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COVID-19 | Please stop the bulk buying!

As a dietitian, the crazy food stockpiling is both intriguing and worrisome. 

Rather than the panic buying of bulk amounts of a few select non-perishable and freezer items, supporting the health of the family should remain the primary focus of grocery shopping. 

If in a position to buy groceries for the whole month, this is advisable. Not because food is going to run out, but because less time spent in supermarkets is social distancing, key to fighting COVID-19.  

My husband and I tried to do a monthly shop on Sunday instead of our usual weekly shop in the hope of protecting ourselves and others. To my surprise, the shelves were already quite bare, and this was before Cyril Ramaposa declared COVID-19 a National Disaster. At first, when there was not a single pack of chicken fillets available, I wondered if it was simply because it was late Sunday afternoon or if panic buying had truly hit South Africa. The empty pasta aisle confirmed that the bulk-buying of reasonably affordable, non-perishable and freezer food options was in motion. 

The next day after work, usually peak hour at grocery stores, I went to another shop in search of chicken fillets. The shop was, however, oddly empty, perfect for social distancing, but there was an audible panic, anger and disbelief in the air. I have never experienced so much ‘socializing’ in a grocery store before. 

People were not panic buying… there was simply nothing to buy. These people had stopped in after work to do their dinner shop or to pick up a few items for the week. They were literally phoning their loved ones at home to say there was no food to bring home. Needless to say, there were no chicken fillets in the fridge. In fact, there was no chicken, other than giblets, wings and crumbed chicken products. As a side, I regularly cook with chicken fillets because they are an affordable lean protein source and they are very versatile for simple weeknight meals.

Obviously all the treats and more expensive products were still on the shelves but there were gaping holes in the meat section, the frozen veg freezer, the pasta and rice aisle and on the shelves usually packed with baked beans and crackers. As a result, people left empty-handed or with a few packets of instant noodles. 

When I got home, it turned out that my husband had received a message from another local store earlier in the day to advertise one tonne of chicken fillets received that morning. Clearly I was on a quest, so we went there. All I wanted was 2 packets of 4 chicken fillets that would make four meals for us…an easy, and nutritious, chicken fillet meal once a week for the next month. And there were none! A whole tonne of chicken fillets alone gone in less than 12 hours!

This is not okay. 

That a handful of people should buy out the shops, happy for many to go without the very basics, as a result, tells me that the Corona Virus is far from our only problem. 

We do not currently have a food shortage, the stores will be replenished, something we clearly take for granted. If our food production or supply becomes threatened as a consequence of COVID-19, measures will be put in place to distribute food fairly but the main thing here is that we will all be in the same boat. This is something we would have to face together if and when it comes. 

In the meanwhile, everyone has the right to, and now an increased need for, access to nutrient-dense food to maintain good health. In the same way that everyone needs to be able to keep their hands clean, everyone needs to support their immune systems with good nutrition. We can only flatten the curve of this pandemic together. 

Buying a month’s supply of groceries should mean buying a variety of foods – not just chicken, pasta, rice and frozen vegetables. Not only is dietary diversity important for optimal nutrient intake, but purchasing a variety of products, for which we really are spoiled for choice, will go a long way to assist in the sharing of what is available for sale each day. If this panic buying and stockpiling continues, the stores will be forced to place restrictions on certain items (which is already happening in other countries just a few days ahead of us in this global crisis) and then we will all be back at the shops each week, making social distancing impossible. 

My tips for a considerate monthly shop:

With more time at home, this is an opportune time to get creative in the kitchen, trying new dishes, getting out of the usual rut we find ourselves in and expanding our weeknight meal repertoire, not to mention our loved one’s palates. 

For example, we should be eating more whole grains. Pasta is not a whole grain. Only whole wheat pasta would be passable as a minimally processed whole-grain product. Think barley, brown rice, bulgar wheat, oats. We should be eating more legumes. With more time available, cook up some dried beans, lentils and chickpeas. Then freeze them in 400 g portions which is generally the quantity that recipes call for. This is far more economical than buying canned legumes only. 

Buying fresh produce is still an option. Use up the fresh vegetables in the first two weeks. Make extra portions of food (such as savoury mince or Thai green curries) when cooking with fresh vegetables such as mushrooms, marrows, peppers and tomatoes. These extra meals can be frozen and enjoyed at a later stage in the month. Yes, frozen varieties of vegetables can help to meet the daily requirement for vegetables but they need not be the only source of vegetables. Think whole butternut and gem squash which keep well. To note, the fresh produce sections of these stores were not in the least bit bare. Fresh fruit can be frozen or cooked for the second part of the month. 

My shop (for 2 and a half people) 

Apples x 2 packets
Fresh butternut
Fresh marrow (1 punnet) 
Cherry tomatoes 
Green peppers
Fresh carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, 1 packet
Baby potatoes
Frozen vegetables x 1 (peas, carrots and corn) 
Oven chips (a nice convenience when the time for dinner preparation is short)
Barley 1 x 500 g
Oats, quick-cooking (high fibre, no sodium or sugar added)
Bran flakes
Rice 1 kg long grain rice (no basmati or brown available)
Provitas, 1 single pack
Spaghetti, no whole-wheat options available
Black beans, canned x 1 (great for adding to meatballs) 
Kidney beans, canned x 1
Chickpeas, canned x 2 (1 for hummus and 1 for falafels
Butterbeans, canned x 1
Split red lentils (great for soup)
Sugar beans, dried (to extend mince, meatless curry)
Mince (savoury mince and meatballs with black beans)
Pilchards, canned x 2
Pork mince (for pork mince and apple balls with a peanut butter satay sauce)
Pork sausages 1 pack of 6 (an occasional purchase but it was slim pickings)
Fish fingers (again, slim pickings but we like to eat fish on Fridays during lent)
Small pork steak (for a tomato and vegetable pasta dish)
Steak x 2 large (frozen in 6 portions, 3 meals) 
Chicken drumsticks (bought at the second shop in desperation)
Whole chickens x 2 (shop 3, cut up and frozen in portions)
Tuna, canned x 4
Tomato and onion, canned
Tomato paste, 2 sachets
Tomato sauce
Tomato, canned
Yoghurt 2 x 1 L tubs
Eggs x 18
Brown bread, 1 loaf
Milk, 2 L extra shelf life
Long life milk x 6 L
Coconut milk (for Thai green chicken curry)
Peanut butter x 2
Popcorn (a wholegrain believe it or not)

Already had at home

Mushrooms, 1 punnet (half for fritatta, half for savoury mince
Carrots, 1 packet
Eggs, about 10
Frozen vegetables, 1.5 packets 
Frozen banana
Punnet of grapes
2 pears
Dried chickpeas (for falafels)
Rolled oats
Rice (basmati and brown, open)
Future Life x 3 boxes (we buy on special)
Oil (olive and canola)
Herbs and spices
Stock pots 
Milk, ~ 1.5 L
Cottage cheese
White cheddar cheese  (frittata)
Tomato paste
Sauces in use: soya, lemon juice, mayonnaise
Trail mix ( for home toasted muesli)

In February I kept all our food shop slips as an exercise which turned out to be useful information at this time indeed. I only got round to tallying these slips up in the interest of this article and the experiment I now wish to conduct. Interestingly, the cost of our effort to stay out of the shops came out at R1000 less than our total shopping conducted on multiple days throughout February. We also calculated that we ate out to the value of R1000 during the month of February (which we will not be doing in March).

What remains to be seen is if this ‘monthly’ shop plus the items we had on hand will carry us to mid-April or beyond. With careful food preparations, I think we will do well. I do foresee additional purchases of bread and fruit but these will be quick stops and minimized. As a bonus, this exercise will certainly be beneficial in helping us to trim our food budget (and there is no better time to do this than when there is a baby on the way).

Important notes:

  • The volume, value or specifics of this shop are not important, the aim of sharing this list is to highlight the variety of foods purchased. 
  • Not everyone is in a position to shop for the month in one outing… Please do not let them find bare shelves when they have to brave the stores on a more frequent basis. 
  • Stay well, wash your hands, practice good respiratory hygiene, do your best to avoid touching your face and make the most of the time that social distancing affords.
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