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Empty shelves in store show human preferences

Walking into an urban grocery store the day the US declared a national emergency, I was greeted by the blank stare of empty shelves.

Normally, that row would have been stacked with bread, pita, pita chips and other bakery perishables. They were long gone, not even leaving behind orphan crumbs to mourn the departure.

The nearby fruit stand did not fare better. There were some apples left, but not a wide selection. (The smaller apples in plastic bags that were just inside the door were still there, but I have a good stash of those.) Some lonely oranges were left, but only a few.

The greens cooler just beyond the fruit stand was clearing out. There was one package of baby cut carrots left, and some bags of prepared salad greens at the end. But otherwise the bare metallic shelves sat there cold and empty. A few selections of cheeses and hummus mixes were around the corner from the greens cooler, but they were going fast. Only a short stack of clam chowder, hiding resolutely in a distant corner, stood as a proud reminder of the bounteous supply that the store usually displayed. I quickly diminished that bounty by one container.

Thus was the response of a city neighborhood to the prospect of self-isolation of 14 days, to the uncertainty that grocery stores would close up like a school dance at the first sign of coughing and wheezing of cashiers or customers, to the fear that someone would buy up the pita before you grabbed some.

The perishable perished quickly from the shelves. Boxed cereal was still available, and any manner of canned chili or beans still announced themselves as ripe for the plucking. Peanut butter, with all its protein, was left on the shelf. Presumably today the shoppers were so grateful to have their bread they did not need to adorn it with a spread.

I walked by two stock clerks putting products on the shelf. One woman, a bit wide-eyed with amazement, told her co-worker that she had come in a 4 that afternoon and things were gone. “I was surprised,” she said.  At another spot in the store (where I was able to get all the frozen vegetables I wanted) another clerk was so preoccupied with bring frozen pizzas to the hungry that he plopped his case on top of my shopping cart, as if it were a work bench, and started cutting through the card board to get to the food. (“Excuse me, please,” I said. “Is that you?” he replied as he shifted the box to another surface with the grace of a ballet dancer moonlighting in a grocery store to practice strange moves. He quickly put the pizzas on the shelves as shoppers eyed them over.)

Everyone was friendly. There was no panic buying, but there was lots of buying and there were lots of empty shelves. There was a bit of a line, but there always is in that grocery store downtown. A stray complaint could be heard from frustrated shoppers as they couldn’t find their preferred sauce or what-not. But people were getting food. I may not have gotten my pita, but I did get three boxes of nice crackers and some salmon to put on them, leaving plenty of boxes and salmon for others to buy. I even found it necessary to choose a new style of beverage, a blueberry lavender flavored almond drink. Maybe not what I want all the time, but hardly a sacrifice to make.

Although there were some frustrations for some people and plenty of culinary compromises that had to be made on the spot, the visit to the dwindling shelves was a good  reminder of scarcity versus abundance. If all the shelves had been totally empty how dire things would have seemed. Perhaps this partial vacancy is a good lesson to people who are used to getting the nuanced choices they want when the want. Perhaps we can learn from these minor shortages that we should prepare better in case a truly major emergency descends upon us.



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