The most basic things that we didn’t used to think twice about have suddenly become fraught with anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic. One of them is grocery shopping. Is there enough food to go around? If so, what is the best and most responsible way to procure it? And should you be going to the store at all? The situation is actively emerging, but don’t panic—we’ve done our best to answer these burning questions, and more.
Why are some grocery store shelves empty?
Rest assured, according to multiple sources, including the FDA, there is plenty of food in the country and no evidence of widespread disruption to the supply chain. Certain stores may have low stock or temporary shortages while they attempt to restock during this time of extreme demand. Empty shelves, which spark even more panic, are a result of unprecedented stockpiling, not a shortage of food, according to some of the country’s top retailers and producers. And you don’t need to hoard: If you can afford it, having two weeks of meals on hand is still the recommendation, according to The New York Times. There is enough food to go around, and industry leaders are actively working on a contingency plan in the event that workers vital to the supply chain, such as drivers and processors, are sidelined by the pandemic.
Are there certain foods grocery stores are having trouble getting from the source?
Certain specialty items may become harder to find. The reports on what those might be, though, are conflicting. Some authorities say that the availability of imported goods from smaller specialty producers in countries like Italy and France will likely be impacted. According to another report, Italian exports are still shipping at a steady clip, suggesting you should be able to find your San Marzano tomatoes and favorite pastas (once the shelves are restocked, that is).
What precautions should I take when grocery shopping?
First and foremost, wash your hands regularly (the right way) and do not touch your face. Keep six feet distance from all people while you shop. Clean the handle and interior of your grocery cart or basket with a disinfectant wipe, and, if possible, do the same for other handles you plan to touch in the store, such as the dairy or freezer case. After shopping and before you enter your car or home, disinfect your hands with hand sanitizer. Wash your hands again once you get home.
Here are a few common-sense caveats: Make a list before you go to the store so you can shop decisively and make the trip as short as possible. If you can help it, only touch the products you want to buy. Steer clear of help-yourself olive and salad bars and bulk bins, which are especially vulnerable to contamination. Gravity-fed units, which drop food into your bag, are preferable, says food safety expert Jeff Nelken, who advises food manufacturers on best practices. Swipe the handle with a disinfectant towelette before using if you can, and wash your hands after contact.
Using the self checkout option instead of a cashier minimizes contact with other people; if you take that route, consider sanitizing the surfaces that you will touch, like the keypad or touch screen—they’ve been touched by many people before you!
Should we be wiping our groceries down when we get them home? What about deliveries?
Well, it can’t hurt. Coronavirus can survive on a variety of surfaces—the virus lives on cardboard for up to 24 hours, on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours, and bonds to other metals, as well as glass, fabrics, wood, and of course, skin. But some experts say that transmission from items like groceries and food deliveries, while possible, is unlikely. According to the CDC, while COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching a surface that has the virus on it, then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, it is not believed to be the main way that the virus spreads. The CDC states that the risk of spread from “food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperature” is low.
But if you are particularly at risk—or wish to be extra-thorough—there are extra precautions you can take.
Clean your reusable shopping bags as soon as you get home—here’s how. If you used disposable bags or boxes, unpack the groceries outside if possible, and dispose of the bags or boxes without bringing them indoors. (The idea is to avoid bringing potentially contaminated packages into your home.) If that’s not an option, disinfect the areas of your home that the packages have come into contact with, and swiftly dispose of the bags and boxes. When handling bags and merchandise, don’t touch your face, and after, remember to wash your hands.
To go truly above and beyond, some experts, including those at Harvard's School of Public Health, suggest letting the bags or boxes of shelf-stable items air out outside or in an out-of-the-way place for three days before handling them.
As for the groceries themselves, you may want to wipe them down before putting them away. To do this, first create a staging area at home where you can safely clean incoming items. You want a designated place for items that haven’t been cleaned, and one for those that have. One way to do this is by laying out two towels or sheets, one for non-sanitized items and one for those you have cleaned. (After you are done, launder them immediately.) Another option is to do the same on two surfaces, like a table and a counter, and disinfect both before and after use. You can wipe down packaged goods with disinfectant wipes or a paper towel soaked with an EPA-approved disinfectant (see a list of cleaning materials that kill the coronavirus on surfaces—not food—here), then wash your hands thoroughly. If the packages appear dirty, the CDC recommends cleaning them before disinfecting. But again, groceries are considered low risk, so it’s ultimately your call. For some people, wiping down every can of tuna can make them feel safer. For others, it may up their anxiety rather than quell it. As one doctor said to the New York Times, "this level of anxiety about sanitation can be harmful in and of itself."
If you do choose to sanitize your groceries, take the extra step to sanitize the surfaces those groceries touched. For maximum safety, when disinfecting surfaces that come into contact with food, the American Cleaning Institute recommends rinsing them with water after they air dry.
One thing you should definitely do is wash your hands after putting groceries away. Wash your hands often while preparing food, and definitely right before you eat. And wash them again after you clean up.
Should we be concerned about raw ingredients that may have been touched?
The good news is that, according to the FDA, there is no evidence that food is linked to the transmission of the coronavirus. That said, since the virus can live on surfaces, the agency recommends following the general rules of food safety—clean, separate, cook and chill. (The FDA’s quick guide to food safety is extremely useful—consider printing it out and hanging it on your fridge.)
When it comes to produce, the FDA recommends rinsing the fruit and vegetables under running water. (Detergent and produce washes, they say, may leave unwanted soap residue on your food.) The FDA also recommends scrubbing firm produce, such as cucumbers, melon, or potatoes, with a clean brush.
Dry the produce with a clean dishcloth or using paper towels. And if you want to play it extra safe, cook your food to at least 140ºF to neutralize the virus.
How can grocery stores (and customers) better protect employees?
Measures that protect customers will often protect employees, too. Latex gloves are a good idea for workers, as is having disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer at their individual stations, whether they’re working the cash register or the meat counter. (It’s always worth remembering, though: if you touch a virus-tainted surface and then your face, the gloves aren’t doing much good.)
Giving employees six feet of personal space is absolutely key, which in many cases means enforcing crowd quotas in stores. While this practice has been too slow to take hold, some stores seem to be finally getting the memo. Whole Foods just limited the capacity of its New York City stores to 50 customers at a time to help curb the spread of the virus. Other markets, like this one in Denmark, are placing clever markers six feet apart to indicate where customers should stand in line.
Supermarkets should be doing more to protect their employees, who are on the front lines of the epidemic yet are meagerly compensated and especially vulnerable, thanks to constant traffic and the sheer volume of visitors. Though some grocery chains have cut back their hours to give workers a chance to restock and clean the stores, they are nonetheless experiencing exhaustion and anxiety. Extended paid sick leave is one obvious measure that would protect both employees and customers. For instance, Trader Joe’s is encouraging workers to go home at first signs of illness, offering paid sick leave at management’s discretion. However, some employees consider the measure inadequate—what if workers want to protect themselves before they get sick?—and are unionizing and advocating for hazard pay, i.e., additional income for workers who perform high-risk jobs. (Trader Joe’s has a running list of locations they have closed temporarily to clean and restock after crew members have tested positive for or show symptoms consistent with COVID-19.)
Is ordering grocery delivery any better?
From a public health perspective, yes. The best thing you can do to “flatten the curve” is stay at home.
From a labor perspective, it’s questionable. The conditions of many of the workers who make grocery delivery possible is troubling to say the least. As of this writing, workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at six Amazon warehouses nationwide in the midst of a hiring frenzy, as the company tries to recruit 100,000 more workers to meet demand. Other online vendors are experiencing major delays and shortages as they struggle to restock and fill orders, and package delivery workers are feeling immense pressure to punch in even when they are experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms.
It may be more palatable to patronize a local, independent grocer that delivers. If that is not an option, friends, neighbors, and do-gooders like Invisible Hands in New York City have been stepping up and helping the homebound, be they elderly or immuno-compromised, by running their errands. Whether you’re accepting groceries from the store, an acquaintance, or FedEx, make sure it’s a contactless delivery—that the person handing off the package leaves it at your door, and departs before you retrieve it. And if you are getting deliveries of any kind, try to cut down on your total orders as a way of protecting the people who make them possible.
Experts recommend having a two-week supply of non-perishable food on hand in case of emergencies. So we developed a 14-day meal plan of pantry-sourced dinners.
Is it true that shoppers who are not on WIC benefits should steer clear of grocery items marked with the WIC label?
That is correct. A viral tweet from the progressive group Suit Up Maine implored shoppers who are stocking up on groceries to avoid products that have a WIC stamp on the pricing label. WIC is short for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program For Women, Infants, And Children, a USDA initiative that supplies healthy food to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to five years of age. Those three letters indicate that the food is covered by the vouchers the program provides. Since a limited number of grocery items bear the label to begin with, snatching up those designated goods creates scarcity for those in need at a time when grocery shelves are already picked clean.
Many supermarkets have adopted elderly shopping hours. Does that actually help?
A number of grocery chains, such as Sam’s Club, Target, Publix and Aldi, have implemented special shopping hours for senior citizens, pregnant women, immuno-compromised and otherwise vulnerable customers. In theory, it is a good idea. “I like that they do it first thing in the morning, when the store has just been cleaned,” says public health expert and Give Space founder Carol Winner. “That might help reduce risk.” But even during senior hours, recommendations for sanitation and social distancing must still be observed. Winner is also concerned that, even with the special hours, the stores might still be congested or have long lines. “If you are compromised or elderly, you can't stand in line for a long time,” she says. Some stores offer a solution, such as Sam’s Club “Shop From Your Car” concierge service, which allows customers to place orders from parked cars and have the groceries brought to them.
If you'd like to help vulnerable customers while you’re shopping, one of the best things you can do is give them their space. Calling an elderly or unwell friend or neighbor and offering to do their shopping for them (and arranging a no-contact drop off) is something else that you could do. And checking in (from a distance) just to say hey is also a welcome gesture, no matter what.
This story is being updated as new information becomes available.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious