There is nothing that we take for granted more in a first world country than access to the essentials. A few days ago, I, like many other Americans had an interesting experience at the grocery store—milk, bread, and eggs were fresh out! It is disconcerting to encounter a supermarket that has the look and feel of a liquidation sale.
Why is everyone panicking? I believe that part of the panic is self-induced. When we see headlines forewarning that things will get worse, we take the prediction as the reality of the situation. If we believe that things are bad, we will act in a way that reflects our perceived reality. So, when we hear that stores are running low on supplies, we dash to the stores to claim the scarce items. As I write this, there are under 2,000 reported coronavirus cases in the United States. A few states remain untouched by the virus and many states have less than ten cases. However, activity at the grocery store would have one believe that martial law were right around the corner.
People are afraid of scarcity. During World War II people hoarded. Sugar was a treasured ingredient and coffee, meat, cheese, and canned milk were rationed. Not knowing whether you will have enough to survive is a primal fear. This is why squirrels bury their food and bears consume theirs in large quantity. When we predict that commodities will become scare, our survival instincts kick in.
When I cautiously entered Trader Joe’s, I was immediately confronted with an empty banana stand. Beyond the bananas, potatoes, spinach, nuts, frozen meals, and bread were either gone or in very, very short supply. I found it odd that bananas were fresh out. It is common sense to stock up on foods with a distant expiration date if you need to hold out for the long haul. Bananas with their short shelf life, in my opinion, are not the go-to panic food. In my quest to figure out why people were buying bananas, I stumbled upon literature to explain why people “panic buy” perishable foods.
Stores everywhere are running low on the traditional staples — milk, bread, and eggs. Some suggest that people buy these items in large quantities because they are an emotional comfort even though they would not last very long in an emergency situation. Having basic provisions brings a sense of normalcy back into an otherwise chaotic reality. Another theory for why people stock up on perishables has to do with human nature. If we see family after family scooping up loaves of bread and plopping them into their shopping carts, we see bread as valuable and therefore something that we need. I had this monkey-see-monkey do reaction with toilet paper. I read a comment online that Americans were buying toilet paper at record numbers. Upon seeing these words I felt shocked and foolish, because I had not thought to buy toilet paper. The very next day, I went onto Amazon.com and found that the brand of toilet paper that I am accustomed to was sold out. In fact, many brands were sold out. Worried that I would be left without this basic necessity, I doubled down and bought even more than I originally planned. In my case, I felt a literal FOMO (fear or missing out) and was compelled to over compensate by over consuming.
Continuing on in Trader Joe’s, it was interesting to see what was and what was not purchased. Many fresh vegetables were gone, yet apples were still abundant. There were no eggs left, and almost all bread and milk were close to depleted, but there were dozens of pastries and cookies. While there were no more fresh berries, frozen berries were some of the least-touched items. There was plenty of ice cream to spare and fancy, hard cheeses went seemingly unnoticed. Overall, people were strongly drawn to the ‘staples,’ fresh vegetables, frozen meals, and pasta. To me, it also seemed that people were less likely to buy decadent or expensive items like brie, cookies, and ice cream. Interestingly, it seems that the items that were most coveted were the healthy ones like oatmeal, bananas, and lean meats.
Although my experience at Trader Joe’s was a bit unnerving, it was not the pandemonium that the headlines predicted. There were many people, but no one was rowdy or aggresive. To me, it just seemed as if everyone were planning a big party and needed to stock up on all the same items. I know that I was lucky in my experience. In other countries, no food really means no food. I am sure that Trader Joe’s will continue to replenish its stocks and for that reason, I know that I can keep my cool during this otherwise heated time.
I sincerely hope that all of the food purchased during the frenzy gets put to good use. The Boston Food Bank is collecting and will distribute to those in need. If you went shopping in the panic and purchased a bit too much, consider donating to your community. It would be tragic if another side effect of this horrible pandemic is food waste.
I hope you continue to eat well during this time, Dear Reader, and purchase responsibly.