I arrived back in Chicago from a trip to New Mexico in early March. I was met by escalating panic around COVID-19. I had heard stories of shortages, and so I checked our pantry and freezer. I found a reasonable amount of food, but many items were things that we didn’t eat. Yes, we had stuff, just not the right stuff. I decided to go to the store and stock up.
Over the last few years, I had been doing more grocery shopping, and I had narrowed down my purchase locations. If I needed to pick up something quick, I would go to the Fresh Thyme Market, a small grocer around the corner from my house. However, if I needed to buy a significant haul, I would head over to my local Walmart Supercenter.
I can’t say that I enjoy shopping at Walmart. It is big, crowded, and it always seems to need a little tidying up. However, despite my complaints, Walmart has some positive attributes. The grocery store is part of a Walmart, making it easy to buy anything from camping supplies to printer paper. Walmart’s house brand, “Great Value,” is decent, and I know the store’s layout well enough to make my trips efficient.
However, that early March stock-up trip was different. The store was significantly more crowded, and its shelves were bare. No toilet paper, no paper towels, no rice, no flour, no pasta, no tomato sauce, no oatmeal. The list went on.
That week I also “hit” a few other stores, including Aldi and Jewel. I wanted to have food in case the world was about to shut down. Different stores had different stock items, so I was able to buy enough essential foods to secure my family’s immediate future. Although I felt good about “providing,” I experienced a less than enthusiastic reception from Julie. She saw my stockpiling in a more negative light.
Based on this, I turned the job of grocery shopper over to her and settled into other tasks. Shortly afterward, Governor Pritzker ordered that Illinois shut down; I spent the next few weeks isolating in my house, only venturing to leave for a daily walk.
Julie did assume shopping duties, but her own busy life hampered her ability to take on these tasks fully. At the same time, our adult kids were complaining that we lacked food items again. It became clear that I had to shoulder some of the shopping burden, a task that I was not looking forward to.
I felt that shopping at Walmart held a higher than acceptable risk, as it was huge and always crowded. The sheer numbers of individuals made me concerned that the place was a cesspool of viral particles. I could order groceries online, but most of those services have an upcharge, and feeding five adults is already an expensive proposition. I thought about returning to Aldi, which is the least costly grocery in our area. However, Aldi isn’t a full-service store, which would mandate that I would have to shop at least two different stores every week, and I didn’t want to do that. The most reasonable plan would be to buy at a regular grocer, like Jewel. Jewel is a full-service grocery store that also houses a drug store. Also, it appeared that their sanitizing standards were high, and their shopper density was low.
Once a week, I would drive to Jewel, shopping list in hand. I organized my list into food zones and shopped as quickly as possible. I didn’t hunt for the best prices, and I bought what was available. If they only had designer tomato sauce, that is what I purchased. The idea was to balance viral exposure with economy and convenience.
Overall, the strategy worked. I was able to get in and out relatively quickly. Naturally, I took all the necessary precautions along the way. However, this was not a total “win” strategy as my grocery bills were extraordinarily high. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend over $400 in a given week, without buying a lot of meat. However, it still was the most reasonable option at that time.
One month dragged on to two, two months dragged to three, and three dragged to four. Along the way, I found myself assessing and reassessing what I could do. I expanded my “social circle” to include my friend, Tom. I visited my sisters “from a distance.” I traveled to “safe spots” to take photographs. I started to live again but in a more cautious way.
My grocery bill was out of control, and I needed to evaluate if there were more cost-effective options. I was aware that Walmart was making efforts to keep its stores as safe as possible, including requiring face masks. It also seemed reasonable to assume that the first hoards of COVID panicked shoppers had subsided, and that food stocks had been replenished. It was time to return to Walmart.
One of the tricks that I do to make a tedious task more palatable is to include family members. Before the pandemic, I would often take one of my kids on my grocery shopping trips. This addition turned a chore into an adventure. We would joke, laugh, and explore as we shopped. Also, my co-participant received special status. If they wanted to buy a frivolous or special item, I almost always capitulated. I know that CDC experts suggest solo shopping, but I’m more efficient in having a helper. Both Grace and Kathryn agreed to assist me on my return Walmart trip.
With masks on our faces and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket, we arrived at Walmart. I was happy to see that they were limiting entrance to a single monitored door. As we entered the store’s vestibule, we were handed a shopping cart by an employee who had just wiped it down with a sanitizing solution. It did seem like they were making efforts to keep things as safe as possible.
We approached our job with purpose as we divided and conquered each grocery section. The store was stocked, but there were still areas that were showing shortages. Toilet paper was available, but only one brand and in limited quantity. Flour was present, but only a few bags were on the shelves. Cleaning products were there, but any brand that claimed that it was antibacterial was missing.
Although I bought quite a few groceries, my card was not overflowing. I purchased very few “high ticket” items like steak, and I stocked up mostly with the “Great Value” house brand. All in all, my grocery bill was just over $260. I would have spent more with a comparable Jewel haul, but it was clear that Walmart’s prices had increased significantly since my last trip there. With that said, I’ll likely return as I estimate that I saved anywhere from $50-$75 over a similar Jewel shopping trip.
So, where am I going with all of this? During a short crisis, it is easy to make a radical change because you know that things will soon be back to normal. However, as a crisis continues, it transforms into a way of life. In past posts, I wrote about how I moved from trying to replicate my previous experience to living in my current one. Part of that process involved returning to Walmart. Before the pandemic, such a trip would be routine. Still, I had to think carefully if the risks of going into a crowded big-box store were reasonable. I had to think about how I would make such a task as safe as possible.
I believe that this is a reasonable way to approach life in our brave new world. I have no intention of going to a crowded restaurant or a packed church service. However, I know that I have to continue to expand my horizons as this pandemic continues. Naturally, I will uphold whatever laws dictate. I understand that I am not only doing this for my health but also the greater good.
I feel that this is a balanced approach that avoids politics and ideologies. How are you making life decisions during this crisis time? How will your actions change if this way of living becomes the new normal?
After we got home from Walmart we washed our hands. The kids and I put away our food. I divided and sealed up the hamburger that I bought, but reserved some for meatloaf that I made last night. Since I have been sharing recipes, I thought I would share this one too. It is a classic that originated from the Quaker Oats company. It is super easy to make and pretty tasty.
- 1-1/2 Pound(s) lean ground beef or turkey
- 3/4 Cup(s) oatmeal
- 3/4 Cup(s) finely chopped onion
- 1/2 Cup(s) catsup
- 1 Egg, lightly beaten
- 1 Tablespoon(s) Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
- 2 Clove(s) Garlic, minced
- 1/2 Teaspoon(s) Salt
- 1/4 Teaspoon(s) Black pepper
Heat oven to 350°F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl; mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape meatloaf mixture into 10×6-inch loaf on the rack of broiler pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until the meatloaf is to medium doneness (160°F for beef, 170°F for turkey), until not pink in center and juices show no pink color. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing. Cover and refrigerate leftovers promptly and use within two days, or wrap airtight and freeze up to 3 months.
(a little substitution never hurt anyone)
I only had 1 pound of ground beef in the spirit of substitution, so I added a little more oatmeal. I also upped the garlic a bit, chopped a medium onion that I didn’t measure, and reduced the catsup a little. I baked it in a loaf pan instead of on a rack. It turned out just great, and the kids ate it up.