The coronavirus pandemic is beginning to impact our grocery shopping habits.
At Saturday’s White House briefing, the coronavirus task force warned against even going out to buy groceries or medication, as the pandemic is expected to hit its apex in the next two weeks.
“This is the moment not to be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe,” said response coordinator Deborah Birx. She clarified her comments at Monday night’s COVID-19 briefing, advising the public not to go shopping unless it was “essential.”
“We as Americans should be doing everything possible,” Birx said. “And what I meant was, if you can consolidate, if you can send one person — the entire family doesn’t need to go out on these occasions. This is a highly transmittable virus.”
While most pharmacies in New York City are able to deliver items such as prescriptions, getting a delivery of food is no small feat. Many grocery delivery services such as Fresh Direct, Peapod and Instacart are so over-subscribed at the moment, many people are having a hard time booking a slot.
As a result, the solution appears to be to adopt best practices when you visit the grocery store as a way of keeping yourself and others healthy.
“The problem is that people have to eat,” Manhattan epidemiologist Dr. Jiyoung Ahn tells The Post. “I agree with the White House directive to avoid going out shopping as much as you can, but in many cases, it is unavoidable.”
Here’s what Ahn and other experts say to do in order to grocery shop safely, and as infrequently as possible.
Few and far between
People should plan their once-every-10-days (or more) visit to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Gristedes or wherever with military precision, says Ahn, who is also the associate director of population science at the NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center.
Families should plan meals for their weeks so they can create a comprehensive shopping list of ingredients, and not have to visit the stores for last-minute ingredients. At the store, they should practice social distancing, stick to the list of items they have drawn up and choose hours in the early morning or later at night, when the stores are less crowded.
This also may be a good time to start using all those beans and canned food you stocked up on.
Other delivery options
If possible, using a delivery service will help you stay inside. Some users report success with popular grocery delivery services such as Fresh Direct by placing orders in the middle of the night. Other services to try out include Instacart, Amazon Fresh and Peapod, though you may experience delays. Mercato is offering free delivery for those 60 years or older with the code OVER60.
This may also be a good time to try out a meal kit service — we tried 15 of them.
People should also follow the CDC’s updated advice to wear masks and latex gloves and, according to Ahn, wash every item they buy in soapy water and then rinse them off with cold water the moment they arrive home.
“You also must be extremely cautious when you take off your gloves and remove them with one flip of the palm and wrist,” she says. “You need to copy the way you see surgeons do this on the TV.”
Meanwhile, food scientist Kimberly Baker, food systems and safety program director at Clemson University in South Carolina, explains that wiping down your cart with sanitizing wipes — or paper towels soaked in hand sanitizer — goes a long way in stopping the spread of COVID-19.
“A lot of stores have run out of their own supplies of wipes, so bring your own,” says Baker.
Both experts recommended people shop at open-air farmers’ markets as long as they practice caution with social distancing. OurHarvest, Farm to People, Rustic Roots, and Local Roots also deliver farmers’ market-type foods. For carnivores, similar boxes to try out come from services such as Butcher Box and Farmer Girl. There are also several Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box options that are now delivering. Check here for the option closest to you.
Baker even went so far as to suggest that would-be green thumbs start planting their own provisions.
“Buy the seedlings now for things like peas, cucumbers and squash and you will reap the benefits in a couple of months,” she adds. “If you’re in a New York City apartment, consider growing your own herb garden in a pot or window box.”
One of Baker’s biggest concerns is people not properly handling the abnormally large amount of groceries they are buying — particularly meat. She warns that foodborne illnesses such as salmonella could land consumers in the hospital. “That’s a place you really want to avoid at the moment,” she adds.
The answer is to freeze as much food as possible that you are not going to eat over the following days, and then defrost items correctly in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
“If you don’t do it in the fridge, then the next best thing is to run the items under cold, running water,” she says. “You can defrost it in the microwave, but then you get those uneven hot spots, so you need to double-check it has been defrosted all the way through.”
Ahn is more of a fan of the microwave, insisting that it can be a lifesaver if you heat foods to between 140 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit, as that will kill COVID-19.
Ordering takeout remains a safe option during the pandemic, especially with curbside delivery options like Grubhub, Postmates, Seamless and Door Dash. But Ahn says to never eat the takeout out of the packaging it came in. “Instead, place the food on a plate or into a bowl and get rid of the boxes or containers,” she says.