Where to shop when the shelves are bare

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The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we look at our supply chain and personal food security. When stores and online suppliers can’t keep the basics in stock and you don’t want to have to keep making (often unsuccessful) supply runs to your local grocery store, where can you go to keep meals on the table?

Explore your local ethnic markets

This is an ideal time to check out your city’s Asian or Middle Eastern restaurants if you’re lucky enough to have them. They often have plenty of bulk rice, grain, lentils, and legumes when other outlets have nothing but bare shelves. 

You’ll usually find familiar produce, but you can try out exotic varieties and find recipes online. The same applies to seasonings and spices. 

Find local farmers through LocalHarvest.org

Small-scale farmers often sell “subscription boxes” of produce, eggs, and meat. These programs, called “community-supported agriculture” or CSA shares, give local farmers operating money as they grow their crops. Their members earn “dividends” with discounted fresh, local food you can pick up at the farms or pre-arranged drop sites. 

Since most communities have canceled this season’s farmer’s markets, these producers depend on direct-to-customer sales to stay in business, and we depend on them for local food security. 

Some small farmers offer surplus plant starts early in the season. If you plan to grow a home garden but you’re having trouble finding seeds and nursery plants, ask if your local farmer can help you out. 

Shop at restaurant supply stores

Many food outlets advertised as foodservice suppliers are open to the public, but often overlooked. You’ll likely have to purchase items in larger quantities or packages than you’d find at grocery stores, so be prepared to make room in your refrigerator or freezer and break down your purchases into meal-size storage containers. 

Call your local custom meat processor

USDA regulations require family farmers that sell poultry, pork, beef, or other meat products to send their livestock to licensed processors. Customers who pre-order “farm direct” can request their favorite cuts and custom processing from the butcher and either pick up the packaged meat from the processor or, when legal, from the farmers themselves. 

Farmers and ranchers traditionally sell pork and lamb in processed whole or half carcasses, but they can help “match” you to customers who only want quarters. 

Ask local restaurants to place custom orders

If you’re not having luck finding a brick-and-mortar restaurant supply store, you can find other outlets for wholesale or discounted food. Many restaurants, especially those in rural areas or urban “food deserts”–cities where residents have to travel several miles to reach chain supermarkets or food outlets–are keeping their doors open while serving their communities by offering special orders of dairy products, produce, meat, and staples through their suppliers. 

As with food suppliers, restaurants will likely require you to order larger quantities, but many will break down bulk products into family-friendly packaging. 

Visit Latter-Day Saints Home Storage Centers

You don’t have to be a member of the LDS faith to take advantage of their food preparation outlets, and you probably won’t have to drive far to find one. They offer food storage workshops, and volunteers will teach you how to dry can and package their bulk foods on-site at a huge discount. 
Before you go: Important shopping tips

“Stock up on what you already eat” is the best advice for those just starting out in practical emergency food storage. This is especially important for families with younger kids who tend to be picky at the dinner table. (You’ll also want to keep a supply of everyone’s favorite comfort foods on hand, too–including yours.) 

Purchase items you’ll likely use after the emergency has passed, and if you’re stocking up before an expected emergency, incorporate easy-to-store items into your regular diet. Learn to cook dried beans, lentils, and split peas, and you’ll save money and shelf space otherwise spent on their canned counterparts. 

Once you’ve stocked up on pantry essentials, you’ll spend less time running errands, thereby reducing your risk of exposure to infection. And after the crisis is over, you’ll have shopping habits that better prepare you for the next crisis. 

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