Pandemic Pro-Tip: Never Let Your Inner-Child Do the Food Shopping

This morning I bought too much food. It didn’t feel like too much at the time, I didn’t hoard anything, I respected the limits on any given item, but it was definitely more food than I’ve ever bought at one time. I’m feeding a family of four plus supplementing my parent’s grocery needs so they will stay home, and I’m trying to stretch it out so that I only shop every couple of weeks. We are on Day 30 of social distancing. Unless we’re shopping for food or hiking in the woods, we’re home.

The first big shopping trip was right before we started staying home. I planned well and the groceries lasted a long time, but there’s only so much milk and produce you can buy at one time so eventually I put on my mask and headed out again. By the second trip a lot of the shelves were starting to empty. There were things on my list that could not be found. I felt a strange uneasiness rise within me. It took effort to reign in my desire to buy ALL the things. I still bought too much food.

Today’s trip was the third pandemic shopping trip. We’d run out of enough staples that it was time and if I’m being honest all the trophy posts on social media of people victoriously clutching a jar of sauce or a bag of flour, every comment about where yeast might be found or who has tofu had gotten to me. What if I wait to long and the food is gone? I wondered. The unease rose and, armed with a mask and a sandwich baggie containing my own homemade antibacterial wipes, I went back to the store. Again, I bought too much food. A point driven home harshly when it was time to unpack and wipe down all those groceries.

I don’t consider myself an especially anxious person but I’ve come to realize that it’s not because I don’t feel anxious, it’s because I don’t panic. I plan. I am always strategizing for my own survival and the survival of those around me. My mind is set to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong and I find comfort and grounding in a solid plan. COVID 19 steals plans like it steals breath. Maybe the stores will stay open, but the workers are starting to get sick so maybe not. Maybe the food will still be there, but some of it is gone, so maybe not. Maybe I’ll end up in the hospital and this food will have to feed my grieving family. Maybe I won’t get to watch my kids grow up. The anxiety that begins at the top of a shopping list containing the words “flour?” and “tofu?” takes a sharp turn in a much more serious direction after that.

Since we can’t afford any more big trips to the grocery store I started trying to trace those uneasy feelings I was experiencing in the shopping aisles. I was determined to identify them before they could lead to another six boxes of frozen waffles, something we almost never ate prior to the pandemic.

For part of my childhood I lived with my mom in a series of rented rooms, friend’s couches and guest rooms. Sometimes we were more welcome than others. At least once we left in the middle of the night and drove until we found a place we could show up and sleep. We didn’t have kitchens or refrigerators of our own. We were allowed conditional access to other people’s spaces but the rules were always a little unclear to me. In some places there were times that were off limits, in some places there were sections of the fridge we were confined to. In one place we kept snack foods in the top drawer of our dresser, under the socks; dried apricots and apples, sometimes crackers or almonds. I would sneak them quietly so they wouldn’t be discovered by the other kids. I justified this selfishness because they had cupboards and cabinets and a whole refrigerator full of food. It was their home, not mine.

In one place where we rented a room I was only allowed in the kitchen during our allotted dinner hour. If the resident kids discovered me there earlier they were quick to remind me that it wasn’t my house. Worse, they’d threaten to tell their parents which made me fearful we’d be kicked out and it would be my fault. One of the teenage boys there kept a noose hanging from the ceiling in his bedroom as some kind of twisted decoration. Once he’d gotten mad, held me up and stuck it around my neck, threatening to let me hang. I was incredibly jealous of his after school snacks, Yodels and Twinkies, but I was afraid of what he might do to me so I never risked stealing them. Instead I drank room-temperature canned apple juice and ate rice cakes in the bedroom I shared with my mom. He and his brother would sometimes pretend to give me packages of their snacks only to laugh when I discovered they were filled with tissues and taped shut.

Eventually we left that house and my mom received room and board in exchange for being the adult presence in a sorority house. We had access to their industrial kitchen during certain times and I was in awe of the giant milk machine that dispensed ice cold milk at all hours. I have a vivid memory of sneaking into the kitchen for milk at an off time and being yelled at by a particularly aggressive sorority sister who was also in the ROTC and still in her fatigues. “You don’t belong here!” She told me, and she was right. The problem was that I didn’t really belong in any of the spaces I occupied, but after that I stayed out of the kitchen.

Sometimes my mom would buy bags of oranges to keep in our room and at night we’d peel and eat them while we sat on the floor and watched our tiny, rabbit-eared television perched on it’s milk crate across the room. Once we ate almost a whole bag in one sitting and I was shocked and delighted by our recklessness. I remember a day during that time where she bought me an entire Hershey’s bar, something that was unprecedented due to our tight budget and her nutritional standards. I carefully divided the sections and hid some of them, making them last over a period of days. Scarcity is a double edged sword. It brings an amplified gratitude and appreciation for things, and it makes you want to hide and protect what’s your’s.

I hold compassion for those of us at the supermarkets right now, fighting an impulse to buy ALL the things. I hold compassion for the eight-year-old in me that remembers food insecurity and doesn’t want that for my own children now. This pandemic is often referred to as an experience in collective trauma and I am learning that not all of that trauma is in the present. What we are doing now is shining a spotlight on all of the vulnerable places. It is strange to feel so exposed while confined to the privacy of our own homes.

While I unpacked the groceries from my third pandemic shopping trip I found myself awkwardly offering explanations (or maybe justifications?) to my partner. The cans of beans will last forever anyway so it seemed worth stocking up, just in case. I was planning to make a big batch of soup and freeze it so the turnip and the giant bag of potatoes weren’t as arbitrary as they seemed. The store was carrying a brand of olive oil that is safe for my son with food allergies so I bought the giant, metal container. It all made sense. It all made sense until I unpacked not one but four giant bags of oranges. “How are we going to eat all of these?’ My partner wanted to know. “The kids have never eaten this many oranges at once.” I stood at the sink, washing each orange under the water with care and the truth landed in the pit of my stomach. It’s true, they haven’t. But I have. Although I hadn’t realized it when I was filling my shopping cart with bags of fruit, in some strange way I was sure I was going to will us into a place of security with an excess of oranges.

My children have very little in common with who I was at their ages. They have never slept anywhere they are unwelcome. They’ve never hidden food (with the possible exception of Halloween candy.) They’ve never weighed a desire for a snack against a fear of bodily harm. They’ve never navigated food insecurity or homelessness. And yet, I went my whole childhood without experiencing a pandemic. It is hard to imagine what they’ll remember from this time, and what feelings might surface in unexpected places like supermarket aisles, and what irrational things they might do to heal old wounds and protect the vulnerable parts of themselves. I hope that they remember that when the whole world stopped around them they sat on the sofa with their mom, watching movies and eating too many oranges.

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Ali Wicks-Lim

Ali Wicks-Lim

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