Nearly a year ago when cases of Covid-19 started rising in my area, one of the first things I did was alter my shopping routine. I had been in the habit of going to the local orchard about once a month for apples, honey, cabbage and whatever fruit was in season, and to my grocery store about every eight or nine days. We grow some food too, but not everything we eat.
Suddenly shelves went empty, especially of basics like flour. My small rural county has a many elderly people and young families on limited incomes. I did not want to take anything out of my neighbors’ hands. I was about due for a shopping trip when I realized the world had changed, and I just didn’t go. So as not to clog the mail routes for people who needed to ship diapers and formula, I also didn’t order anything for several months.
Right away I noticed some benefits. I have more or less kept it up, although some months I went twice, and some I didn’t go at all. A year later, it’s clear to me that this change of habit is permanent. Not just because we’re still in a pandemic, but because the benefits continue to greatly outweigh the downsides.
Mustard green thriving under row cover, ready to be part of a dozen different meals both cooked and fresh
1. Reduced cost
A year’s worth of budget data shows that shopping infrequently saves me about a hundred dollars a month for four of us, which I have mostly redirected to the food bank. The savings is partly a result of eating even less pre-prepared food than we used to. I was paying a huge premium for the dubious service of someone else making my bread, crackers and tortillas for me. Now I buy our flour from Lindley, our in-state organic mill, and even though it costs more per pound than grocery flour I’m still spending less, because it costs far less by weight than boxes of crackers.
At first, I felt like I was spending a lot of time making all this stuff that we used to just buy, and I assumed I never could have made the switch if I hadn’t also been spending more time at home. But that was just because I was an abysmal baker who needed some practice, and now I’m not spending much more time cooking than I ever did. I’m in the rhythm, and I’m motivated to keep doing it because it’s healthier for us (more fiber, fewer unpronounceables) and for our state’s economy (more local jobs that pay well).
Another part of the savings is that we’re eating even less straight-up junk and non-local produce. One bunch of bananas a month rather than four. More local fruit instead. One or two bags of chips instead of five or six, because I just can’t bring myself to put six in the cart at once. Strangely, I’m feeling less deprived, not more. In the before time, I would eat all the chips and then miss the chips until grocery day. Now, I don’t notice as often that there aren’t any chips. The consumptive pattern is broken.
2. More interesting meals
It’s so easy to fall into a rut, and just buy the same things every week. Then I get home and stare into the cupboard, complaining that there’s insufficient food. Of course that’s not true. What there is an insufficiency of is inspiration. Growing food and eating in season is a huge help with this through the spring, summer and fall, as new abundance overflows from the garden in a regular rhythm.
I’m also finding, though, that running out of something can be its own kind of inspiring, like an artist using the restriction of their chosen medium to feed their creativity. I’m more likely to do a cupboard survey and then plan from what’s actually in there, rather than leaning only on the things I remember are in there. I’m more likely to come up with a variation on a favorite dish, rather than making exactly the same one over again.
I find I’m adjusting my habits week to week. Right after shopping, we eat the perishable stuff. The next week, we eat the storage stuff. Then at the end, it’s the frozen stuff. No possibility of a rut.
3. Helping us eat what we grow
Every gardener knows that growing the food is only half the challenge. Then you have to harvest it, preserve it, cook it and get it into people’s mouths. This is easy with a crisp sweet salad turnip, or a juicy cherry tomato. Harder with scraggly beets, the last few winter squash, or 30 pounds of grinding corn. Going to the store less often changes how those ingredients look: now they’re more valuable, more worth the effort.
Beet fried rice: a perfect use of scraggly beets.
4. Improved time management and mental health
I cannot believe I used to waste a morning at the grocery three or four times a month! If only I had those hours back! I despised shopping, even before it really mattered whether a stranger coughed on me. The fluorescent lights. The spending of money. The small talk with strangers. Bleh. I would rather spend those hours kneading bread or rolling pasta.
5. Reduced emissions
I’m in favor of a localized diet for several reasons. I want my neighbors to have jobs. I want my hills to produce food, in case something goes wrong and I can’t get it from elsewhere. I want to keep an eye on my agriculture, and make sure food is produced in a way that’s healthy for both people and soil, which is very hard to do when it’s happening thousands of miles away. And of course, shipping causes some pollution.
Transport’s share of agricultural emissions ranges from about 30% for something like avocados to 0.5% for hamburger, with an average around 11%. The share of emissions that comes from producing and processing the food is definitely bigger: under 50% for some plant foods, higher than 80% for more emissions-intensive things like milk and beef.
However, most analyses of food production emissions completely ignore the so-called “last mile” of transport: from the store to your house. When we do try to measure it, it’s a doozy, sometimes outweighing all other transport combined even in localities that aren’t as car-happy as mine. Eating fewer ruminants and wasting less food have a bigger total impact on emission reduction. But once you’ve done that, fewer trips = even more improvement.
How about you? What pandemic habits are you keeping for good?