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Food practices under Lockdown in France

Author: Fanny Devaux

Shifting from physical food shopping to online food shopping, cleaning food products after coming back from the supermarket, and preparing home made meals: these are three food related practices that many French people experienced during the lockdown. While the confinement public policy did not directly target food habits, it did have many impacts on the way French people shopped, cooked and ate. Based on 19 interviews conducted in Paris and its suburbs between May and June, we offer preliminary conclusions on the implementation and consequences of the lockdown measures on French people’s food-related practices.

On March 12th, the French president Emmanuel Macron gave a televised speech announcing the first measures directly aimed at French people’s everyday lives. This marked the beginning of a 55 day period of new and exceptionally precise measures, while the French economic system was partially shut down.

The French lockdown measures were exceptional on two levels: on the scale of the French public, who had never known such a precise and directive framing of their lives, and in comparison to many other European countries, which did not adopt such a strict lockdown. The government decided to close the schools and universities, and all the “non-necessary workers” were called to work from home. Restaurants were shut down but authorized to sell take-away meals and open markets were prohibited in most cities, but allowed in some of them by authorities.

As far as private businesses are concerned, it was mainly shops selling food that remained open, while employees of the  health sector and basic everyday life services remained working. The available data indicates that one third of the workers kept working outside, while one third worked from home, and one third did not work during the lockdown (lost their job or took a holiday) (Projet Coco, Policy brief n3, p.2).

Submitted by an interviewee

For people staying at home or working from home, a list of legitimate motives to leave their home was established (including going food shopping, going to the doctor, or practicing an individual sporting activity, for instance). In any case, their daily trips had to be limited to one kilometre around their houses, and one hour per day. Each trip outside the house was to be justified by filling in a form indicating the motive of the trip. During those trips, a list of sanitary measures were to be respected (social distancing, frequent hand washing, etc.).

While the lockdown was not directly aimed at re-shaping food habits, how did it finally impact French people’s food related practices?

Provisioning  and eating without risks during a pandemic

First, provisioning was one of the legitimate motives to go out established by the government. At the same time, the government issued several new sanitary recommendations to be applied while shopping (staying 1m away from other customers, washing hands before entering a shop, etc.). During the first weeks of the lockdown, supermarkets had to face several shortages of products considered to be “basic needs”, such as flour, eggs, milk and toilet paper.

Supermarkets hired security guards to secure the entrances of their shops and to regulate the number of clients allowed in the supermarket. As a result, people had to queue for long periods in front of their shops. The media echoed several stories about people arguing or fighting while queuing in front of supermarkets, or about a security guard who refused a mother to be accompanied by her child during her grocery shopping, because children were considered potentially contagious.

Thus, going shopping might have taken up new significance in people’s lives: while it was one of their only reasons left to be able to go out, it might also have been considered a risky trip. Our data proves that this tension unfolded in people’s lives in highly varied ways. Indeed, these new stakes surrounding shopping were coordinated into new lockdown routines, which followed people’s habits before the lockdown and depended on the extent to which the interviewees were ready to adapt to the rules or protect themselves from the pandemic.

Concretely, some of our interviewees completely reshaped their shopping habits during the pandemic. This meant changing modes of food shopping (from physical to ordering food online), frequency (from several times to once a month or so) or implementing new habits (disinfecting food before storing it) in order to reduce the exposition to the COVID-19 risk induced by the activity of food shopping. On the other hand, some interviewees seemed eager to keep their food routines unchanged, and continued going to the same places, at the same frequency, in order to keep some stability in their lives, or out of habit.

“Nothing changed compared to the usual. First, those are small Parisian flats. So in small flats we have small fridges. We cannot store tons and tons of food. Which means I tend to go grocery shopping not everyday but every two days. And one day out of two I would go grocery shopping. Still to the same places actually. After six years I am beginning to know where I can go.” (Quote from a 75 years all interviewee living in Paris)

Furthermore, food and alcohol were an excuse for people who were not confined together to gather during the lockdown – circumventing the official lockdown rules. Drawing from our data, it seems that some food-related practices “resisted” the lockdown rules. Many of our interviewees explain how they organized dinners or drinks during the lockdown, as a way to maintain social links. However, they all insist on their cautiousness to implement the sanitary rules during these events. They would get together in apartments, but make sure to stay away, or to eat separate food. There thus seems to be an adaptation of the rules of the lockdown by the interviewees in order to render them compatible with some food practices that mattered to them.

In any case, these dynamics were not stable over the lockdown. Be it concerning changing  or stable provisioning practices, interviewees often mention living the lockdown in “phases”. Within one person’s lockdown experience, there were, most of the time, constant negotiations of the lockdown rules, which partly depended on the perception people had of the pandemic risk. For instance, this means that some people completely adapted their provisioning practices to make them safe during the first weeks of the lockdown, but then considered it too “extreme” and decided to go back to their usual routine before the end of the lockdown.

Preparing and organizing the daily meals within the house

Beyond providing rules and recommendations to decrease the risk of contamination, the lockdown literally closed the door of households, leaving the internal family or household structures to coordinate the food work within the house. Indeed, the lockdown also meant a withdrawal of food practices into the private spheres for most of our interviewees. Usually, food work is allocated between entities that are outside the households (canteens, restaurants…) and within the household (preparing and eating food at home).

One of the consequences of  the lockdown was to bring most of the meal cooking and eating back into the private sphere. This aspect is a direct implication of the lockdown public policy; however, handling the consequences of the extra food work came down to decision making and coordination within the households. 

French media strongly diffused an image of French people rediscovering family time around food or the pleasure of cooking. Journalists emphasized the fact that companies selling cooking appliances, such as yogurt makers, bread machines or food processors faced an increase of their sales. There were indeed lots of innovations, and some people who did not have time to cook or eat together as a household took advantage of their lockdown time to do so. In many supermarkets, flour was lacking long after the first weeks, because so many people wanted to make cakes with their children or make their own bread.

Submitted by one of our interviewees, 34 years old father of three children living in the suburbs of Paris 

“I chose this picture because during the lockdown I found time to cook fresh products and to elaborate some recipes. In this picture every element is home made (from the paste to cutting the products) and took me some work (the taboulé with fresh products as well as the feuilleté)”

Yet, looking at food and meals at the scale of the household gives us a complementary view. Even though some individuals did innovate or rediscover food related activities that they did not have time to do outside of the lockdown, it seems that the food work (thinking of menus, cooking the meals, cleaning after the meals…) followed the same partition during the lockdown as it did before for most our interviewees.

For households including heterosexual couples, it means that many of our female interviewees had to handle this extra food work on their own, and had to put more effort into the preparation of food for the rest of the household. This seems coherent with the first quantitative studies that found that women took care of most of the housework during the lockdown, and took on an increased share compared to before the lockdown (Projet CoCo, Policy brief n1, p.5).

Finally, our data points to the innovations our female interviewees had to think of in order to prepare more meals a day, without more help and sometimes with less time than they usually would have. This involved greater anticipation, trying to find new recipes, and sometimes, for higher class interviewees, using apps to have some prepared and fresh food delivered for dinner.

As we write, the pandemic is far from being over, and some measures have been re-implemented (bars are closed in Paris, student gatherings are forbidden, curfew after 9 PM in 8 cities, etc.). The government is experimenting with ways to keep the figures under control without enforcing a complete lockdown. Meanwhile, our data allows us to understand some of the unintended consequences the lockdown has had on French people’s everyday lives.

Author : Fanny Devaux


Recchi, E., Ferragina, E., Helmeid, E., Pauly, S., Sa , M. Sauger, N. and Schradie, J., “Coping with Covid in France: Lockdown for All, Hardship for Some. Insights from the First Wave of the CoCo Project”, Coping with Covid-19: Social dis- tancing, cohesion and inequality in 2020 France, n° 1, Paris: Sciences Po – Observatoire sociologique du changement, april 2020. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3757870

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