In France they cleared the shelves of butter, in Italy pasta, in Britain it was chicken. In Germany their hamsterkauf (hoard-buying) was potatoes and pickles; New Yorkers bought out all the beans; elsewhere in America people lined up at gun shops. Coronavirus lockdowns set off a wave of stocking-up around the world. Canned food, cleaning products, flour and macaroni all seemed perfectly sensible items to store, having been told that all restaurants were now closed and the kids would be at home for every meal indefinitely. On the other hand, panic buying toilet paper – now the global icon of the pandemic – seemed as mindless as it was universal.
Behavioural psychologists explained it as a need for control in uncertain times. There was a big element of FOMO too. Pictures of empty shelves snowballed a sense of scarcity and made us all want to buy more. We are social animals, after all; the herding instinct that spread the virus so effectively also helped toilet-paper grabbing go viral.
When faced with a scary situation, it is natural to want to do something to make us feel a little more prepared. We reached for the familiar, revealing personal predilections. Pictures from American supermarkets showed people piling dozens of a single item into giant trolleys: frozen sweetcorn, Sprite, chocolate-covered pretzels, Thousand Island dressing. An Australian friend isolating with a coughing daughter texted me, “I just realised harissa, Thai curry paste and Vegemite practically never expire!” Other friends confessed to buying cat litter and hair dye. One friend in London bought six chickens for the back garden. I bought three bars of dark chocolate and a bottle of rum.
After two or three days, the initial frenzy subsided and shelves were mostly restocked. Spending on groceries in the United Kingdom in March was up a little over 20% over last year. If you consider that BC (Before Corona) the average British person would spend around a third of their weekly food budget on eating out, perhaps we hadn’t gone quite as crazy as all those memes of piled-up loo roll suggested.
Now there are socially distanced queues outside supermarkets and while stocks in shops have mostly recovered, friends are reporting odd shortages of different things at different times in different places: tofu and gluten-free products in Atlanta, charcuterie in Normandy, Nutella in Romania, eggs in east London, and flour, interestingly, almost everywhere.
Governments, supermarkets and multinational food companies have been careful to reassure the public that there is enough food in the system and that global supply lines are continuing to function. Airlines are adding cargo flights as passenger planes are grounded, pasta factories in Italy are running at 100% capacity and food companies in Britain are cutting back on large ranges to concentrate on core products and speed up processing times in factories. Most importantly, analysts say there are ample global reserves of staple crops: wheat, rice, maize and soya.
So, there is no real shortage. But the United Kingdom imports 50% of its food and there are worries about the fragility of the just-in-time food-supply system designed to keep warehouse stocks to a minimum. As countries have begun to close their borders to people and halt the export of certain medical supplies, there are concerns that this kind of protectionism could extend to food. Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine have moved to limit grain exports. Vietnam is reviewing the amount of rice it exports and India has temporarily halted rice export contracts citing logistical complications; Thailand, on the other hand, has taken advantage of the price rise and is selling larger amounts from its rice stockpiles. But at the moment policies and pronouncements are changing all the time; and while there’s a lot of confusion and scrambling, it’s hard to imagine that severely curtailing global trade is in anyone’s interest. In mid-March, trucks were getting stuck in long delays at the Polish and Hungarian borders, but by the end of the month, European Union officials had convinced member states to ease national restrictions and allow freight to move more freely again.
In the meantime there are logistical bottlenecks to consider. The global lockdown means some farmers all over the world are facing disruptions to the normal flow of labour, transportation and access to markets. British farmers need 70,000-80,000 seasonal foreign workers to harvest the spring and summer fruit and vegetable crop and are now scrambling to find pickers. BBC Radio 4’s “Farming Today” programme reported that eggs were not getting into supermarkets in part because there was an egg carton shortage (there are only three suppliers in Europe, none in Britain). Fishing boats that relied on foreign markets are staying in port. Wholesalers that supplied the restaurant and catering trade are struggling to pivot towards retail and home delivery with mixed results. In America many restaurants have switched to take-out. In Britain most have closed, furloughing staff and securing them the government guarantee of 80% of their wages, some are bravely trying to continue to operate with pickup and delivery services only, others are heroically boxing-up meals for key workers and vulnerable people who can’t leave their homes at all.
For shoppers, it has also been a time of adaptation. Spending at independent convenience stores was up a third, year-on-year. A lot of us are finding shorter queues, friendlier service and better stocks of necessities at our local corner shop. Friends in different cities have found a similar trend, such as the family butcher in Orpington who keeps a few eggs at the back for pensioners or a local boulangerie in Paris selling cheese and some meat. A friend in New York reported, “My local Yemenis had toilet paper and chocolate ice cream – survival basics.” Off the Edgware Road in London I found a fancy fishmonger who is now selling basics like pasta and rice, tinned tomatoes, tissues and toilet paper.
At home, supper is ever more important as solace and comfort. Elemental, essential, cooking continues to bring us together even as we are mandated apart. My “corona” WhatsApp groups are full of shared dishes and cooking tips: one friend foraged to make nettle and wild-garlic soup, another admitted to “panic-fermenting” and another was very happy to find that you can make an excellent Bloody Mary out of passata. Necessity is the mother of invention; we are reconnecting with our store cupboards, excavating those forgotten packets of dried pulses. And it’s been fun to watch Michelin-starred chefs live-streaming from their home kitchens as they cook up family favourites – lasagne, fish-and-chips, sausage casserole – while the kids whoop about in the background.
As we settle into a new normal, we count our blessings: our friends, our families, a jar of good mustard. There is, perhaps, a little more time for cooking and for reflection. The reason why flour is continuing to fly off the shelves is because everywhere people are #coronavirusbaking #isolationloaves, or simply #quarantinecooking. A sourdough baker I know has been inundated with requests for help and tutorials. “Primordial comfort in destabilising times,” one friend in Montreal, commented under an Instagram post of her golden loaf.
The tactile routines of home and hearth calm and soothe as we watch the terrible news. We chop and slowly stir and knead and bake, rethinking, realising how important all the people who take care of us and feed us are: the nurses and doctors and cleaners and farmers and fruit pickers and hauliers and forklift drivers and delivery men and supermarket-shelf stackers. It is frightening and disorienting and sad, but coronavirus is also salutary corrective, a time of re-evaluating. And we wonder, as much as we can hope right now, what lessons we might take with us when we are allowed back into the world again.