As the coronavirus continues to impact the world, we’ve witnessed some incredible acts of selflessness. From Italy’s nightly standing ovation for health care workers to international exchanges of medicine and supplies, many people are rallying to support one another. But we’ve also seen unchecked panic buying and supply hoarding, especially in the early days of the pandemic. We’re not here to judge, but we’ve noticed some folks are making interesting choices. During times of panic, it’s hard to buy sustainably at the grocery store. 

Panic buying during disaster situations is nothing new. And it’s proven that when people are desperate, they’re not always able to make rational decisions. Still, this panic-fueled shopping has overwhelmed supply chains and left many of the most vulnerable members of our communities out to dry. So how can we, right now, practice sustainability in every sense of the word? By engaging in shopping behaviors that are beneficial to the earth, our health, and our communities. 

Why are we panic buying during the coronavirus pandemic? 

First, to understand the scope of the problem, we have to get to the root of it. For most Americans, these are unprecedented times. We’re witnessing a fast-spreading global pandemic, government-mandated shutdowns, and historical stock market fluctuations. Millions of workers have been laid off or let go while businesses shutter their doors. And to top it off, there’s a disturbing lack of information around the novel coronavirus. So it seems completely natural—even expected—that people would be afraid right now. 

It’s what we do with that fear that makes all the difference. 

It’s common sense for folks to stock up on essentials in disaster situations. For example, before hurricanes or before severe winter weather prevents them from getting to the store. But the novel coronavirus is different from most disasters in two respects. 

First, we don’t know how long it will impact our lives. Experts have speculated we could be “flattening the curve” for anywhere from eight weeks to eighteen months. With this in mind, it’s difficult for people to feel adequately prepared. Second, most disasters impact a specific geographic location. But the novel coronavirus is quickly spreading, affecting 198 countries and territories around the world. These widespread effects have disrupted supply chains on local, national, and international levels. All of which contributes to a pervasive sense of panic and uncertainty. 

Now, more than ever, we must buy sustainably at the grocery store for the good of our communities. So how can you be sustainable while you’re stocking up?

Take what you need, not what you think you need

Fear is the heart of panic buying. And it’s a well-known fact that our ability to make rational decisions is impeded when we’re experiencing an acute stress response. Case in point—the current toilet paper shortage. Despite widespread knowledge that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, causes primarily respiratory symptoms, toilet paper aisles around the country have stood empty for weeks. Some are even resorting to armed robbery to make sure they have enough 2-ply. 

According to Yale School of Management’s Nathan Novemsky, an expert in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, irrational buying stems from two places. First, as things begin to sell out, we feel the pressure to purchase them. Scarcity makes even the most mundane items seem more desirable. Even the sight of other shoppers with full carts can be enough for many people to overbuy. 

Novemsky also believes that panic buying is an attempt for people to exert some control over their situation. We’re living in a time of incredible uncertainty. Nobody knows what the next month, day, or even hour will bring. When people feel like they lack control, they’ll try to regain it by any means possible.

“When people feel uncertain, they tend to focus on things that bring them certainty,” Uma Karmarkar, a neuroeconomist at UC San Diego, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Most of us don’t have the ability to make new vaccines or enact new policies, but the one action that we can control, that feels like we are doing something, is to stock up on supplies.”

So this tendency towards supply hoarding isn’t stupid, greedy, or evil. 

It’s just human. And another thing that makes us human? Our capacity to reason and practice empathy. So, before you rush to the store, pause a moment. Take a deep breath and assess your situation: 

  • Do you currently have the CDC’s recommended two weeks’ worth of food and supplies? If not, what do you need to hit that two-week mark? 
  • Would you usually be going to the grocery store? Or are you going because you feel like you’re “running out of time”?

Practice awareness when you stock up on shelf-stable foods

If you already try to buy sustainably at the grocery store, you know that shelf-stable foods—like beans, lentils, rice, and oats—have been staples for decades. In fact, for many households living under the poverty line, they’re the only reliable source of affordable, nutritious food. Keep this in mind when you’re shopping during the coronavirus pandemic. Does your family need three bags of dried beans right now? Or could you buy one now, and come back next week when the shelves are stocked again? 

Use common sense 

Food waste in America is nothing new. In fact, 40% of food in the United States already ends up in landfills. And panic buying perishable foods while stocking up can only exacerbate that number. In addition to the usual non-perishable staples, there’s been a rush to purchase fresh produce, milk, eggs, and meat. But before you buy twelve dozen eggs, take a moment to ask yourself: if I buy all of this food, will my family be able to eat it before it spoils? Or will it just go to waste? 

It sounds like a common-sense question (and one we should ask ourselves every time we shop). But it feels especially crucial during this time of heightened anxiety when your decision-making skills could be a little off-kilter. If you want to keep fruits and vegetables in your emergency food supply, consider frozen and canned as a more shelf-stable alternative to fresh produce. 

Avoid purchasing WIC-eligible foods

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) helps low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women buy healthy food for their infants and children under the age of five. Unfortunately, a lot of the staples that are WIC-approved are also the first items to sell out during emergency and disaster situations. These staples include nutrient-dense foods like peanut butter, eggs, cereal, milk, tofu, and rice. 

Part of Northerly’s sustainability mission includes looking out for our community—especially the most vulnerable members of our society. When WIC-eligible products sell out, low-income mothers who rely on WIC to feed their families don’t have another option. This is why, to practice sustainability while still stocking up for social distancing, we’re echoing the news outlets who recommend that you check the labels before you buy. 

“People who use WIC to feed their kids can’t switch to another brand or kind of food,” Suit Up Maine, a progressive volunteer group, said in a Twitter post with more than 26,000 retweets. “If a store runs out of WIC-approved options, they will go home empty-handed.”

Your number one sustainability move? Plan ahead. 

One of the easiest ways to avoid supply hoarding, practice community responsibility, and stay sustainable: make a list and stick to it. Making an emergency food supply list ahead of time lets you gauge what you need in a less stressful setting. Want to take your pre-shopping prep to the next level? Try to write out a 14-day meal plan mapping how you’ll use the supplies you’re picking up.


We’re living in a historic moment. And we have a decision to make around sustainability. Will we act for a place of fear and competition with our neighbors? Or will we practice compassion and uplift our world and our communities? The choices you make at the grocery store might seem inconsequential. Still, when we buy sustainably at the grocery store, our choices have the potential to make a big difference in the lives of those who need the most support. 


buy sustainably at the grocery store, emergency food supply