This mixed-method study’s first objective was to determine the prevalence of food insecurity in SWWA during the COVID-19 pandemic. The prevalence of food insecurity was 21%, which is substantially higher than pre-COVID estimates, with a 2019 WA survey (using a single item questionnaire) reporting a food insecurity prevalence of 2.5% . Our statistics are similar to other Australian regions during the pandemic (26%) . We found that disability and younger age was significantly associated with food insecurity, which may relate to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on employment for younger people . In WA over 67% of young people were concerned about their financial situation, and 44% had reported a loss of income due to COVID-19, which likely impacted financial access to food for this group. Furthermore, increasing social isolation and difficulties getting to the shops could have contributed to food insecurity in those with a disability due to social distancing restrictions and the risk of infection .
Our second objective was to quantify the relationship between food supply issues and food security. Most respondents agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted food supply, disproportionately affecting respondents in low food security contexts. As such, food insecurity was associated with agreement that COVID-19 impacted the type of food available, food price, quality, the amount and type of food purchased, the location and frequency of food purchased, the money available to purchase food, storage, preparation and household food wastage. Food costs appear to have impacted food security, with respondents who agreed that food prices had changed were six times more likely to be food insecure. Also, 92% of food insecure respondents (versus 17% of food secure respondents) reported having less money available for food. The frequency of food shopping was a predictor of food security, which may relate to the limits placed on staple food items at supermarkets and that food insecure families may have needed to purchase foods in greater quantities than allowed. In addition, our study showed that food insecure respondents cut down on the amount of food they consumed as a coping strategy, which may partly reflect food unavailability during the peak of the crisis.
The third study objective was to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted food bought and consumed in regional Australia. Consumer respondents reported that food suppliers inflated prices due to increased demand of foods. On a national level, food retailers were accused of passing increased food costs on to consumers . Increased prices may have been partly attributable to inflation at a national level, which experienced the highest growth since 2011 . On the other hand, food supply stakeholder interviewees often mentioned prices did not change due to the pandemic but were conscious of environmental issues (e.g. bushfires) influencing food prices. However, some of those issues (e.g. higher transportation costs) can be related to the broader effect of the pandemic in global supply chains.
In regional Australia, food costs rise, quality drops, and availability declines with increasing distance from major cities , which could have further exacerbated food affordability in our study. The culmination of food prices  and lower availability of foods may have resulted in consumers purchasing less healthy, shelf-stable alternatives. Interestingly, our study found a relatively high availability of discretionary foods in comparison to fresh food groups, highlighting that accessing healthy foods may have become more challenging. The sudden and extreme changes in consumer shopping behaviours during the pandemic created imbalances in supply and demand and reduced the availability of food . As such, consumers not only changed what they eat, but where and how they bought their food during COVID-19 [28, 29]. In our study, consumers reported shopping at multiple locations, often as a result of limited stock. Food supply stakeholders perceived consumers were shopping less frequently, opting to shop quickly, and preferring to use online and delivery options. While international studies have reported an increase in online shopping , in Australia both delivery and pick up services were initially suspended by major supermarkets, but not smaller outlets. Consequently, consumers reported purchasing from smaller supermarkets, roadside stalls and regional wholesalers. In response to social distancing restrictions limiting their usual trading options, many local businesses pivoted toward online platforms and delivery box schemes .
In our study, 47% of food secure and 87% of food insecure respondents reported buying different types of food, with increased consumer resourcefulness reported through home cooking. The increased flexibility and creativity in consumers’ shopping and cooking habits may relate to a greater amount of time spent at home and the closure of many hospitality businesses. Food supply stakeholders also suggested that fresh produce was a priority, and Australian supermarkets relaxed specifications for fresh produce in response to increased consumer demand , which benefited local producers. The increased consumption of fresh produce is reflected in international literature with nearly a quarter of survey respondents in Italy reporting an increased consumption of fruit and vegetables during a lockdown .
While the majority of respondents (73%) tried to purchase a food item that was unavailable, it is unclear to what extent this contributed to food insecurity. A UK study reported that food unavailability contributed to 40% of food insecurity experienced . Personal stress and the perceived fear of food shortages contributed to food hoarding, which is a common reaction to manage the uncertainty of the food supply . In general, our consumer respondents reported purchasing more food than usual during the pandemic, corroborating other studies [28, 35]. Consumers and food supply stakeholders both observed that some purchases were related to panic buying rather than a need for food. Following periods of panic buying consumers have reportedly sought information on food storage methods, including freezing and canning . However, food supply stakeholders in our study perceived that excess food may be wasted.
Consumers sought locally grown food options as they trusted and wanted to support local producers. Previous research in SWWA shows the vast majority of consumers think locally grown food is very important . Our analysis identifies an opportunity for local producers be responsive towards pivoting to serve their communities when food supplies are challenged . However, it would be insufficient to rely on the adaptive capacity of small-scale producers, and therefore greater innovation may be required to ensure the resilience of food supply chains in regional Australia in the future.
This study has a number of strengths. To the authors knowledge, it is the first study to combine consumer and food supply stakeholder perspectives on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected food supply and food security, providing triangulated data. This compliments recent Australian research which examined food chain resilience during the pandemic from an industry perspective . The limitations include a small sample size, despite using a number of recruitment strategies, contributing to a potentially underpowered study, along with limited generalisability beyond the SWWA region. Additionally, a larger sample of stakeholders from transport and logistics sectors may have provided further insights as these were central to food supply chains during the pandemic.