Supermarket Superhero: How to Be a Friendly Neighborhood Shopper During the Pandemic

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As the pandemic swells, supplies on supermarket shelves dwindle. Like most Americans, you’re probably feeling the urge to stock up, especially in the wake of cities and counties across the U.S. issuing strict shelter-in-place measures. By now, we’ve all seen the viral videos of panicked folks storming stores and piling their shopping carts high with everything from canned veggies to cases of water (for some unknown reason).

While being prepared is important, there are productive ways to stock up and, shall we say, not-so-productive ways to do so. Before you storm your local Trader Joe’s to restock, learn how to be a mindful, friendly neighborhood shopper — instead of a source of panic — in your community.

Purchase Only What You Need

If you check any social media site, you’d think Americans were preparing for the worst blizzard on record — or a nationwide blackout. Unfortunately, the popular response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to buy massive bulk quantities. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Americans should grab a two-week supply of food and water to deal with the side effects of a pandemic.

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However, other health experts, including University of California, Los Angeles epidemiology professor Timothy Brewer, suggest remaining calm. “The steps that you take to prepare for a pandemic are exactly the same, regardless of the type of virus, whether it’s the flu or coronavirus,” Brewer told Vox in a recent interview.

The bottom line: Don’t hoard a ton of food and supplies you won’t need. Panic-buying in bulk is a misguided practice — and it can lead to impulse purchases. Sure, an extra pack of Oreos lying in your cupboard may not have negative consequences, but, in some cases, panic-buyers make it difficult for folks who are actually sick — or at a high-risk for facing the new coronavirus’ most harmful iteration — to get the items they need.

If you panic-buy all the medical masks and disposable gloves in Target, healthcare workers who need them more than you do will be out of luck. If you want to feel prepared, buy a few extra items, or pre-plan your meals for the next week to determine what you’ll really need on hand ahead of time. If possible, grab your next prescription refill ahead of time to reduce the strain on pharmacies in the near future.

Respect Designated “Elderly Hours”

With a vast majority of folks in our country practicing social distancing, supermarkets and other essential businesses are looking for ways to help facilitate this measure. Many stores have drastically cut down their hours of operation, so employees have time to restock those increasingly bare shelves. While open, large chains like Trader Joe’s and Safeway are limiting the number of guests in the store at one time, which means early-morning lines are beginning to wrap around city blocks.

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In order to protect folks who are more vulnerable, many stores are implementing what’s being colloquially referred to as “elderly hours” or “senior hours.” That phrasing is a slight misnomer — or, at least, it isn’t entirely inclusive. Chains like Target have pledged that the first hour of operations every day will be for guests who are most at-risk, including folks who are part of the senior, disabled and immunocompromised communities. While there’s no real way to “enforce” this policy, we hope everyone is mindful enough to respect these guidelines.

Find Ways to Help Others

Not everyone has the resources or ability to safely shelter-in-place for several weeks. If you are not a member of a vulnerable community, helping those who are is essential. The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, and it’s important to look out for friends, family and neighbors during the outbreak. That said, those who aren’t in at-risk groups — folks who are younger, able-bodied and don’t have underlying health conditions — can help by shopping for others. Now that services like Instacart and Amazon Prime are overwhelmed with orders, you can do your part for those in your community who can’t make the trip to the supermarket as easily.

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Another way to help? If you know anyone who is out of work due to the pandemic, especially those in the restaurant industry who live off tips, offering financial assistance or buying someone’s groceries can be life-changing. Chris, a 67-year-old woman who works at a grocery store in Seattle, spoke to Vox about how she can’t choose to practice social distancing due to her job. “The problem is, I also need to have an income and health insurance, and I don’t know how to do that while self-quarantining,” she said. “It’s an awful decision: Go to work and put your life at risk, or lose your job, lose your income and lose your insurance.”

If you don’t have anyone in your immediate life who could benefit from aid, consider donating to the millions of Americans in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through As more institutions shut down, many SNAP families will find it difficult to afford the meals their children once received from school cafeterias. Expensify notes that “With its ability to reimburse volunteers directly in real-time, is uniquely positioned to help families in need immediately.”

Don’t Panic Buy, Especially When It Comes to WIC Items

Earlier this week, @SuitUpMaine, a self-described “all-volunteer progressive constituent action group working to create an informed electorate,” tweeted about the importance of considering others’ needs while stocking your shelves. “When stocking up for #SocialDistancing, if an item has a WIC symbol beside the price, get something else,” the group tweeted on March 15.

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For those who aren’t aware, WIC is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and it “provides federal grants to states for supplemental goods, health care referrals and more for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.”

In short, if a store runs out of WIC-approved options, the people who rely on the program to feed their children can’t simply grab a different brand. Instead, they would have to go without. As shown here, check for the red WIC logo near a product’s SKU. If you are comfortable taking your allyship a step further, call your legislators and ask that your state request that the USDA allow substitutions for WIC brands, especially during the pandemic.

Be Extra Courteous to Workers

This one may seem obvious, but, given the panic-riddled viral videos of customers storming supermarkets, this one bears repeating. Like Chris, the Seattle-based supermarket employee from the Vox article, many grocery store employees don’t have a choice — they have to go to work (unless they exhibit symptoms) and, thus, must choose between social distancing and collecting a paycheck.

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They also have to deal with near-constant shortages, especially on items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cases of water, due to all that extreme panic-buying. Instead of taking your frustration and worry out on a grocery store or pharmacy employee, try saying thank you — it can go a long way.