By Kelley Dennings
When Virginia’s governor enacted stay-at-home orders I didn’t run out to get toilet paper. Instead I went to the hardware store for all the container-friendly, spring-vegetable starter plants I could find, including celery, leeks, lettuce and broccoli.
My motivation was to support my mental health during this time. I wasn’t worried yet about feeding my body. I generally keep a full pantry, and I had five to seven days’ worth of food, which I thought was plenty.
I was wrong.
Grocery shopping used to be simple. I’m privileged to live in an urban area that has two large grocery stores within walking distance. But as the stay-at-home order wore on and my pantry started to look bare, those big stores weren’t yet requiring face coverings or social distancing, and their delivery systems had two-week wait times.
I wasn’t comfortable going into the stores, and waiting for delivery wasn’t an option, so I had to get creative.
The local outdoor farmers market, where I get berries and watermelon over the summer, felt like a safe place to buy my food. But initially farmers markets weren’t considered essential. Thankfully the farmers market was able to support vendors in making pre-order community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes available, complete with social distancing and face covering policies during pickup.
CSAs are a great way to support local farmers, but it meant that I didn’t get to pick exactly what I wanted, as I used to. I received a lot of potatoes and onions, but for the first time I also got kalettes, a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts. And I thoroughly enjoyed my new discovery once I figured out how to prepare them in the oven with a bit of olive oil.
Because of the limited selection in my CSA box, and because I needed more than just vegetables, I started looking for stores closer to home where I could make quick stops to fill in what I needed. My next shopping excursion was to my local corner bodega.
I hadn’t shopped there in the past because they have a smaller selection, but I found they had the fresh fruit I was craving and all the essentials. (Except toilet paper — but by that point, no one was carrying TP). As I paid for my purchases, I was pleased to see that it also offered personal protective equipment (PPE) like face coverings, gloves and checkout shields for the workers.
As time went on, I purchased a quart of homemade potato salad from my local deli, the best loaf of sourdough bread I’ve ever had from my local bakery, and extra salad dressing and cookies from my favorite local restaurant (where I also got takeout for dinner). The lettuce I planted at the start of all this has already been harvested, and it won’t be long until my celery, leeks and broccoli are fully grown.
I’ve come to appreciate how fortunate I am to have so many options in my community. Before COVID-19, getting food from multiple sources seemed inconvenient, but it hasn’t been. I do all my errands at one time, wearing a face covering and using social distancing practices. And I get to support local businesses at a time when we’re realizing just how important community is.
While I haven’t gone into a large grocery store chain yet, I did go to my local health-food store. As someone who’s lactose-intolerant, I craved my plant-based cheese, sour cream and cream cheese. While I could’ve gotten by without them, comfort food can help mental health.
I went to the store just before closing, with my face covering, to stock up on my plant-based alternative foods and other essentials I couldn’t find in smaller shops. But still no toilet paper.
I was eating well, but starting to think I’d never find toilet paper. Remember all those potatoes and onions from my CSA box? Come to find out the long-lost art of bartering is back. I was able to swap potatoes and onions for rolls of toilet paper with my neighbor.
None of us knows exactly what the new normal will look like, and I acknowledge that not everyone has access to the same options I do. When I think about life after COVID-19, I’m eager to get back to the gym and eating dinner out.
But when it comes to grocery shopping, I plan to continue to support my local economy. I’ve reconnected with sharing and bartering, sustainable consumption, and food that’s made by people who care about the community as much as I do.
Kelley Dennings is a campaigner with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity working to address the connection between human population growth and consumption and their threat to endangered species and wild places. Prior to the Center, she worked for multiple government agencies and nonprofits focused on recycling, forest conservation and consumption.