Friday 20 March 2020

Tales from the Crypt: Just where is the line between “stockpiling” and doing a “big shop”?*

This is normally the kind of blog post that Matron would leave to the people, who know better. Like actual chefs or sensible food writers like Jack Monroe, who have experience in thinking about shopping and cooking from the perspective of people, who might not have access to the wealth of culinary offerings that is the Waitrose down the road.

But after Jamie Oliver just got in on the gig after being commissioned to deliver a daily cooking show called “Keep cooking and carry on” 

Matron can’t help feeling that there is still a gap in the market that a perpetually distracted academic can squeeze into. After all, there’s only so much productive paid work one can do in times of an international public health crisis anyway.

What one does instead,

is obsessing over whether or not we have enough food in the house and what the balance of probability is between dying of starvation in a week’s time and being physically assaulted in loo roll aisle today. In Matron’s case, this was an easy decision to make because, for reasons of recent ill-timed international travel, she told herself that can’t leave the house until next Friday. So, she sent Mrs Matron shopping instead, who came back after three hours in the trenches with tales of Panic! At the Aldi, looking slightly traumatised and only a bit dishevelled.

So what should one buy to survive, you will rightly ask, and where exactly does one draw the line between “socially irresponsible stockpiling” and “just doing a big shop”? Matron is so glad you asked. 

Because in true academic fashion, it does of course all depend on how you phrase your research question. In this case the question being: what specific type of harm are you trying to prevent and what measures (law, code, market and social norm, yadayada) would you have to take to shape human behaviour in a way that would prevent that harm? Call it a domestic panic impact assessment (DPIA), if you will.

Three’s the magic number

The Matron household has so far shopped to prepare for exactly three different scenarios:
  1. “We’re all gonna die”
  2. “You’re all gonna die”: 
  3. “Nobody’s gonna die, you bloody fool, so just put that family pack of truffle noir-flavoured polenta back on the shelf and calm TF down”
Let's look at them in turn.

"We’re all gonna die"

This is the scenario, where Matron has picked up the virus during said ill-timed recent international travels and both she and her betrothed get ill in quick succession. Or alternatively, where Mrs Matron - as of 1400 hours today a certified “key worker” and thus required to still go out and do her job in person - will bring the damn thing home. As neither of us is in the “high-risk” group, our working hypothesis is currently a consecutive outage of vital household personnel (her and me) spread over a period of, say, two weeks. We also reckon that if either of us gets it badly, food preparation is not going to be our first concern.

As we are both capable of creating nourishing meals that include the generally recommended balance of vitamins v “things that are bad for us but taste good”, we generally assume that during those two weeks one or other of us will continue to have both the energy and the desire to cook meals from scratch for about half that time. The other half would have to be conquered by having access to food that can be 
  1. removed from the fridge/freezer;
  2. shoved into the oven/microwave; and 
  3. consumed by both of us

within the ten minutes that we are likely to stay awake between fever dreams. 

For those households that are on friendly terms with the common ready meal, Matron would therefore recommend to have enough of those in store to feed every member of the household for about a week. 

In our case, things are slightly complicated by the fact that we both hate ready meals with a burning passion, which meant that we (well, the Royal “We”, which meant mostly Mrs Matron, who is much at these things) did a bit of pre-cooking in the form of cooking double the amount we would usually consume of almost every meal “we” cooked these last two weeks. There is now a drawer in our freezer filled with delicious soups and other leftovers that require no more personal engagement that the turning of a knob. 

So there. In the words of Gloria Gaynor, we will survive!

You’re all gonna die!

In this fictional (?) scenario, the members of the Matron household remain fit and healthy because, you know, we try to be responsible, do virtual Pilates every morning and practice social distancing, but all the other idiots, who insist on spending their Friday night at Wetherspoons, are going to get ill, thus affecting supply chains and the availability of basic food stuffs for weeks or months to come. 

This scenario was harder to plan for and it did at times put Matron in mind of her grandmother, a woman, who somehow managed to get a husband and three boys through WWII but, who was never, after that, psychologically capable of having less food in the house than was necessary to feed a family of five for a month. We kind of laughed about it when we were children, but Matron can't deny that she has found a new understanding of that mindset over the last few weeks.

It is of course, the “You’re all gonna die” scenario that currently has people fighting each other for an out-of-date packet of miso and a jar of pickled onions at the Asda check-out. And on some level, who can blame them? The level of information and assurance the UK government has provided so far is laughable, consisting, as it does, of vague statements that “supermarkets will not run out of food”. Which would be so much easier to believe and trust, if…well…supermarkets had not run out of food left, right and centre right now.

Of course, the level of where one personally thinks to have reached actual food security is highly subjective. Matron finds that, for better for worse, she does in fact clock in somewhere near her grandmother’s level. So it will be about four weeks before she and Mrs Matron have to decide who eats whom. Others may come in above or below that level, depending one what their grandmothers taught them.

The next question, once you have established the limits of your own safety zone, is then what stuff to buy to make it that far. Rule No. 1, as better people than Matron have already said ad nauseam, is that there is absolutely no point in buying stuff that you wouldn’t normally want to eat, just because you’re in a panic. 

Or is there? 

Well, on the one hand there really, really isn’t. At least as long as stuff that you WOULD eat is still available. But on the other hand, there are some things to consider, like vitamins and nutritional balance. Matron is veggie and Mrs Matron is vegan, so we do need to think about things like protein et al. Which accounts for the excess tofu, halloumi and feta we have currently stored in our fridge. All long-lasting enough to get us through a health crisis without scurvy but none of it stuff that isn’t already part of our normal diet, albeit in moderation. 

Matron also suggested starting a limited store of frozen vegetables in case the fresh stuff runs out. We could agree on things like peas and frozen spinach, but Mrs Matron was strangely resistant to the idea of frozen broccoli and cauliflower (go figure) because apparently, "it tastes like ass" and on the balance of probability we would most likely live off rice and boiled lentils for a month before either of us would touch the stuff. Despite the fact that Matron's grandmother continues to whisper in her ear, “just you wait, there will come a time when you’ll be glad for a bit of frozen broccoli”, it was not a hill on which was prepared to die on, so we remain, for now, a frozen broccoli and cauliflower-free zone. Frozen fruit, on the other hand, was an easier sell, so we will be in smoothies for the foreseeable future. Probably. Ask Matron in a week.

Things we did stock up on were the things that everyone else stocked up on as well (hence the empty shelves): tinned chickpeas (salads, soups, curries), tinned tomatoes and tomato puree (pasta sauces), tinned beans of all varieties (salads, soups, chilli), pasta (of course, pasta, what kind of a stockpiler are you?), lentils, veg stock, and yes, Matron is not too proud too admit it, some tinned fruit. 

It’s not something we would normally buy, if life went on as was, and it did feel a bit “Famous Five and the Picnic on the Moors Infested with Post-War Baddies” ("Hmmm, why does food always taste better when you eat it outside?"). But again, there was enough memory or our respective grandmothers’ Christmas mandarin gateau left in us that we felt that, if push came to shove, tinned peaches were better than no peaches at all.

So that was the sensible side taken care of. But because we are foodie hedonists at heart, we did, of course, also buy the other stuff. Not too much of it (because, let’s face it, the shelf life of the hedonist stuff will always be markedly shorter than that of frozen spinach and is it really wise to gain ten pounds when there’s a plague on and people might eventually have to shift you from bed to bed?). 

So not “too much” but still enough to inject little moments of happiness into our daily commute from the bedroom to the study and the kitchen to the couch. There is chocolate, some crisps, a few biscuits (a few because they were also mostly sold out), love hearts, a packet of Vienetta (don’t judge!), a frozen Applestrudel and some custard. Enough for a midnight feat at Mallory Towers any day (or night).

There are also a few cans of coke, fruit juice, a few bottles of cider, beer and some wine. Unfortunately, the online wine merchant that Matron sometimes orders from has just temporarily closed up shop after sending out a, frankly self-defeating, marketing email reminding its customers that this was not a situation that they would want to see through sober. But Matron is full of hope that they will sort their little supply problem in good time, at which point she will of course join the other locusts.

Nobody is gonna die!

And then there is of course the final scenario. The one where we have all overreacted and the NHS will get a handle on this. Or at least the one where supermarkets will manage - through forward planning, a bit of light rationing and the judicious use of a sawn-off shotgun - to keep us all fed and watered to almost the same standard that we have grown accustomed to. What to do then, you ask, with all that frozen spinach?

Well, in our case, we have indeed planned to continue as was with our “normal” shopping habits, now that our personal food storage comfort level has more or less been met. Meaning normal sized weekly shops, including the sort of fresh fruit and vegetables (and dairy and non-dairy products) that we find on the shelves, while completely ignoring our hoarded pile as long as possible. 

Like everyone else, we have no idea for how long we will be able to do this. But it is probably true that the more people hit their own comfort quota and (hopefully) subsequently calm down about their food panic in the next couple of weeks, the more supermarkets will indeed be able to keep all of us fed and watered on a more regular basis. So with a bit of luck, we may yet come to the point where we actually have to start thinking of recipes that call for tinned mandarins. But if all else fails, there are foodbanks. And probably a lot of people that will likely only be too happy if you share your bounty with them, if you really don't want it. Just keep an eye on the use by dates.

And speaking of other people and how our own hoarding behaviour may affect them: this shouldn't need saying (and Matron genuinely tries not to judge, given that she herself has succumbed, at least partly, to the stockpiling mentality), but there is surely a line we should not cross. It is somewhere near the point, where our own buying behaviour means that other people - often people, who are not in the lucky situation that they can afford to bulk buy - will no longer have access to the food they need. 

It is normal to feel anxious for yourself and your family in these troubled times. But there are clearly enough people living among us, who are so unfamiliar with the concept of food security that having enough food for anything more than the next few hours is inconceivable. 

We must find a way to worry about those people, and try to support them, just as much as we worry about ourselves and ours. So, when you finished reading this blog, please find out from your local foodbank or homeless shelter just what you can do to help. Matron promises  that she will do the same. 

If this virus has shown us anything, it is that in this interconnected world, we are truly all in this together. But what kind of people we will be when we come out of this, depends on how we act now.

Stay well, stay safe, stay healthy!

* This line was shamelessly stolen from one of Matron's currently favourite cartoonists, Edith Pritchett, who does wonderful strips for Tortoise and on her own Insta. Check her out!

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