Food Lessons Learned (So Far) in the Pandemic

I don’t know about you, but some days I definitely am suffering from Covid-19 fatigue. When we were under “Safe at Home” orders in Colorado back in March, and for the subsequent 6 weeks, each day felt like an eternity! I couldn’t keep track of what day it was because every day felt like it lasted a week, and I just kept hoping for some good news and an ability to go back to “normal.” Normal was being able to find the foods I needed to purchase without having to visit five grocery stores! Normal was being able to go out to the movies, go to the gym, and get together with my Qigong practice group in person. I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever we get back to won’t be like the previous normal but maybe we can get to a new normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has become a dividing line of a life before and after.

This is similar to how I felt when our son, Morgan, was diagnosed with life threatening peanut allergies. There was life before peanut allergies, when we could eat anywhere and eat anything. And then there was life after, when every bite had to be monitored and every label read. It was a demarcating line in our lives. Adding each new food allergy diagnosis didn’t make as much of an impact on our daily lives as that first allergy.

This kind of understanding helped our family to roll along with the pandemic a little easier in some ways, and we had a little bit of rough roads in other ways. We aren’t yet to the after the pandemic. It’s the during stage that we’re currently experiencing. And who knows how long this stage is going to last. We’ve learned some lessons that I want to share with you, and maybe you’ll have a few lessons you can also share with me!

Lesson #1: Have safe foods on hand always!

My husband, Robert, and I tried to get N95 masks in local stores and on the internet in February 2020 to no avail. Everywhere we checked was sold out. We finally found a few masks through Ebay, but this sparked my husband to suggest that I’d better get a stockpile of my safe foods, since it was clear to him that people were fearful and that makes for interesting buying choices!

With my diagnoses for Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE), I am currently eating just four foods (all organic) – chicken breast, turkey breast, broccoli, and frozen Cascadian Farms hash browns (for some reason I can tolerate these but not fresh russet potatoes). I’m so grateful that Robert suggested that I get more of my foods on hand before others began to hoard food products. I was able to purchase a month’s worth of these groceries for myself, which allowed me to continue to eat when limits on the numbers of chicken packages, for example, were placed in most grocery stores in our area. Since February, I have kept a constant supply of one month’s worth of groceries in the freezer. I rotate the foods each week as I purchase new items. I will continue to keep this stockpile of safe foods for as long as the pandemic continues, just in case there is more hoarding or limitations on purchases in the future.

Lesson #2: Befriend your grocery clerks when you have special food needs!

For the last several years, I have been purchasing the frozen hash browns at my local Natural Grocers. I became good friends with the purchasing manager and the receiving manager since I had a standing special order of 2 cases that they ordered for me weekly. By late March, their corporate headquarters was no longer allowing special orders, which was very disappointing.

Despite my explanation to the store manager, and my years of purchases, he was unable to guarantee that I’d be able to purchase 2 cases at a time and unable to even know if they would be receiving hash browns on a weekly basis anymore. However, the receiving manager was willing to put aside every and any case of hash browns that were received and hold them for me, unbeknownst to his manager. Having a good relationship with him, and explaining my medical condition, allowed him to better understand what I was managing.

At one point, I called in to the store to see if the receiving manager had any potatoes set aside, and when he said yes, I told him I was so thrilled that I’d ask him to marry me if I wasn’t already married! He said, “I’m married too, but you can still ask me!” And I did! We laughed and laughed at the absurdity of the situation, and it took months for him to regularly received these potatoes again, forcing me to scour stores from Colorado Springs to Denver to try to purchase as many frozen hash browns as the store clerks would allow me to purchase.

Lesson #3: In a pandemic, don’t expect special treatment!

Many times I would head to a grocery store register only to have a checkout clerk tell me that I wasn’t allowed to purchase so many packages of the same product. Despite having a letter from my allergist explaining the few items that I can eat, and his request to please allow me to purchase what I needed for one week, the clerks and even store managers , would say no.

One time, I received a special order for the turkey breast that I had purchased for years at a local King Soopers, again on special order. I would generally pick up 12 packages at a time every two weeks. Again, I had two meat department employees who were so good to me, and we had become friends. They knew what I was experiencing trying to get my safe food, and would continue to make special order requests for me. Yet, when I got to the front of the store to pay, the self-checkout clerk began screaming, “You can’t buy that much meat. Don’t you know there’s a pandemic going on?” Again, no amount of explanation or doctor’s letter was going to cease her yelling. So, I purchased the two small packages that she would allow me to purchase, and went home.

When I told my husband what happened, he was incensed and went back to the store. He spoke with the meat department manager who said to take the other 10 packages to the front of the store to purchase them, and tell the clerk that if they had a problem to contact him. Wouldn’t you know that he had no trouble purchasing all the meat without any issues!

Lesson #4: Be willing to break some rules!

I can’t count the number of times that I left the grocery store to go to the parking lot with my allotted amount of chicken or frozen hash browns and put them in the car, only to change my jacket and mask and head back inside the store to purchase more of the same items up to the limit allowed.

Many times I’d go to my regular stores and find no supply. I’d end up driving to numerous stores around the city just to get enough food to refill my stash for the week, if I could even find the items. I wasn’t willing to eat down all of the food I had in the freezer for fear that the distribution issues could continue long after my supply ran out. Those “safe at home” orders suggesting that we only grocery shop once a week weren’t going to work for me.

I generally am a rule follower, and I understand not purchasing massive quantities of toilet paper, for example, so that everyone can have their fair share. However, when you’re talking about being able to eat at all, there were some rules that were going to be broken in order for me to stay alive!

Lesson #5: Be willing to ask for help finding your special foods

There were a few weeks where I couldn’t find my potatoes anywhere in Colorado Springs. I asked my daughter, Michaela, who at the time lived in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver, to check around for me. She graciously searched and found a case worth, but then had to take the packages to our son, Morgan’s apartment since her freezer wasn’t large enough to accommodate this grand prize!

Michaela also has a diagnosis of MCAS and eats only organic fruits and vegetables. She was having difficulty finding foods at one time in Lakewood, so we found some safe foods in Colorado Springs and made a rendezvous midway to exchange foods.

I also had wonderful neighbors who were willing to pick up 2 packages of organic chicken for me when they went to the grocery store if they found any. People who don’t have such strict diets are free to eat a variety of items, and were so helpful in offering to make purchases to keep me fed.

At this point, I’m flush with all of my foods and haven’t had any difficulty recently being able to purchase everything that I need.

I continue to express gratitude every time I’m able to easily find the foods that I eat, and I’m especially appreciative to no longer have to be sneaky in order to keep myself fed!