Social distancing orders have changed many different facets of day to day life. But one of the most glaring ways that social distancing can cause tension is during grocery shopping. With stores regulating the number of people inside at a time and putting tape marks by cash registers asking shoppers to stay six feet apart, while dealing with other customers who are not taking safety precautions, a successful grocery shopping trip can be no small feat. Willamette students shared their experiences with the changes COVID-19 has brought to the grocery shopping experience, tactics for how to navigate getting groceries and what it’s like to work at a grocery store.
Lauren Alexander (‘20) moved back home after the transition to distance learning to Thousand Oaks, CA, and is one of two designated shoppers in her family of five. She noted a distinct atmosphere of panic in her community. When she returned home, entire aisles were empty.
“We’ve got hundreds of grocery stores, and so many aisles were empty. No pasta, no beans, no soup, you can’t go anywhere and find snack food. All bulk sections were completely sold out,” she said.
Worse than the food outages, according to Alexander, has been dealing with other shoppers. “I had one lady who almost rammed me with her cart because she was like, ‘You were getting too close.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ Because she was walking at me.”
She also shared her encounter with a man, much larger than her, who stood less than a foot behind her in the checkout line.
“This was one of those guys, they want to take up space to make you uncomfortable. They’re the kind of guys who go straight down the aisle just so they can get within six feet of you to make you uncomfortable,” she said.
Alexander said that in her community, there are many people who are protesting the stay at home orders, and believes that most of her uncomfortable experiences have come from dealing with people who share that belief.
Uriel Mejia Raya (‘20), who works at a Safeway in Salem, said he has seen a lot of similar behavior from Salem residents.
“I’m still surprised at this time how many people tell me it’s not real. There’s still some doubt in this community. ‘It’s not real, it doesn’t matter, it won’t affect me.’ Those kinds of things. It’s a lot of people, surprisingly,” he said.
Mejia Raya said that his power to enforce social distancing only goes so far. “There’s not much we can do other than reminding them… and generally they’ll bark back at you but they’ll follow it. But if they don’t, I personally can’t do much. Even in this whole thing, I have to be cordial and nice, even if they get in my face.”
Mejia Raya commented on people’s shopping habits, saying, “At this point, I feel like they’re just coming in to get out of the house.” He also said he has seen a lot of people buying things they don’t need.
In the face of these experiences, Alexander said the place she feels most safe is at Trader Joe’s and her local farmer’s market. At her local farmer’s market, each vendor has lines marked off around their booths, everyone wears protective gear and they don’t allow the customers to touch the produce. The combination of fewer people in comparison to a grocery store and the more personal experience made Alexander feel much safer at her farmer’s market than any grocery store.
KiKi Drum Bento (‘21) is in Salem and only shops at Winco. She feels her shopping experiences have been successful because of how she prepares to go shopping. The number one factor, according to Drum Bento, is meal planning.
“It’s super easy to plan out the meals you want for the week and then make a list of ingredients and then that’s your grocery list. Because of that, grocery shopping is always really quick and easy. I know exactly what I need,” she said.
However, she did note that grocery stores tend to have a negative energy, saying that the last time she went shopping, “everyone was kind of nervous.” To help with this, she recommends going shopping with people you live with so it’s easier to escape the negativity and also to help increase efficiency by dividing up who looks for which product.
Drum Bento tries to cook mostly vegan and said that at the beginning of the crisis, some egg substitute items were out of stock and a particular veggie patty that she likes has been hard to find, but has otherwise been able to continue to cook with her dietary restrictions. Alexander is lactose intolerant and uses almond milk as a milk substitute, but said she is unable to find it anywhere.
Mejia Raya said at the Safeway he works at, the only product other than the expected things, like toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer, that has consistently been out of stock is flour. Alexander also commented on the lack of flour, and said that the trend of everyone baking more in quarantine has brought her joy.
With the possibility of having to change eating habits because of product availability, Drum Bento encouraged everyone to do as much home cooking as possible.
Mejia Raya encouraged everyone to be especially kind to their grocery store employees in the middle of all of this.
“If you’re a bystander and see things, if you can, get involved. Because as much as I want to, I can’t.”
Image: Adobe Stock
Empty shelves in a grocery store. Willamette students report struggling to find food items such as flour and alternative milk in their local stores.