Food habits during coronavirus (COVID-19) may have shifted from diverse and nutritive diets to staple foods such as wheat and rice as the prices of vegetables, pulses and eggs rose sharply after the lockdown while those of cereals remained relatively stable, according to a new study by the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition in New York.
The study, “Pandemic Prices: COVID-19 price shocks and their implications for nutrition security in India,” was launched earlier this month.
It analyses prices of cereals (wheat and rice) and non-cereals (onion, tomatoes, potatoes, five pulses and eggs) in 11 tier-1 and tier-2 cities from March 1 to May 31 compared to the same period last year. It used weekly-level retail data from the Department of Commerce Affairs of the Union government and wholesale prices from the National Egg Coordination Committee.
The study revealed that following the lockdown all food groups witnessed a rise in prices compared to 2019, but the rise in prices was higher for non-cereals compared to cereals. After the lockdown was lifted, prices of cereals, eggs, potatoes, onions and tomatoes stabilised quickly while those of protein-rich pulses continued to remain high.
Prices of pulses rose during the lockdown and continued to remain higher than the pre-COVID-19 levels — arhar (tur dal) was up by up to 45%, red lentil (masur dal) by 20-50%, moong dal by 20-80% gram dal ranged from 10 to 40% and urad dal by 0-80%.
“The relative stability in cereal prices and enhanced prices of pulses will most likely distort spending and consumption decisions. This will perpetuate reliance on a staple-based, protein-deficient diet. The government can ensure the provision of supplementary protein that is expected to be lost due to the price rise by timely interventions to stabilise the increase in prices,” the authors recommend. “The report submits that the relatively higher prices of more nutritious food makes it difficult for the poor and marginal population to access such nutrient-rich food. As a result, proportion of such foods in the diets goes further down and is replaced by less nutritious and calorie-dense foods. This is likely to worsen the nutritional status of women and children across India, and more so in the impoverished regions of the country,” co-author of the report, Bhaskar Mittra, told The Hindu in an email.