There once was a TV game show where participants faced off in the supermarket with a goal of accumulating the most items from a shopping list. An internet search for “supermarket madness” links to a competitive game called Market Madness, the rules of which even allow contestants to take items from the other players’ carts. I’m keeping an eye peeled for sightings of life imitating TV these days. It is easy to play nicely together when there is enough for everyone, but let a few people have to do without or feel desperate–look out! Imagine 52 weeks of shopping with a Black Friday mentality! It’s not a pretty thought.
Supermarket shopping has never ranked at the top of my list of most enjoyable activities and it probably never will. A book I’ve been reading recently on true fun (as opposed to untrue fun?) identifies the ingredients necessary to trigger fun in our lives. So far as I can determine, none of them are present when I grocery shop. Pushing a cart in zombie-like fashion down crowded aisles and standing in long checkout lines just don’t bring smiles and laughter for me. I am, however, grateful to have supermarkets that are readily accessible. That is not true for everyone. Some find themselves stuck in the middle of so-called food deserts, defined as areas where people have limited access to healthy foods, whether that be the result of things like income, geography, or limited transportation. Enjoy them or not, I don’t take supermarkets for granted.
Even if it isn’t my most enjoyable activity, a trip to the supermarket has become more of an adventure as well as an educational event in recent months. These days grocery shopping is reminiscent of scavenger hunting, both in the sense of looking for a few seemingly well-hidden items as well as feeling like I’m picking through someone else’s left overs. I have visited countries where that is a common rather than occasional reality. For instance, in Cuba we heard an entire presentation on a system that tries to accommodate frequent shortages. The US has known a few moments of rationing in its history, but during my lifetime, I’ve become accustomed to abundance. Sure, it may be tough to find hamburger buns on Memorial Day weekend or your favorite chips on Super Bowl Sunday, but those haven’t been the norm. After years of well-stocked stores crowded with so many choices that my head spun trying to distinguish which is better, we are witnessing moments of empty shelves.
It has been interesting, and sometimes comical, to see what is missing. Early in the pandemic, the toilet paper section was wiped clean. Talk about getting caught with your pants down! I never completely understood the reason for hoarding that product unless you were headed for the bunker with a doomsday forecast, but what are you going do? I thought perhaps I’d discovered the real reason for the TP shortage a couple of Sundays ago–I visited a church and noticed several packages of toilet paper placed up front by the altar. I had not known that sacrifices had been reinstituted in the Christian church, but was glad that the offering was paper goods rather than live animals. I began to wonder if I was worthy of participating since I’d shown up with just a regular old bank check for an offering. Fortunately, my wife, who is an avid reader of church bulletins corrected my thinking as she noted they were taking a collection for the local food pantry. So, it wasn’t religious devotion that caused the toilet paper shortage – or at least not the kind you might think.
Paper towel, napkin and sanitizing gel shortages were soon to follow. Apparently, half the county where I live decided to become overnight bakers because yeast couldn’t be found anywhere for a while. Now, every week there is a new contender for the title of “pearl of great price.” In some ways, this whole ordeal reminds me of the question, “In case of a fire, if you can only take three things out of the house, what would you choose?” As a kid, if we were asked that question in church we knew one of the correct answers was supposed to be the Bible. I don’t know how people are making their decisions about their top three during the pandemic but since the Good Book teaches that we can’t live by bread alone it may still belong on your short list along with an extra roll of paper towels.
The whole bare shelf phenomenon has been a learning experience. It demonstrates how easy it is to be influenced by a sense of scarcity. I don’t think I’d ever owned a bottle of hand sanitizer before the pandemic—and now suddenly I’m certain I need one, plus a couple of backups just in case they become scarce again. If previously missing items are re stocked when I pass them, I feel an inner urge to buy one even if I don’t need one – just in case. It is though some remnant of the old Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” has gone berserk within me even now. The scarcities continue, rotating through the stores’ inventory, with store managers and the media now blaming supply chains as the culprit. There is a lot to be learned from these shortages. In particular, these empty shelves say something about what we value in a time of crisis.
This got really personal on a recent trip to the market. Not two aisles earlier I had been thinking how nice it was that this store in a little Midwestern town was so well stocked on nearly everything. But then I turned the corner to the snack aisle. The section where Little Debbie snack cakes are kept looked like a war zone. There wasn’t a cream-filled oatmeal cookie to be had anywhere. The same was true for their peanut buttery Nutty Bars. Mind you, though I occasionally enjoy them, I don’t need them. I’d probably be better off without them altogether. But what the Sam Hill? (By the way, I have no idea who Sam Hill is or why folks in my home area use that expression, except that it was another one of those minced oaths more acceptable in moments of exasperation than some other options). Whoever you are, Sam, do you know who is hoarding the Little Debbies and how can I become their friend? Could I trade a cord of firewood for a couple of boxes?
Another section that looked like it had had a rough day at the office was the frozen dinner coolers. Fortunately, there was nothing there that interested me. Between preservatives and high sodium content, my doctor advises me to steer clear of those choices. But for many, these are staples of life. I confess I do occasionally like a 39 cent Burrito from this aisle and it took a bit of scavenging to find a couple at the back of the shelf. I don’t know if it’s the actual taste or the cost that makes my mouth water, but how often do you eat lunch for less than 50 cents?
If you’re looking for a serene spot with hardly any traffic, nearly ripe for a meditative experience, try the canned vegetable aisle. The day I was there, it was completely empty of people and every shelf was immaculately stocked. There are no cucumbers for the eyes or hot stone massages there but it is as close to a spa moment as you’ll find at a Meijer, Kroger, or Walmart. Likewise, the fresh vegetable aisle looked lonely, all dressed up and waiting for a dance, but unable to garner a much attention. It can serve as a refuge for introverts who need a few moments to collect themselves after making their way through the masses. With a little imagination, the natural greenery and misting might convince you that you’re on an outdoor nature walk.
These inconveniences have been teachable moments. They initially reminded me of blessing—something we often overlook until they are missing. How fortunate I have been to be one of millions who have easy access to almost anything we need. That is a comfortable life. But sometimes one person’s good fortune contributes to another’s misfortune. What feels like blessing can also come with the trappings of economic privilege. Scarcity is not my norm. When one store is lacking a product, I have the means to look elsewhere, either at other markets in town, in other towns, or online. As empty shelves cause me to temporarily do without, I’m also left to ponder the reality of those for whom the lack of availability is not temporary or who don’t have the means to easily travel across town to shop at another store.
These shelves, empty and full, also remind me of how interdependent we all are. We depend on a vast network we rarely acknowledge. It would be tremendously difficult to live in a similar manner without them. No one I know grows pineapples in Wayne County. Where will I find nutmeg for our spice rack if someone doesn’t ship it to my area? I don’t know how to make Ziplock freezer bags or aluminum foil. From the grower of a product or the assembly line worker of a processing plant, to the transportation workers who deliver, to those who stay late stocking shelves for the next day’s business, we can’t really manage much of life alone. We actually need one another—many of whom we will never meet.
Hmmm. More than mere emptiness, a little supermarket madness may turn out to be food for the soul.