Help me be paranoid in the right direction
January 11, 2021 8:41 PM   Subscribe

YANMD or anyone else's. To the best of your knowledge/insights/anecdata/guessing, what is the safest way to get groceries in the age of COVID?

Goals are to minimize public interaction (for my sake and everyone else's). I expect others will find some use in this, but for myself, I live in an urbanish area and am prepared to sacrifice money in the name of limiting exposure. You may assume that grocery shopping is the only remaining Public Space Activity(tm) in my life right now, and yes, I am still being paranoid and soliciting suggestions to lower the risk even further.
Options include:
• going to the grocery store at some ungodly hour in the morning
• grubhub? Uber eats? Are those still a thing?
• some sort of subscription service, but for produce
• buying a year’s worth of rice, beans and tomatoes and working with that
• anything else I haven’t thought of

What are the respective pros and cons? Discuss!
posted by queen anne's remorse to Shopping (37 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: covid nurse here - I just shop at the store like normal, but try to go at off hours. I also don't wipe anything down.

Have you considered doing grocery pickup? it seems like most major chains do it - Kroger, Walmart, Target, even Whole Foods, etc. You order on the website/app, store employees pick your items up, and all you do is drive up and call (or whatever) to let them know you're there and they put the groceries in your trunk.

Yes, grubhub and uber eats is still a thing but for groceries you're going to want to use something like Shipt or Instacart.
posted by Amanda B at 8:48 PM on January 11, 2021 [23 favorites]

Best answer: If you are in a city where it is offered, Amazon Fresh and a number of grocery chains deliver. That's what we do, and there is zero contact: the bags are placed outside the door, then we bring them in after the person departs. I've never used it but my understanding is that Instacart does a similar thing but with an individual person picking things up in the store.

It's probably only useful if you have a car, but every grocery store around here is doing curbside pickup (you place the order online; then they bring it out to your car at a set time). Done right, that also has virtually zero contact.

going to the grocery store at some ungodly hour in the morning

For the things that I need to go pick up in person, this is what I do. No one is there, the employees don't seem stressed, everything is clean, and you can get in and out really fast.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:52 PM on January 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Is there a reason curbside pickup isn't an option for you? I've been doing it since March (at Target, Walmart, Kroger, and my local non-chain grocery store) and it's super easy and usually free.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:53 PM on January 11, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: As far as I can tell, the risks of COVID transmission, in order from most to least likely:

Aerosols - droplets - recently dropleted surfaces - surfaces

So the risks are being inside without sufficient air circulation/fresh air (aerosols), being sneezed/spat on (droplet exposure) and touching a droplet surface and then touching your face, specifically mucous membranes.

There also appears to be a viral load component, where you get sicker if exposed to more virus (! This is me potentially misremembering! Double check!)

So. Wear a mask, potentially eye protection, stay socially distant, wash your hands, but also spending less time in enclosed spaces with other people will help.

Outdoor markets? Delivery? All good options.
posted by freethefeet at 8:56 PM on January 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

We did Costco lay-ins when numbers were lower, but now only do curbside pickup though a store order site that is just a skin on Instacart itself, and is fulfilled by an Instacart shopper.
posted by Dashy at 9:00 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: Seconding pick-up. They appear at my (closed) window and ask me who I am, then return and load up my trunk. I think all the big stores have it.
posted by Rumi'sLeftSock at 9:03 PM on January 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pickup is the best combination of safety + ethics, I think. I do use grocery delivery via Instacart or Shipt sometimes, but I am increasingly aware I am asking someone to do what I won't in a way that has them frequently in and out of different stores.

If you don't have an auto-opening trunk or back hatch, my procedure has been to pull up, get out and open my hatch, get back in the car, and then perform whatever ritual invokes the delivery, wait for them to be done and go away, and then get out and close the hatch. You can roll all your windows down before they arrive if you wish, and leave them open as you leave.

Visiting very early is a decent option if your grocery stores open very early. I'm hitting queues if I go any time after 8, but if I get there at 6 or 7 it's pretty empty.

Grubhub and Ubereats, aside from being almost entirely restaurant delivery, are awful to their employees and scam the restaurants with fake websites and phone numbers that make it seem like you're contacting them directly but it's still the aggregator and they charge the restaurant; they can barely (or sometimes cannot) make their margins after all the fees. Chownow is less scammy and is opt-in by restaurants, plus some of your local favorites may be using a specific ecommerce order system and self-delivery.

I do have subscriptions to Imperfect Foods and Farm Fresh To You, my gripe is mostly that I eat a pretty standard subset of vegetables every week and they charge 2-8x what I pay at a store; I always end up with stuff I think I'm going to use and then don't. I skip a lot of deliveries but get one periodically just to stay in the game, because when the supply chains went down at the beginning of the pandemic they were a good source of rice, dairy, meat, and bread along with produce offerings.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:21 PM on January 11, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I have been doing exclusively curbside pickup since March and in the non-winter months I had a CSA. It’s been great, honestly. I kind of like giving up a little control and learning to roll with what shows up. It’s been good for me.
posted by HotToddy at 9:23 PM on January 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We shop once a week and do the farmers' market first and get everything we can there, since it's outside and safer, then go to the grocery store for whatever's left. We're shopping for my parents and the two of us and one friend. One person goes into the market or the store, so as not to unnecessarily add more human vectors to spaces. (Of all the stuff I miss, this is the thing I miss most: shambling around the grocery store together laughing at the nonsense products--"Teddy Soft Bakes," haaaaar!--and going through the sale bins and and happily flinging ridiculous stuff like frozen taquitos in the cart, just frolicking around the store indulging impulses like there was nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong, full stop, nothing wrong anywhere in the world.) If it were only the two of us, I'd probably consider getting deliveries, but getting deliveries for four separate households would get expensive, plus InstaCart is the devil incarnate. Also, shopping in person affords me the opportunity to tip. I have noticed that the grocery baggers now always offer to come to the car with me, and I think they appreciate the opportunity to get out of the store, so I always say, yes please, and then as soon as we're outside I hurl as much money as I can find at them and dart away with the cart.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:23 PM on January 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

(Yes: CSA is excellent for this situation.)
posted by Don Pepino at 9:25 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: We’ve been quite pleased with Whole Foods’s delivery. Quite quick, and they label the bags so you know what needs to be refrigerated.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:27 PM on January 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have been using Safeway delivery the entire time. $4-10 extra fee and that's it, they usually deliver within 24 hours. I usually place the order at night and get it the next day.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:33 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: My elderly mother has been doing both delivery and curbside pickup (getting items at different stores means different methods of shopping) and that's been going great so far. The only hangup is when she chooses "no substitutes" on a particular item and they do a substitute anyway which has given her loaves of bread she didn't like. But that's been a rare occurrence.
posted by NotTheRedBaron at 9:34 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: I don't know if you live in a major urban area, but I live in the Bay Area and my experiences with grocery pickup and delivery have been a bit frustrating (Safeway, Good Eggs). Either the sizes are way off (you wanted 5 gallons of milk? Here's 5 pints of milk!) or the ingredients you wanted are sold out or the pickup employees don't answer the phone and you're just out in the parking lot forever. It's a grab bag. I think it might be better in less concentrated areas with fewer shoppers, but I don't know.

My "hack" is to pay attention to when the "senior shopping" hours are. If senior shopping is 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., I go at 8 a.m. The seniors have already finished shopping and other people haven't arrived yet, so there is a bit of a lull.

I also do a CSA (although I don't use all of the veggies every week which fills me with shame and regret) and walk to a tiny market every once in a while if there is just 1-2 items I need.
posted by rogerroger at 9:36 PM on January 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I will happily thumbs up produce CSAs (community-supported agriculture). What's available when depends on your area; some of them are "you get what we picked this week" but others are a bit more flexible, and some even have non-produce offerings like eggs, dairy, meat, fish. (On preview, Lyn Never and I use the same produce subscriptions, and have similar feelings about the ethics around gig economy delivery services and likelihood of their contract drivers being pressured to take shortcuts that may impact your health or theirs; if you feel similarly, look for local CSAs that deliver to your doorstep without using Grubhub, UberEats, DoorDash, Postmates, Shipt, Instacart, etc; or who have porch pickup nearby.)

Also, rice and beans and canned tomatoes (and many types of frozen veg!) are excellent staples to have on hand in bulk if you have the space, will help extend how far your fresh produce goes, and can usually be provided via curbside pickup at most larger supermarkets these days, you just need to order in advance (usually between a few hours and a day earlier)

Caveat re the "ungodly hour of the morning" grocery shopping in person - often, that's reserved for seniors; check with your individual stores. But this is not my preferred choice in terms of "avoiding being inside with other people for even moderate amounts of time." When I have to do this, I keep my list short and an eye on the checkout line; my goal is to be in and out in 15 minutes, and to not do this for more than one store in any given week. And if there's a line to get in, if it's more than a couple of people long, I go away and try again another day.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 9:41 PM on January 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's not optimal if shortages kick in, but I try to do my shopping later in the evening when the store isn't busy. I did this last March and April and it was empty shelves city at times, but at least it wasn't crowded!

A slightly pricy option would be meal kits that get delivered to your door like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:51 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: An argument against Instacart: It will likely take longer for an Instacart shopper to find the items on your shopping list than it would take for either you or a grocery store employee. (Since you have likely bought the items on your list before, you know exactly where they are in the store and what they look like, as does an experienced store employee -- but an instacart shopper not so much, unless they have been shopping for instacart for a long time in that exact store.)

More time spent shopping = more virus exposure.

So I would argue for either going shopping yourself and trying to be as efficient as possible, or getting grocery delivery or pickup which is fulfilled by store employees.

(That's on top of Instacart's questionable labor practices of course, but I'm focusing on the virus question.)
posted by mekily at 9:52 PM on January 11, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Visit the web sites of any grocery stores in your area and see what options they offer, including curbside pickup, delivery run by the store (unlikely), etc.

Curbside pickup is great. Also, when you do curbside pickup, if you phone them to tell them you're parked at the store, you can request that they just put the groceries in your trunk.

I do use Instacart sometimes. My thinking is that each Instacart shopper is shopping for multiple people, thus reducing the number of people/trips in/to the store -- and I tip well.

(On edit: I think a lot of the Instacart shoppers are fairly experienced now, and the multiple people at a time means that they do a bunch in the produce section, then move on to the breads, etc. But, really, I don't know, and I hate the whole rating system, and I'm seriously conflicted/uncertain about the whole thing.)
posted by amtho at 9:54 PM on January 11, 2021

I go to the grocery during the week after 8pm, wear a mask, self checkout and go. So far, so good. I consider it the least risky combined with the highest likelihood of getting what I want.
posted by AugustWest at 10:27 PM on January 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I do pickups at stores that use employees, not contractors. At stores that use contractors, there happens to be a good overlap with “list building”, so I can build my list, pick a store, and it will sort the list by aisle for that store.

When I have to go in (target limits fresh and frozen and some paper goods), I’m in and out with a specific list, masked, eyes covered (lenses), and sanitizer. Shower and change of clothes when I get home
posted by tilde at 11:09 PM on January 11, 2021

Best answer: I've got regular deliveries of milk (twice weekly) and veg (weekly) from dedicated providers of those things, so that's most of the perishables covered. That lets me make the most of delivery fees with occasional vast supermarket orders. Because the perishables are covered, I can handle a delivery slot several weeks out, which is useful when some local plague news causes all the slots to get booked up suddenly.
posted by quacks like a duck at 12:22 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of grocery stores offer their own delivery services now. That's what we use.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:31 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: For anyone who happens to be in the Seattle area, Central Market's curbside pickup has worked well and shown signs that they give their employees space to make sensible decisions, and the ones who've wanted to talk about it said their sick leave was okay (but nobody has wanted to talk about health insurance which may say something). Expensive but less than Whole Foods and not owned by Jeff Bezos.

Fred Meyer / Kroger is a bunch of fuckers to their employees if anyone wants details but fuckers.

I wish some stores would go pickup-only to let people work without all the untrustworthy customers, but maybe the economics don't work out.

(Our CSA has gotten a ton of signups so they've been doing okay despite their restaurant business cratering and their workers being in some weird situations. Yes, CSAs are worth a look if they work for your situation, which in our case means being able to deal with a weird lech for radicchio.)
posted by away for regrooving at 12:44 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I go to only one store that’s reliably not crowded (because honestly it’s overpriced and not that great...but not crowded). No running to different stores and I also try to limit it to once a week. During rush times (before holidays) I use instacart and avoid in person shopping. I also use a meal kit service to avoid the ‘browsing for interesting/new stuff’ time at the store, so it’s really just in and out with my list of standard stuff, no lingering.
posted by The Toad at 1:09 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: I hate the whole rating system, and I'm seriously conflicted/uncertain about the whole thing.

Unless the whole order is borked (hasn't happened yet, knock plastic) I just give all stars always. I heard that anything less might get people fired, and as much as I agree with having misgivings about Instacart, those people shopping and delivering really need that money more than "Come the Revolution we will all be living in a worker's paradise!" right now.
posted by Chitownfats at 3:41 AM on January 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, reiterating everyone above that safest is likely curbside pickup from a store that has in-house staff shopping. They're able to pick multiple orders at one time, as opposed to Instacart etc. where the shopper is likely only picking one order at a time.

In terms of the "ungodly hour" plan - in my experience this isn't realistic (at least in my area) unless you're a senior! Most stores around me have senior hours every day and therefore aren't open to me until 8 or 9 AM, and while I wouldn't call them crowded it's already more people than I'm happy with. That being said, you have to figure the building's had overnight for the HVAC to clear out the air, and less time to build up new aerosols, so I try to go as early as I'm allowed to go regardless.

Looking for stores that ruthlessly limit their capacity is another option. e.g. my local Trader Joe's has been pretty good about this.

Finally, look for ways to reduce how often you need to go. Frozen meat and vegetables. Shelf-stable ingredients. Going from every week to every two weeks cuts the exposure in half. Etc.
posted by pie ninja at 3:51 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not particularly paranoid about surface transmission -- I don't wipe down all my groceries, but I do wash things that are washable, quarantine non-perishables that I don't urgently need to touch, and wash my hands much more frequently after bringing groceries into my home. My focus has been on behaving in ways that minimise interactions between people in enclosed spaces (as well as I can without detailed knowledge of how every business operates).

I get deliveries from multiple small local suppliers of specific things (one for fruit and veg plus various pantry staples, one for meat, one for fish, one for dried fruit and nuts, one for tea, etc.), and I order everything in bulk to minimise the frequency of orders. It seems more optimal to me for a small number of employees to enter the same space to get produce and then distribute it to a large number of people, conducting the exchange outdoors, than for a large number of people to congregate in the same physical space to fetch those groceries.

There are a few non-perishable things (toilet paper, medicines, etc.) that I absolutely can't get from those suppliers, and I order them from larger suppliers as infrequently as I possibly can. I favour a catering supplier attached to a local supermarket chain over our local Amazon equivalent (they have certain bulk products, and are less oversubscribed than the supermarket's normal public-facing online store).

Given what I know about Uber's labour practices, I wouldn't order food from Uber Eats or any company with a similar business model. I also wouldn't order groceries from one of our large supermarket chains, since that just involves sending a store employee into the store with random other employees and customers to get things off shelves instead of me, which is just offloading the same risk to another person. If these stores became pickup- or delivery-only the calculus would be different, but they're not. That's essentially what the catering supplier is, and they stock most items that I could otherwise only get from a supermarket.

Right now there's a second wave happening in my country (fortunately in my province we seem to be going over the peak), so I've been living off my existing bulk supplies and not buying anything at all -- I'm waiting until the numbers drop a lot more.

To make it possible to have this kind of pause I cook meals in bulk and freeze most of them, buy lots of foods with a long shelf life (dried pulses and starches, canned tomato and baked beans, long-life milk), and fill the freezer with meat and frozen vegetables whenever it is no longer full of frozen meals.
posted by confluency at 3:57 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: Grocery shopping was the last thing I gave up. I shifted to curbside pickup in early November and feel extremely safe. I go by myself to pick up, roll down the passenger side window so they can confirm my name (there’s at least 6 feet of distance and we’re both masked), pop my trunk, they load my bags, wave goodbye, that’s it. Honestly, I’m in no hurry to going back to doing my own shopping at all. I also find that I’m actually saving money because I’m not impulse-buying stuff I see.
posted by bookmammal at 5:46 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: We've done curbside pickup every 2 weeks since last March and it feels very safe. I really like that I can save all my usual purchases so I don't forget anything, and it's a lot easier to check off a long list while also avoiding impulse buys. I also don't think it has any ethical concerns because the employee would be in the store regardless (and some have told us they like the curbside shifts better). If anything it reduces the risk to the employees to have one less person wandering around the store.

We ordered a few boxes of frozen meat from a local farm as well (delivered to us contact-free) if that's an appealing option for you. We looked into vegetable CSAs but they were all really expensive for the amount you get (the meat was too, but I don't have humane concerns about veggies).
posted by randomnity at 6:01 AM on January 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I do have to concur that Safeway does run out of about $20 (fairly consistently) of whatever I ordered late at night by the next morning, and probably another $40 of it is substitutions. I have no idea what is going on with the supply chain there, but sometimes they are out of a certain thing for months.

If you want exactly what you want, then you probably need to be handling your business in person. But I'd rather put up with that than run to the store every week. YMMV and all that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:24 AM on January 12, 2021

I will note that "senior hours" are a courtesy concept, like you can't be legally barred from entering the store for being under 60. Also at least around here there's always fine print that this courtesy concept extends to anyone who is especially vulnerable. If you have a health condition that makes it higher-risk to go into a grocery store and that time works for you, you can go.

But some stores are still pretty busy at those times, especially (according to my mom who lives in a smaller town) if the store has special days like Double Coupon or Free Doughnut day or whatever, which I had forgotten was such a big deal even though I worked at that Kroger in high school and Double Coupon day was a nightmare.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:57 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: I also endorse curbside pickup and CSAs in season.

Another option not mentioned yet: getting self-stable pantry goods shipped. I have gotten groceries shipped from both Amazon and Costco, and a quick look at the Target site shows that it will ship pantry goods as well. It may well be true that other retailers do, too. This won't take care of your fresh produce/dairy/meat needs, of course, but you can absolutely get canned meat/fish/produce as well as the rest of the stuff that sits on your pantry shelves.
posted by Sublimity at 8:21 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: Another option not mentioned yet: getting self-stable pantry goods shipped.

I live in a place that has no delivery or curbside options for shopping and this is a large chunk of what I do. I mostly use it for shelf stable things I like that are reasonably priced including huge bags of almonds, containers of dried apricots, lemonade powder, brown rice, boxed soy milk and etc.

I did try trial versions of Imperfect Foods and Thrive Market both of which didn't really work for me but also both of which had intro offers and/or coupons that made them very cheap to try. It's also entirely possible they work better where you are (I am far enough out that Imperfect Foods sent food via Fedex which was frequently delayed which meant occasionally spoiled food or really mushy veggies. Thrive Market has quality stuff but it wasn't worth the prices, though they have a 30 month free trial that I highly recommend. Both have exceptional customer service.).

However, because I live far out in a rural location, there are also some options like delivery straight from farms for things like meat and potatoes--coordinated via mailing lists and/or facebook groups--and most people I know who have chickens have too many eggs.

I've done a big shop in a store maybe every two months now (my trick is to go about 45 min before closing, place is a little run down, but more empty) and I do spend some time reassuring myself that even though it makes me nervous, if everyone is wearing masks and I am washing my hands, I am still pretty safe in my region, may be worth checking your own region to see how you feel about that.
posted by jessamyn at 10:02 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: As someone with multiple health issues and no car, I'm having basically everything delivered. It's a combination of meal kits, farm box, and Instacart. I tip a lot for Instacart, since someone else taking the risk of being out and about means I don't have to. (Pre-covid, I would have done many shopping trips, but smaller quantities.)

Since last March, I think I have only entered a building other than my apartment about 10-15 times. A handful of medical appointments, a few visits to my office to get supplies for teaching online, and quickly popping into restaurants to pick up takeout ordered in advance.
posted by ktkt at 11:15 AM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: I was using Instacart, but after a rec from a friend, have swapped over to Dumpling - these are people who truly are independent contractors (they set their own rates, above the in-store cost of the item: mine are 20% of the grocery cost + 20% of the tip, $20 minimum fee for the first part)

So it's not cheap (though cheaper than that sounds, because you're not paying the markup via Instacart or whatever), but a) they're getting paid reasonable rates where they get vast bulk of the money you pay and b) you get to pick who does your deliveries, and thus can get the same person every time.

(Which means that now I've done a couple of orders, the person I'm doing this with knows what I like when they're out of something, and has a really good sense which of the options I might like when she does need to ask. It's great, and has taken a lot of stress out of the "but this order had a substitution that does me no good" experiences via Instacart.)

It's app only, and figuring out how to enter things took me a bit, but now that I've sorted it out, it's quick to enter stuff, leave notes if I've got an alternative if I'm out of things, and get on with life.

Bonus: they also pick the stores they do, and most Dumpling folks will do other pickups (like takeout), Trader Joe's, or other things that don't have an easy delivery option. There might or might not be an additional fee for multiple stores - for mine it depends on whether it's on their way/quick and easy or not.
posted by jenettsilver at 12:59 PM on January 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've going to our usual Food Lion between 7 AM and 8 AM during the week. I've yet to see more than 3 or 4 other customers in the store with me. Pick up might be technically safer, but the reality is the drive to and from the store is more dangerous than shopping with 3 other people in modern grocery store.

Nobody picks out produce like I do. Nobody.
posted by COD at 3:00 PM on January 12, 2021

Best answer: Have you tried calling your grocery store, like on the phone?

Ours has a dedicated "shopper" (and has since pre-pandemic times). You give your list, they shop, they call back about substitutes and specials, and deliver. It is a little more time-consuming than Instacart in some respects, but is so much more human. We have an actual relationship with our shopper, chat with her, and she is only in one store. She saved a Clorox spray for us one week!! She gets us the good toilet paper!! There is also no markup on the individual products like Instacart, beyond tipping the delivery person (well!) and a $5 shopping fee.
posted by luckdragon at 4:05 PM on January 12, 2021

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