I learned to love grocery shopping when I had toddlers. Face-to-face time with the little ones, guilt-free spending, and social distractions made it a welcome respite from the banality of house-wifery. When I went back to work, my husband took over the grocery shopping, taking our boys with him to beg the angelic cheesemongers and produce managers for samples while I enjoyed some quiet time at home making brunch for the menfolk after a long and hard foraging mission. Our local grocery store of choice has always been New Seasons. They let you eat the groceries you haven’t yet purchased, which has quelled a few tantrums in years gone by. They do business with local farms, ensuring that produce is tastier, cheaper, and has a better carbon footprint than Whole Foods. They treat their employees with respect and pay them well. I love to ask employees why they work for New Seasons. So many of them have left high-pressure jobs to work in a place that values their expertise, offers flexibility, and provides a culture of acceptance, caring, and respect. I could go on and on about New Seasons, but the purpose of my blog today is to describe my experience at New Seasons since Covid-19 sent us working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering-in-place.
Our family, like most other families in the country, is trying to do our best to follow guidelines and flatten the curve. We started shopping with the intent to stock up for 2 weeks at a time. The first time I did this was when I was still working. I started hearing rumors that grocery stores were running out of toilet paper, and I started to get a little paranoid that our family staples might not be available for long. It was a Thursday. The kids’ after school activities were canceled by the end of the day, and the NCAA was announcing that they were canceling tournaments. My plan was to head home from school/work early so that I could get to Costco before most people heading home from work. As we drove by the Costco parking lot, however, I could see that it was unlikely that I’d even find a parking spot at Costco, and dropped the kids off at home so that I could try shopping solo at our neighborhood big-box store. It turned out to be a good choice. I got the last two mega packs of Charmin, and the last twin packs of NyQuil and Jif peanut butter. I got the last two bags of flour (I honestly bake and was low on flour!), the last bag of sugar, and stocked up on a number of staples. No one was acting like anything was unusual. People were smiling at each other. No one had overflowing shopping carts. I cycled through wondering if I was the most insightful or most paranoid person in the store. I was probably a little bit of both. I brought home my booty and told my husband that I may have gone slightly crazy but I wanted to be prepared. I was surprised when my level-headed, maddeningly analytical husband wondered aloud if we should stock up even a bit more. When my rock mirrors my anxiety, it only gets worse.
After work the next day, I hit the Indian stores for more staples. Rice, dal, everything was there, only our favorite brand of rice was completely sold out. I called my husband to make sure I’d gotten everything. It wasn’t long after that I learned our school was being closed a week prior to spring break.
I chose to start writing about the pandemic from this angle because my second greatest fear right now is that I won’t be able to feed my family. A few weeks into the crisis, it appears that these fears are largely unfounded, as a few missing grocery items does not a famine make, but I still can’t shake the feeling that there may come a day that I won’t be able to buy milk, or that the bread will disappear again, or that our toilet paper will run out.
There are worse things. I know. My in-laws laugh because a toilet paper shortage is a first-world problem and a third-world non-issue. I grew up hearing stories about my grandmother living through the great depression and my mother eating the food from a depression-surviving-housewife. I suddenly felt like I could understand their point of view in a whole new way. It’s not the same thing. We are comfortable and have plenty of food. I’m just saying I have a better picture of what it can do to a person.
Grocery shopping has gotten even more surreal. My husband and I went to New Seasons last week, and after our experience, I think I can say with confidence that they are the most virus-conscious grocery store in the area. To begin with, they wouldn’t allow us both to enter the store. They had the entrance cordoned off, and said that they were only allowing a certain number of people into the store at one time, and only one member of each household, unless there were extenuating circumstances (single parents, caretakers, etc). My husband went back to the car, taking our re-usable grocery bags with him, because those weren’t being allowed either, to reduce the chance of outside contamination. When I walked into the store solo, brandishing a freshly sanitized grocery cart, I was surprised that aisles had been blocked off to encourage a one-way gentle flow of traffic through the store. I tiptoed through produce amidst signs stating that employees would immediately move aside if guests needed to get something in their work areas. I purchased meats from the butcher area that was devoid of all beef despite 5lb limits on any one item. I strolled through the still-empty bread aisle toward the fresh bakery, where all items were now pre-cut and pre-bagged. I asked if I could have one of the fresh baguettes they’d taken out of the ovens. They apologized and said that to reduce contact with bakery items, I had to purchase the pre-bagged baguette slices. I think the strangest difference was not the giant orange dots encouraging us to stand 6 feet away from the shopper in front of us in the check-out line, but the plexi glass barriers they’d installed in front of the cashiers. I know some of these cashiers so well that they ask about my kids. One of them had their youngest son within one week of my youngest son. We still compare stats after almost 7 years. It felt odd to wait while they sanitized the entire conveyor belt between each shopper, but it felt positively alien to be separated by barriers.
It’s a strange new world we’re living in, in so many ways. I hope to document some more of these ways in the upcoming weeks. Lord knows I’ll have the time.