Spread Your Grocery Dollars Beyond the Supermarket

©. K Martinko – Empty shelves at my local supermarket

It supports local business owners and gives you more local and seasonal options.

Supermarket shelves are showing gaps these days, as people buy ingredients in large quantities to stock their pantries and freezers. Many others are upset by this stockpiling because it means they can't find what they need. While I feel sympathy for both sides – it's absolutely unfair to take more than your fair share when others are getting nothing, but it's also an awful feeling to feel unprepared – I have an alternative to suggest: Support your small-scale local food providers and look for alternatives.

Once you get out of the supermarket and into the small shops or local food co-ops, you'll discover that there is still plenty of food. At least, this is the experience I've had, as has UK-based food writer Bee Wilson. (I do realize this will differ from place to place.)

These small-scale suppliers have numerous additional benefits. Their supply chains are often shorter, sourcing directly from nearby farmers, which makes them more robust in a time of uncertainty; and the financial benefits of buying from a small business owner are felt directly and more immediately than when you give your money to a huge grocery corporation. These are businesses that won't receive any kind of corporate bailout in rough times and instead will be forced to close their doors.

This advice isn't limited just to privately-owned bulk food stores, cheese shops, produce markets, and more. It extends to alternative food providers, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. This is the best possible time to sign up for a CSA share. It gives local farmers a much-needed influx of income to kick off their growing season and provides you with several months' worth of fresh, usually organic produce at less cost than the grocery store. I signed up for both a spring and summer share earlier in the winter, and it is due to start in a few weeks' time.

It's the ultimate social distancing shopping experience, with the week's produce laid out in boxes outside that everyone approaches independently to measure and put in bags. Who knows, this method may change due to Covid-19 precautions, but even if the vegetables are pre-bagged in paper, it still strikes me as more hygienic than entering a grocery store.

CSA box

justinhenry /CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Seek out local food co-ops or alternative grocers, such as the Eat Local program of which I'm a member. I order food weekly online and can either pay a bit extra to have it delivered to my front door or pick it up at a coffee shop two blocks away. (Obviously the delivery option makes more sense these days.) The food is sourced from local farmers, as well as broader suppliers of non-perishable organic pantry goods. I like to support it because I know it employs individuals within my community, provides a retail outlet to farmers, and minimizes my need to venture out into the world at a time of social distancing.

Plant a garden. One silver lining in the midst of this crisis is that it's happening in the early spring, when food production is just starting to ramp up and many of us will soon have the opportunity to grow food in our backyards, on decks or balconies. Now's the time to plan out how and what you're going to grow. I have plans to create an extensive network of tomato and basil pots on my south-facing deck. Gardening work now will pay off later. If you have no outdoor space whatsoever, explore alternatives such as the OGarden Smart that can grow up to 60 plants at a time under an LED bulb and waters automatically.

I realize that seeking out alternative food providers will look different for everyone, based on where they live, but the concept remains the same. Look beyond the supermarkets, that everyone else is plundering, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the bounty that still exists.