Coronavirus Shopping: How to Buy Groceries Safely and Efficiently During an Outbreak

A warehouse where donated food is stored at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood on March 18, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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In the wake of shelter-in-place orders, grocery stores — considered essential businesses — are now among the few places shoppers can go to stock their pantries. But empty shelves and large gatherings of people are also a major issue of concern for shoppers and health officials alike.

What precautions should I take while grocery shopping?

New research suggests that while the virus can survive on cardboard for a day and on plastic for several days, it becomes less infectious over time.

“It’s not to say that the risk of [contracting it at] the grocery store is zero, it's just the risk of getting something from groceries themselves is relatively low,” says Dr. Anne Liu, an immunologist at Stanford Health Care. “The main places to be worried about are places where people get together and crowd, or surfaces that a lot of people touch.”

Rather than worrying about touching a can of beans or a tomato, Liu says, pay attention instead to your proximity to other people, especially if they’re showing symptoms, because that is the main way the virus is transmitted.

According to the World Health Organization, people who have contracted COVID-19 can spread it by touching their faces and other surfaces, so washing hands thoroughly before and after grocery shopping is crucial.

Liu recommends wiping down grocery cart handles and using hand sanitizer after using credit card machines. If you are worried about your grocery items, she recommends wiping them down with food-safe wipes or produce wash.

What precautions should I take with food I purchase to prevent contracting the coronavirus?

The Food and Drug Administration is reassuring consumers that there’s no evidence of coronavirus transmission through food or food packaging, but for those concerned, you can find some tips on handling groceries here.

Produce should always be washed, even when there's not a pandemic, says Ronald Fong, CEO of the California Grocers Association. But now more than ever, he says, it is critical to wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.

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He does not recommend keeping groceries outside, especially for temperature-sensitive food, although non-perishable products, like packaged toilet paper and canned goods, can be kept in a sanitized area for a few days.

Fong also recommends washing reusable bags and limiting shopping trips to reduce amount of contact with other people.

The FDA has recommendations on how to properly clean your produce here.

I’m seeing empty shelves at my grocery store. When will things be restocked?

Most market experts say the reason we're seeing so many empty shelves in supermarkets is because people are overbuying, not because there is a supply shortage.

Supermarkets are seeing an unprecedented demand for products in addition to increased store traffic, according to Laura Strange, a spokeswoman for the National Grocers Association.

“The amount of product, whether it's general merchandise [or] paper products to the food supply, is intact. It's plentiful,” Strange says.

The main issue, she says, is that distributors can't get the products to grocery stores fast enough because of the "new shopping pattern that customers have displayed over the past few weeks.”

In other words, because people have been hoarding certain high-demand items, it makes it seem like there is a shortage.

In the past month, sales of shelf-stable items like beans, rice, pasta, peanut butter and canned meat have increased dramatically, according to data from the research firm Nielsen.

“We're seeing some customers that are literally buying for three months or six months. ... If we continue this type of shopping pattern, there's no way our distribution channels can catch up with that kind of volume,” Fong says.

According to UNFI, one of the largest food distributors in the United States, some warehouses are running at 200% of their average capacity for this time of year.

Fong says grocery distributors need a couple of weeks to get things back to normal. So the next time you go shopping, Fong recommends buying enough to get through the week, but also making sure to leave enough for others.

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How are workers protecting themselves in the fields and in grocery stores?

With grocery stores and suppliers facing high demand, workers — from cashiers in local markets to farmworkers in the fields — are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Farming and food production are considered “essential businesses,” so agricultural employers and farmworkers who often live paycheck to paycheck aren’t concerned about lack of work but rather how to keep themselves safe.

Many pickers in the field are still coming into work even if they are feeling sick, according to United Farm Workers Secretary Treasurer Armando Elenes.

“If you call in sick, you're going to be responsible for stopping the entire crew,” Elenes says. “[There’s] a lot of pressure on somebody not to say something. And that's really scary. ... Workers are really petrified of losing work because they don't have a safety net.”

Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias recently told KQED he’s concerned that undocumented farmworkers who lack health care coverage might wait as long as possible before seeking treatment.

“My biggest concern with the undocumented residents is that they’re going to be scared to come in and be checked and ask for a test, even though we know that they’re sick,” Arias said. “They’re so used to going to work, irrespective of their health conditions or whether they’re under the weather and running a fever."

Maintaining social distancing is another difficult question both agricultural employers and grocery store owners have struggled to address in work environments that often require their employees to be in close proximity with others.

Grocery store workers in the Bay Area who come in contact with dozens of people every day are reporting that some local managers at retail outlets like Target and grocery chains like Trader Joe’s and Vons are telling workers they cannot wear protective masks — and in some cases not even gloves — at work.

John Grant, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, says the union had to negotiate for weeks to get companies to let workers wear masks on the job. Trader Joe’s, Vons and Target have official policies that now allow workers to wear their own masks and gloves. But that does not ensure that local managers are passing along or condoning that message.

“By increasing the protection of grocery clerks, we increase the protection of the community,” Grant's union said in a statement.

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