The COVID-19 pandemic has changed daily life for citizens in most countries around the world. The speed at which the public had to react and adapt to government directives for physical distancing is unprecedented, causing numerous hardships in acquiring the essentials.

Led by Professor Daiva Nielsen from McGill’s School of Human Nutrition, the Quebec COVID-19 Food Access Study is an online provincial household investigation evaluating impacts and changes to food access and food behaviours according to regional COVID-19 prevalence during and after the provincial lockdown period that occurred this spring. Participants are residents of Quebec aged 18 and older.

Researchers are particularly interested in understanding the impact that the pandemic has had on access to food, which was affected for a variety of reasons, such as “economic challenges resulting from job loss, agricultural impacts, self-isolation, or apprehension to shop in-store due to concerns about exposure to the SARS-CoV2 virus,” explains Nielsen.

The study is a collaboration between McGill’s School of Human Nutrition, the Desautels Faculty of Management and Université Laval’s department of marketing.

Data collection

Provincial coverage of household online COVID-19 Food Access Survey

“The first survey occurred over two weeks in May 2020, during the provincial lockdown period, and the first follow-up assessment is being conducted in August. A third and final data collection period will occur later in fall 2020 or winter 2021 so that food outcomes can be compared over time and as the situation evolves,” explains Nielsen.

The survey was widely advertised through social media and a variety of food and agriculture provincial websites. Information about the study and how to participate was also disseminated on a CBC Radio One Montreal program. To increase provincial coverage, a paid Facebook and Instagram advertisement targeted regions outside of Montreal.

The first questionnaire inquired about sociodemographics, grocery shopping frequency and use of online grocery methods (in general and during self-isolation if applicable), risk perceptions and exposure mitigation strategies when in-store shopping, barriers to food access, and household job impact due to COVID-19 closures.

Nielsen reports that “2,093 households were reached, with the following distribution of Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) COVID-19 prevalence regions: 50% Montreal/Laval, 13% Montreal Belt, and 37% Other Regions, representing areas of high, medium, and low COVID-19 prevalence, respectively. In total, responses were obtained from households in 17 of the 18 Quebec health regions.”

Statistical analyses of results

Statistical analyses are being conducted for the data overall and by regional COVID-19 prevalence to determine whether food access and grocery patterns vary according to regional prevalence.

The August 2020 follow-up survey is repeating a number of questions from the first data collection period. Nielsen explains that this is “to investigate possible changes in patterns from the time of the strictest provincial closures to a period of reopening.” Additional questions were added to assess the potential impact of the pandemic on household food spending, food values and food skills.

Results from the investigation will indicate whether challenges existed in accessing food during the provincial lockdown period and, if so, what sociodemographic factors were related to the challenges.

While the recruitment method enabled reach to a large number of households in a short time, Nielsen notes: “It is important to acknowledge that online methods of recruitment may not capture households with low socioeconomic status and, therefore, the results of this investigation would reflect the situation that occurred for higher socioeconomic status groups. Nevertheless, the findings may assist in the development of plans for commercial food strategies as the pandemic evolves and may help to shape public health guidance around considerations of food access in the event of future outbreaks.”

Pan-Canadian Survey

Similar to the Quebec Food Access Study, Dr. Nielsen is also one of the lead researchers on a pan-Canadian food access survey. The “Inter-Provincial Survey: From Food Access, Concerns and Perceptions During the COVID-19 Pandemic, 2020” is currently accepting responses from residents 18 years and older, in all provinces. Links to each province’s survey are listed here:

This Canada-wide survey aims to advance researchers’ “understanding of food access, purchasing and consumption behavior, as well as the food-related perceptions and concerns of Canadian consumers during the pandemic. [They] hope to provide evidence of the impacts of a pandemic, from a consumer’s perspective, on one of the basic human needs – food. This study will contribute to the on-going discussion on the importance and urgency of transitioning into a more reliable and resilient regional food system,” according to the study website.