Pre-Apocalyptic Grocery Shopping

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Grocery shopping for my family is trying at the best of times. Last summer I was diagnosed with celiac disease. A gluten-free diet may not sound very challenging, but it more than skipping the bakery. I am locked out of most of the cereals, the cookies, the pasta, and about a third of the frozen foods. I also need to dissect ingredient lists for any sources of “surprise gluten” looking to poison me.

If that wasn’t difficult enough, my wife and I follow vegetarian diets at home. This eliminates the meat counter and another third of the frozen foods. Still too easy? My wife is lactose intolerant, meaning that shopping the dairy aisle feels like a scavenger hunt — rummaging through to find the best lactose-free options.

Then there’s the boy. He is five and autistic. Autistic folks can be extremely picky eaters due to sensory issues. Obviously, there are plenty of finicky 5-year-olds, but autism takes this to another level. Conventional wisdom suggests parents should force children to try unwanted foods since “they won’t starve themselves”. Well, for autistic children, “yeah, they will”. My son’s preschool years involved a drawn-out battle over every meal. He ate so little that he dropped to the 5th percentile in both height and weight. My wife and I were forced to surrender. Now, my son’s diet has is mainly processed foods and white carbs. Thankfully, he tolerates orange juice and some smoothies.

It was this set of demands that weighed on me as I waited to enter the grocery store this Saturday. My local supermarket has instituted a limit on the number of shoppers at a time in the interests of social distancing. I stood silently, while I strategizing meals, and recalled the contents of my pantry. Only when I was let in did the challenge of my errand fully occur to me.

The shortages were astonishing. I obviously expected the toilet paper to be gone, but I did not anticipate the gluten-free flour to be missing, or the limits on milk. I am used to struggling to find specialty foods in Northern Ontario, but “granulated sugar” is not typically in that category. I comb the store in search of shelf and freezer stable foods to stock up on that meet my family’s needs.

Then there’s the cost. While my wife and I haven’t lost our jobs, we want to be prepared. I am also looking to limit shopping trips to avoid opportunities for infection, adding to the stakes of any mistake or omission. I find myself interrogating each item in the store one-by-one. Will my son eat this? How long will it last? Is it worth the $2 extra?

Also, remember to avoid touching the shelves and counters…

After checking out, my mind relaxes enough to take stock of the strangeness of the whole experience. As of today, there are 0 confirmed cases of coronavirus in my town. Even in the closest city — Sudbury, Ontario — there are only 4 at this time. I intellectually understand the need to slow the tide of disease, but the reality of practicing social distancing in a grocery store sold out of essentials, is bizarre. Unfortunately, this could become the new normal.

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