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Let’s talk about grocery shopping in the time of COVID-19.

I believe food feeds not just the body, but also the soul. How we procure ingredients, how we prepare them, and how we share them, says so much about who we are, individually and collectively.

(Speaking of who we are, this is a great time, if you’re in a position to help, to donate money to your local food bank, soup kitchen, church, or organization that feeds people. Food insecurity was a problem before COVID-19, and the financial and social impacts of COVID-19 have significantly increased the number of people who need help accessing healthy food. If you are able, please consider donating.)

I am, without a doubt, a “foodie.” I love food. But what does that mean in the time of COVID-19?

There are options available for people who need groceries. Lots of stores are offering delivery and curb-side pick-up, there are designated shopping times for people more at risk of COVID-19 complications, and here in Olympia, the Farmer’s Market has developed new guidelines to help people stay safe while shopping.

Options aside, I’m sure I’m not the only one who put off and dreaded the inevitable Costco run.

(Well, maybe I dreaded it a teensy bit more than some other people: I don’t do well in crowds and, even before we were ordered to Stay Home, Stay Healthy, I was a boring home-body who preferred not to venture out unless it was absolutely necessary.)

I spent these first weeks with Stay Home, Stay Healthy being as creative as possible with the ingredients in our pantry and freezer. I even made flour out of old fashioned oats and used the last of my chocolate chips for cookies.

(Now is not the time to drive all over town looking for a single ingredient you don’t have or can’t find. Here are a couple of links if you’re looking for ways to stretch/substitute your ingredients:  DIY Pantry Recipes and What to Bake When You Run Out of Ingredients.)

But eventually, even the most creative substitution and cooking can’t make up for an empty freezer and pantry. And when I say “empty,” I’m not being figurative or exaggerating. Last week, I threw everything we had left in the freezer into a pot of “Leftover Soup” (my children were not nearly as impressed with that recipe of resourcefulness as they were the oat flour chocolate chip cookies). We ate a final, sad dinner comprised of frozen fish and canned pumpkin before acknowledging that yes, it was time to restock. So bright and early Saturday morning, we braved Costco.

After hearing countless horror stories about long lines (more on that in a second, but spoiler: YES! It’s true!), we decided to get there really early, at 8:00am for the 9:30am Saturday store-opening. We bundled up, brought chairs and reading materials, and were ready to wait for Costco to open. We were surprised to discover we were not the first people there. (Admittedly, with our chairs and books, lots of people waiting in line with us commented that we may not have been first, but we were the most prepared.)

Costco on the Saturday before a holiday, even before COVID-19, would be a busy place. (Have I mentioned how very much I don’t like crowds?) But I have to say, Costco did a good job managing the situation. (Click this link to learn more about Costco’s COVID-19 updates.) An employee came out and spoke before the doors opened. Nutshell: if you don’t see it, they don’t have it; behave yourself or you will be asked to leave; only 2 people per card in the store at a time, no exceptions.

As much as I love wandering the aisles and seeing what’s available (because you just never know what they’ll have at Costco – it’s part of the fun of shopping there), I was ready to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. It took a lot of planning, but I had my list, andI divided it by store layout: my husband took one side, I took the other, and we met in the deli.

Costco didn’t have everything on my list in stock (still no yeast, Kleenex, hand sanitizer), but they had most of the things we needed, including, thank goodness, flour, toilet paper, and paper towels. (I would wipe my brow in relief, but we’re not supposed to touch our faces.) Some items are limited to 1 per membership card, including toilet paper, olive oil, and tuna. But supply is not a problem – there’s plenty available in the store.

A Costco employee wiped down the handle of the cart before giving it to us. We also brought our own wipes and hand sanitizer, wore cloth masks, and were careful not to touch anything we weren’t going to buy. Every other check-out lane is closed to maintain physical distance. There are lines taped on the ground to show where to stand when waiting to check-out. The cashiers are behind plexiglass barriers.

In smaller spaces like the produce or dairy section, people were bunching up. But for the most part, everyone was giving other shoppers plenty of space and not rushing or crowding. Almost everyone shopping was wearing a mask. (Remember, your cloth mask protects the people around you; their cloth masks protect you.) All the staff members we interacted with were incredibly nice and helpful, and other shoppers were polite and respectful. (Thank you, Olympia, for being such a nice place to live.)

Once the doors opened, because we were close to the front of the line and had the divide-and-conquer method of list-shopping, we were in and out in less than 45 minutes.

But the horror stories of the impossibly long Costco lines are true. Because of physical distancing guidelines, Costco is limiting the number of people allowed in the store at any given time. By the time we had loaded up and were ready to leave, which was before 10:00am, the line to get in stretched all the way around the side of the building, back to where the trucks unload. And unlike the early-morning line, which was spread out, the long line as we were leaving included a lot of people waiting very close together, not following physical-distancing guidelines.

I don’t imagine we’ll be making another Costco-run anytime soon. But when we need to, it’s good to know that, with a little planning and extra patience, it’s not impossible. Costco is well-stocked and obviously working hard to keep shoppers safe.