For the majority of my life I have loved food shopping. It is what you do prior to cooking, and cooking as you may have guessed from reading this blog, is one of my joys. What I know from years of grocery shopping is this:
- Each store is unique
- Shopping where there are happy & knowledgable employees is more fun
- Mentally bookmark stores with unique/quirky items
- Not all bulk sections carry foods you want to (or should) buy
- Produce sections tell you a lot about the community
- Not all of us like other people packing our shopping bags
Then there are the farmer’s markets – a wonderful subset of places to food shop. Loved both because my dear Grammy Caldwell started taking me to them when I was a young girl, plus they give you an opportunity to speak with the farmer who grew the food, and you get to go shopping outdoors! My lifelong love of farmer’s markets and farm stands is something I’ve written about here and here and here.
The thing is food shopping isn’t what it once was.
Before I dig into the current state of affairs with food shopping I want to clearly acknowledge what isn’t happening, at least not yet. We are not being rationed (well, except for toilet paper). Grocery stores are still open. So far my family has the wherewithal to buy food. I understand we are incredibly fortunate, and need to say so. Out loud.
The changes to how we should shop change with great frequency. I’m sure they also vary wildly from state to state.
Several cities in Massachusetts now make it mandatory for people to wear masks whenever they are out in public. In addition to the mandatory masks our local Co-op requires folks shopping there to clean their hands with hand-sanitizer and put on fresh gloves before entering (the hand sanitizer and gloves are both free – yeah River Valley Market!). Many grocery stores have wisely put limits on the number of people who can be inside at any given time, which allows for better social distancing. As I wait my turn in line I think of this as the “one out, one in” method. My local Trader Joe’s sprays down each cart with a disinfectant solution, not just the handle – people on their team clean the entire cart.
Groups of shoppers are discouraged even if they are a family unit. Not a problem for us, as I can easily leave my husband at home when I shop, but I worry about the single parents who no longer have day care or babysitters. How are they supposed to shop alone? On a hopeful note, several grocery stores have designated special shopping hours, typically at the beginning of the day, for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
It’s not just the consumers who are affected. Grocery store worker’s jobs are now considered essential. Along with health care workers these people are our everyday heroes in this pandemic. Checkout lines in many food stores now have sheets of plexiglass to create a barrier between the shopper and cashier. A few grocery stores are offering hazard pay to their employees. Some stores are requesting customers pay with plastic instead of cash, since they don’t have to touch a debit or credit card. We’re all trying to figure this out together.
People are trying.
Last weekend my husband and I were in a zoom get-together with his family, who live in the midwest. My brother-in-law, a high school history teacher, told us his students repeatedly asked when things would go back to normal. He told them,
Things will never go back to normal, to the way they were. But there will be a new normal, and you can be part of shaping that.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about what the new normal of shopping is.
First off I want to say how grateful I am for the abundance of foods that are on the shelves. While there may be no yeast, flour or peanut butter, there are still plenty of choices. This may be a cosmic kick-in-the-pants to get more creative in the kitchen.
It is also an opportunity to consider how we get food into our homes. Several of my friends have moved to online shopping with delivery. Our house is so far out in the country that no one delivers to our town. Not before, and not now. So to the store we will go. In the mean time we’re exploring places where an order can be placed online, then at a specified time you go to a designated spot and pick it up.
One thing which has stumped me is how often to shop. Annabelle Hickson wrote on Instagram she thought she could get her shopping down to once every three weeks. The competitive imp inside me instantly said, “We can do that!”What the heck was I thinking?!!
We managed twenty-one days, but just. I’ll be honest – our food choices were bleak by day 18. As the fridge got emptier and emptier it simultaneously became brighter and brighter since there was no fresh food to obscure the light. That was our one bright spot (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). By the time I finally went out to the store our fresh produce had dwindled down to four onions, two heads of garlic, and some very sad wedges of cabbage that probably belonged in the compost bucket. My friend in New York City goes grocery shopping a few times a week. In part for his sanity, and in part because he wouldn’t be able to store (or carry) more food. For us the sweet spot may be every ten days or so. We’ll see.
Then there is the question of budget. What I have yet to figure out is how to spend the same amount of money on groceries as I did before. When shopping pre-Covid-19 I always shopped the sales. For at least 40% of our staples they didn’t go into my cart unless they were on sale. Let me say so far there is no sales shopping these days, I’m too busy trying to find the things on my list. We do of course save some money by not eating out, but that brings up another sticky topic. How do we help support our favorite eateries? One of my knitting pals said she’s trying to do take out once a week, which my sister-in-law also does. Another food option to consider.
So this week, as I processed the myriad of ways we now shop, I finally decided to take a break. I went out “shopping” the old-fashioned way – by hunting and gathering. What I hoped to find in my scrambles through the woods was a lovely patch of wild ramps. Alas, despite hiking up and over hill and dale I came across no magical green swaths of the wild garlic-y plants. Instead I discovered a huge patch of stinging nettles in a field, which I happily harvested. I also came home with one hitchhiker, the first deer tick of the season. Shawn plucked it off me and killed it. After checking myself for any additional hitchhikers (thankfully there were none), I made a huge pot of stinging nettle soup.
Perhaps if I go into a different part of the woods today I’ll be lucky enough to come across some ramps. If not maybe I can order them for pick up from our local farm collaborative.
I’m curious how your shopping and cooking have changed in this new normal?