tales of miracle foods. No food, drink or dietary pattern can provide protection from, or cure infection by COVID-19.
  • Food safety is crucial to limit both the spread of COVID-19 and exposure to other illnesses. Practice handwashing with soap before and after grocery shopping, handling, preparing and consuming food.
  • Prevent food waste by only purchasing what you and your family need and following the 9 easy tips to fight food waste.
  • Practice solidarity. Avoid panic purchasing and enjoy home-cooked meals. Where possible and safe, help the vulnerable with their food purchases and support local food producers and vendors.
  • Breastfeeding protects newborns from getting sick and also helps protect them throughout their infancy and childhood. Breastfeeding is particularly effective against infectious diseases because it strengthens the immune system by directly transferring antibodies from the mother. Women with COVID-19 can continue to breastfeed if they practice respiratory hygiene during feeding.

Working towards a healthier, more nutritious future

The current COVID-19 generated food environment disruption poses a huge global challenge, but also an opportunity. Mitigating its consequences with collaborative solutions, solidarity and reinforcement of local food systems, may open up and lead the way towards a sustainable transformation to  resilient and sustainable food systems with healthy nutrition at their core. FBDG form a useful tool to guide this transformation. People are searching for direction and reassurances in their food environments that realize the right to food for every man, woman and child. Now is the time to demonstrate the need for, and the power and possibility of sustainable healthy diets. 

Overall actions and recommendations by the UN to protect health and nutrition

UN agencies and their partner organizations are continuously scaling up action and information to protect people’s health and nutrition in this time of crisis (see a full list of resources here).


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