Act: Inspiration

4 Things I Learned by NOT Going to the Grocery Store for a Month

April 22, 2020

I just walked into my grocery store for the first time in a month, and it was surreal. First, because I was there without my two kids (ages 5 and 7), so I kept feeling like I was forgetting the most important thing. What is it? Oh yes, the most important thing is shouting:

“Do NOT climb in the freezer bin!” at exactly the right moment.

Not too soon, or they forget that you said it and climb in. Not too late, or you’re explaining muddy footprints on the frozen turkeys to disgruntled grocery employees.

Just kidding, my kids have never climbed in the freezer bin. They’ve gotten a leg up, but I always shout at the right moment. By the time we get to produce, though, I’m frazzled from the rapid oscillation of my eyeballs from list to shelf to list, and I’m not quite as on-the-ball. They have climbed in that giant box of pumpkins.

In addition to the lack of shouting, at my grocery store this week there was a cordon so people could line up to get in. There was a new “maximum occupancy 537 persons” sign on the door. There were empty spaces on some shelves, and a lot less friendliness. Other than that, it was the same old fluorescent-lit cavern I despise.

Before I get to what not going to the store taught me, I should explain why I haven’t been to the store since before my state’s stay-at-home order was issued.

1. I hate shopping, so if there’s any little excuse for not going (such as contagion or it’s a Sunday), I am so not there.

2. About 15% of my county was leaning on the food bank before we had any coronavirus disruption. I can afford to let others go first, and then wait for the initial supply chain inadequacy to work its way out, and then let everybody on food assistance go ahead again, as my governor urged. It’s an act of support for our community, not to take what we don’t actually need in a moment when there may not be enough to go around.

3. We have kept a “deep pantry” for about seven years, but I had never really tested it. I was curious to see how well it would work out.

What’s a deep pantry? It’s just having at least a month’s worth of extras sitting on your shelf. Behind the pasta sauce are another four cans, if you typically eat one per week. Some people take this strategy out to six months or a year, and rely on it as their main food preparedness scheme.

I’m not talking about people who also keep a personal arsenal and a faraday cage (or at least not only them). The deep pantry is also a technique of that other kind of prepper, who has no ammo or camo, who never gets a news story written about her much less a feature film. She’s often a young or a single mother who becomes interested in being prepared precisely because she wasn’t. A job loss, divorce or other personal catastrophe harms her family, and she responds by always making sure there’s enough pasta sauce, until the end of time.

Even though my family has so far been lucky enough never to suffer major misfortune, we started keeping a little extra shelf-stable food just when money was tightest. This sounds paradoxical, but it isn’t. When things are tight, it becomes clear exactly how important it is to ensure I have the basics. (More about our personal preparedness here.)

If you’ve never had a financial problem or other disaster, why bother planning for one? There are several reasons, beyond the fact that none of us has a crystal ball and thus cannot know for sure when we might become suddenly unemployed.

1. It’s an anxiety reducer. The world may be scary and uncertain, but I can exert some control over what’s in the cupboard, and therefore face other problems with a calmer head.

2. It’s an act of solidarity, a promise to my community that my family will not consume emergency resources needed by people without the privilege to get ready ahead of time. Stocking up when no emergency is occurring is anti-hoarding. If I already have what I need, I can remove my personal consumption pressure from the system just when the system is most stressed.

3. The process of thinking through a month’s worth of food can mitigate that expensive and commonplace emergency: it’s 5 p.m. and I did not plan dinner. It’s better for the body and the bank account to get takeout only for pleasure, and not for convenience.

In the interest of full disclosure, staying away from the store does not mean no food entered my kitchen from the outside world for 30 days. Before the stay-at-home order was issued but after we stopped all social activities, a friend was giving me milk from her goats (mine are not currently in milk). Also, my mother gave us some baked goods and a few snack foods, while I gave her beets and eggs. And my husband once bought cheese.

But for the most part, we’ve been relying on our cupboard, garden, field and barn, and it has been a delicious month!

We’ve had eggs from our chickens; beets, chard and arugula overwintered from last fall’s garden; perennial French sorrel and the first few sprouts of asparagus. There was also homegrown okra, sweet corn and plenty of chicken and goat and broth in the freezer, and sweet potatoes, pickles, salsa, pumpkins and dry corn from last summer’s garden. Add to that the pantry things: local apples, canned tomatoes, olives, mackerel, coconut milk, rice, beans, olive oil, coconut oil, flour, sugar and bulk peanuts.

What’s missing from this list, weeks and weeks after the last visit to the store, are some essentials we use to keep our carbohydrate intake down: cheese, tree nuts, lard and butter. And also some things we use to keep our meals convenient, and satisfy our junk impulses: tortillas, bread, crackers, chips and chocolate. Arguably, we shouldn’t eat as much as we do of this last category, anyway.

I’ve learned a few things that will make our stocking more efficient going forward.

First, I’m more interested in cooking and more creative.

I’m much more willing to go out and pick weed salad in the rain. I’m no longer waiting until three in the afternoon to decide what’s for dinner but instead planning days before, which is healthier, less expensive and more satisfying. I discovered that what my chicken tikka masala has been missing was pumpkin, of all things.

But also, I’m spending more mental and physical effort cooking. Lunch is especially difficult, because it’s when we eat our convenience foods: fruit and veg and crackers with peanut butter and cream cheese, all of which is difficult to store in quantity, none of which is coming out of the garden in April except for the first few spears of asparagus.

If we were experiencing the sort of emergency that put more demands on my time rather than less, that extra effort might be unworkable. It might get unworkable next week when my first doe of the season has her kids, depending on how many she has in there. It could be a lot. She looks like a goat whale.

Second, I’m especially grateful for the ingredient I’d been avoiding.

goat carnitas with home made purple tortillas

Home made purple tortillas. Never going back.

Amid last year’s drought, one of the things that did really well was our home-grown dent corn. The variety is called blue Claradge. It grew to 11 feet tall, producing one or two large ears of beautiful blue kernels per stalk. Like these amazing corns that work with symbiotic bacteria to draw nitrogen from the air, it made a clear gooey substance around its adventitious (air-bound) roots. I’m not sure if that’s why it did so well, but I was impressed with the excellent yield and I’m excited to plant extra this year.

I let the lovely kernels languish in the cupboard all winter, though, partly because it’s work to get out the grinder and process it. Also because other than grits to go with black beans or with egg shakshuka, I hadn’t yet built recipes around it. This month, without baked goods readily available, I went ahead and built the recipes.

I tested a procedure of sifting the corn after grinding, then grinding and sifting again. This gave us two different products to work with rather than one: fine blue corn flour, and a more uniform grits. From the flour we’ve had home-made tortillas with goat carnitas. We’ve had corn pitas with hummus, and as an egg sandwich.

We’ve had beautiful blue-green johnnycakes, which resemble English muffins. I got a really excellent rise out of some pretty purple sourdough cornbread muffins, made from starter from our counter-top kefir. The kids love it, and gobble every corn product that lands in front of them.

Third, we probably aren’t meeting all our dietary goals.

Specifically, we’re eating a little more carbohydrate than is really best for us. We have some risk for diabetes, so we need to stay moderate on the carbs. If we eat enough protein, fiber and healthy, vitamin-rich fat, nobody minds if a meal gets a little late. If our carbs creep up and we don’t eat enough of those good things, we get snacky and cranky and generally less easy to manage. And I get less able to manage things well, because my migraine incidence rises.

Even in the best of times, it’s hard to balance all the competing functions of diet. It must be delicious first and foremost, or we won’t stick with it. It has to fit in the budget. It has to go gentle on the planet. It has to strike a balance between feeding our individual microbiomes and body types, so that none of us are losing health over time. Start monkeying about by, say, removing the cheese, and there will be consequences.

Lastly, in general, I was pretty close to the mark.

What I thought was a month’s worth of food really was about a month’s worth of food. It’s possible to feed us all, deliciously and in interesting ways, on what I had available. We are not feeling seriously deprived or unhealthy, except that I was sorely missing my potato chips.

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Many of us were used to eating out much of the time, or stopping by the store on the way home if we had a craving. Even with my family’s commitment to eating what we grow, I myself have been too dependent on the store, and too used to always having bananas or milk on hand. Serious supply chain disruptions may be in our near future, and we’ll eat better and experience less stress if we shift our habits now. Slow food is resilient food.

Home-dehydrated corn, asparagus bean, pears and roselle hibiscusJust look at that pretty blue corn on the left!

Even if the coronavirus crisis blows over without too many more empty shelves, the projections say our weather patterns will get less reliable in the coming decades, which isn’t good for agriculture. Now is a great time to think ahead a little further than tonight’s meal, plan to leave something on the shelf for others, and support our local farmers. I’m making the trip to my favorite pastured farm tomorrow.

How about you? Do you keep things on hand, and has it helped you avoid running to the store? What new dishes have you made that you’ll keep on making? Tell me in the comments, especially if pumpkin is involved. This year’s pumpkin starts are growing up on the window sill, and I still have pumpkins under the couch.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: building personal resilience, Building resilient food and farming systems, coronavirus strategies, supply chains