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Helpful Tips for Safer Food Shopping

June 16, 2020

Food shopping may look a little different nowadays. However, there are ways to minimize the risk when getting food for you and your family.

Practice safe distancing (at least 6 feet apart), and give yourself and others space and go to the store alone if possible.  If you are shopping for others – from relatives who cannot shop to purchasing donations – try to do it in the same trip.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services emphasizes the three W’s when leaving your home:

6 Tips for Safer Shopping

  1. Wear a face covering from at least the time you leave and return to your car.
  2. Keep your distance from other shoppers while shopping and waiting in line.
  3. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth while shopping.
  4. Use hand sanitizer after leaving the store.
  5. Wash your hands when you get home and after putting away the groceries.
  6. Toss your cloth mask and reusable grocery bags in the laundry.

Now is not the time to leisurely shop for groceries.  Most health professionals recommend comparing brands and reading labels, but this is your official permission to stick with the brands you and your family know and like. The goal is to minimize risk of exposure by not lingering in the store.

Do I have to wipe down food packages?

The best evidence so far shows that it’s unnecessary. There have been several studies investigating how long the virus can remain on surfaces as well as how long it remains infectious – an important distinction.  Think about it as the difference between stumbling across a dead spider instead of a live one. You may not like either scenario, but they have much different levels of risk and potential harm.

The CDC states, “There is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging” and the FDA says, “There is currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”

The most important thing to remember about touching potentially contaminated surfaces is to wash your hands frequently and before touching your face.

3 Things That Cause More Harm Than Good

There are some things that may not go very far in reducing risk, but they can make you feel better and relieve stress.  However, there are many things that do not reduce risk and can actively cause harm:

#1 – Misusing cleaning products

Calls to US poison centers about cleaner and disinfectant exposures have increased dramatically since the beginning of March. It is critical to follow directions on all labels, keep the products away from children, and avoid using them to clean food.  Clean produce with running water.

#2 – Leaving groceries in the car, garage, or outside

Out of concern of contaminated packages, some have left groceries outside for prolonged periods.  This is not recommended, as it exposes food to temperature fluctuations and pests.

#3 – Wearing gloves instead of hand washing

The CDC recommends using gloves when cleaning, disinfecting, or caring for someone who is sick.  However, it does not recommend wearing gloves while grocery shopping; handwashing and using hand sanitizer are preferred when running errands.

Should I consider grocery delivery?

Grocery delivery minimizes the biggest risk for contracting illness by minimizing exposure to other people.  It is a great option for high risk populations like older adults and is the preferred method if you are feeling sick.  Curbside pickup is another option that minimizes or eliminates your exposure to other people.

What about takeout?

This is similar to grocery delivery or curbside pickup.  The biggest risk here is to the people working in the restaurant.

How can I minimize my trips?

If you’re tech savvy, consider a meal planning app like Copy Me That to integrate your recipes, meal plan, and grocery list.  That will help save time and avoid running out to the grocery store for one missing ingredient.  It may be difficult to cobble together dinner based on forgotten items in the pantry, but deliberately planning a couple of weeks’ worth of pantry meals can help you make tasty meals.

It’s certainly possible to purchase 1-2 weeks of food and still have fruits and vegetables until your next trip:

  • Plan to use the most perishable fruits and vegetables during the first week, such as strawberries, mushrooms, and some leafy greens.
  • Enjoy fruits like apples and oranges that will last well into week two, as well as vegetables like celery, carrots, cabbage, sweet and russet potatoes, onion, and garlic.

When shopping, include some non-perishable foods like frozen and canned vegetables and fruits, jarred fruits like applesauce, dried and canned beans and lentils, dried or frozen whole grains, and cartons of plant milk or ultra-high pasteurized dairy milk.

Where are the risks in the food supply?

This pandemic has given many of us a greater appreciation for the people responsible for providing us with food – they grow, harvest, process, transport, deliver, stock, cook, and sell it – and we have heard of the devastating impact it has had on so many.  Social distancing is challenging for those harvesting fruits and vegetables, working in animal processing facilities, staffing the grocery stores, and preparing meals in commercial kitchens.

If you want to contribute to reducing their risk, there are mask projects for farm workers from North Carolina to California to help keep them safe and maintain a critical point in our food supply.

What about those who cannot shop?

Organizations in our area have been working hard to get food to those who need it most.  The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and the Food Bank of Central & Eastern NC have distributed hundreds of thousands of meals during the crisis in addition to their usual operations.  You can read more about their efforts, make a monetary donation, or find out their most needed food items at their websites.

4 Options for FREE, Healthy Meals for Kids

No Kid Hungry NC lists 4 ways to find free, healthy meals for kids:

  1. Text FOODNC or COMIDA to 877-877 to receive a text with the three drive-thru or pick up sites with meals for kids closest to you.
  2. Use the map on their website to find drive-thru or pick up sites with meals for kids across the state.
  3. Visit NoKidHungryNC.org/MealUpdates for information on delivery meals by bus and other updates from school districts and community partners serving meals.
  4. Check your local school district’s website, social media, and other communications for the most up-to-date information.

About Meredith Ebersohl, RD

Meredith is a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition classes, offers one-on-one nutrition counseling, and develops education material.  She is passionate about explaining nutrition research and helping people incorporate sustainable changes in their lives.  Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband, their two young children, and their middle-aged pets.