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Saturday, 23 May 2020

Diary From The Pandemic Day 65 - The Food Shopping Nightmare

If the pandemic has taught be anything it is to appreciate the little things in life and the stuff that we normally take for granted.

I have been having my groceries delivered for years as I find it much more convenient and it is an excellent service generally. It certainly became all the more important to me as the pandemic spread across the world and my family took to isolating to help to shield my husband. I was very grateful to not have the stress of going out to the supermarkets and the worry that I might bring back more than I bargained for.

But then, of course, the shopping delivery services all but collapsed under the weight of demand as more and more people took to self-isolating, shielding and social distancing. As I battled to deal with apps being taken offline, virtual queuing systems on the supermarket websites and unavailablity of delivery slots for weeks on end, I struggled to find ways to bring even basic food into my home. It has probably caused me the biggest stress of the lockdown situation. And, yes, I am grateful that this "first world problem" is my biggest stress and I don't have to worry about other things!

So, with online shopping from supermarkets becomes less and less accessable, it was time to explore other options.

My first instinct was to work on my own food security by turning to the allotment with a more serious determination than I had ever had - and we have always had very productive allotments anyway! It was a relief, therefore, that the government deemed that allotment sites could stay open and people could tend them as part of their daily exercise. Thank goodness!!

However, with the best will in the world, an allotment in late March to May is not very productive and this period is known in the kitchen gardening community as the "Hungry Gap". Yep, brilliant timing Corona Virus!! So, we made the most of our end of season potatoes, leeks, beetroot and purple sprouting brocolli and enjoyed fresh asparagus, micro salad leaves and rhubarb but it won't be the ideal fruit and vegetable solution until June.

One of the first shopping solutions I tried was the Morrison's Essential Box. For £35 you can have a box of essentials delivered to your door (via courier DPD). The box was a set of fixed items and the only options were for either meat-eating families or vegetarians. Initially, it was even quite difficult to order these due to availability issues but I managed to get one at a crucial time when I was unable to get any other supermarket deliveries. Yes, it was basic but it was very welcome and filled some holes in my food cupboard! They even managed to deliver pasta and toilet rolls when the world was at its maddest! Since then, both the availability of the boxes and the contents have improved now that there is better availability of stock of key items. I note too that other supermarkets, such as Aldi, are now offering something along similar lines.

Shortly after that delivery, I happened upon Jaspers Catering. This is a national company but with local franchiases and the MK one had put together a selection of different food boxes for local delivery. I ordered a "fresh bag" of basic fresh essential aimed to feed a family of 4 and a fresh meat bag, containing meat from local "Best Butchers". They also had available a bag of readymeals suitable for someone isolating and not feeling up to cooking meals. Again, there was no choice in the ingredients included in these bags but it was a brilliant selection of good quality ingredients and it was delivered to my door a day later. Since then they have added other "bags" to their offerings including home baking, pizza making kit and an afternoon tea picnic.

After that I managed, with some stress and frustration, to secure a few delivery slots with online supermarkets. If the difficulty of getting slots wasn't annoying enough, often items were out of stock so couldn't be ordered or they weren't delivered, often with no warning until the day of the delivery, making meal planning a particular headache. It seemed the whole world had taken to making their own bread and home baking so flour and yeast went out of stock for weeks, followed by other things such as various sugars, baking powder, eggs, gelatine and greaseproof paper.

What seemed slightly odd at this time was that it was actually relatively easy to find alternative deliveries for fruit and vegetables (including local box schemes by Moorgate Farm) and even meat (including from local butchers), even if it wasn't always possible to choose exact items. It is kind of heartening to know that fruit, vegetables, meat and basic ingredients were the top of suppliers' priority lists to get out to the public. Maybe we would become a nation of home cooks after all.

However, after a while I started to run out of stuff that wasn't included in any of these box schemes; things such as fruit juice, ketchup, cooking oil, crisps, oats etc. So, what next to solve this problem?

Robots, of course!

We are very fortunate in Milton Keynes to have Starship Deliveries with their cute little robots delivering shopping to an increasing number of residental grid squares. In our area, the shopping either comes from Tesco or Co-op and, although the selection is a lot more limited than when doing a major supermarket delivery, you can at least select what you want from the items listed. A robot delivery is limited to 20 items though and often it doesn't tell you that an item is out of stock until after your order is place and even then it just tells you that you won't be getting it rather than offering a substitution.

The delivery charge is quite small (for example £1.99) but if items you have ordered are out of stock, you can end up with, say, only five things being delivered, which makes the delivery charge less economical. As you might imagine, I was not the only person to turn to robot deliveries as a solution so there were issues with crashing apps, unavailabililty of delivery slots and out of stock items but it did bring with it some successes and a few more household items restocked.  I am very grateful to have access to this delivery service and it is a wonder to be able to order groceries online and have a robot deliver them to your street within a hour.

On top of these branded household favourites, I found myself longing for a few treats to make me feel better. Let's face it, when you can't go out for amusement, enjoying good food at home becomes even more important. And this is where my local foodie friends really came into their own. A box of assorted truffles from The Chocolate Mill, a selection of tasty cheeses from Good Times Cafe and a restock of Thai curry premix from Reasons to Season were all very welcome. There were plenty of treat boxes of cakes and bakes available too, had I not been in a position to make my own, and there were several possibilities for local beer and spirit deliveries if I were not tea-total.


Indeed, if I were a big takeaway eater then I would have definitely made use of the huge range and varieties of cuisines that have suddenly become available from the local street food vendors and restaurants. From boxes of scones from Scone Quest, to lunchtime cheese toasties from Good Times Cafes, to restaurant-style lunch roasts from The Brothers Supper Club, we are positively spoilt for choice. Whilst major chains have shut up shop to even drive-thru options to protect their workforce, the family run businesses and sole traders have stepped up and filled the void with an impressive array of handmade, gourmet and artisan fayre, delivered direct to your door.

As an aside, I was particularly pleased to be able to order a restaurant meal from The Cross Keys in Bedfordshire, to deliver a hot meal to my mum on the day of her 70th birthday. With a family meal out scrapped, it was lovely to be able to at least provide her with a meal on her special day so that it didn't go by unmarked.

I have been very impressed by how my friends and colleagues in the local food scene have adapted and stepped up to the challenges to both keep their businesses viable and to provide their customers with tasty, local and artisan food under difficult circumstances. I am heartened by the support people have given these small businesses and I hope that there are useful business models and practises that will continue even when things return to something closer to normality.

Whilst I wrestled through these difficult few weeks, the major supermarkets made some substantial changes, sorted out issues with their websites and employed more drivers and gradually it became possible to book a delivery again, even if it was for three week's time and only allowing deliveries to be booked once a fortnight and for a maximum of 80 items (which sounds like loads until you try to maintain a household of 4 for a fortnight when you have been running out on stuff for several weeks already)!

So with a few delivery slots booked and entered into my diary (one of the few things in my diary these days), it was time to try to tackle some of the other missing items from my larder, such as flour!

That was when I discovered The Food Box UK. They do I range of different food boxes (some of them looks bit weird, to be honest) but it includes several bakery box options. I plumped for the "White Bread Bakery Box" and I was very pleased a few days later to be in receipt of a selection of different flours, a big bag of white bread mix (not ideal but better than nothing) and sugars. There was also some very dodgy margarine in a tin, which I would not contemplate putting into my body but I can overlook that!

Since then I have discovered that Doves Farm are now offering a box of various organic flour for £11 including delivery so I am excited to try that out when my current flour runs out, if they are in stock at that point.  I am trying not be become a hoarder and cause other people supply problems but it is tempting to hoard flour when previously faced with shortages. It would seem that flour is an important part of my life!

Just when I thought I had probably got lockdown food deliveries as sort out as I could, I received an email from Milk and More to tell me that there was now availability in my area for me to join their delivery service. I had, in desperation weeks before in the darkest of shopping struggles, attempted to join the local milk round but had been told that due to demand they weren't taking on new customers. They asked if I wanted to join their waiting list, so I did and then moved on to explore other options.

But now, finally, this delivery service was available to me so I signed up and went to explore their website. There aren't kidding about the "More" part of their name as they offer all sorts of things in addition to milk; more than you might consider a milkman to offer. Yes, eggs, juice, yoghurt and cheese. But also bacon, vegan products, fresh fruit and vegetables, cereal, coffee and soft drinks. What's more, these things are available for delivery in my area on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday... or all three if you so choose! No crashing websites, no three week wait for a delivery slot, no limitations to once a fortnight, and orders can be ammended up to 9pm the previous evening!

So, I placed a regular order for a Wednesday to include essentials such as milk, juice, cheese, eggs and a vegetable box and I was super excited to receive my first delivery. Outside my door before I had even come down for breakfast. I was hooked and soon ordered more things. It was so liberating to know I could restock these fresh essentials any Monday, Wednesday or Friday and not have to eek them out until the next supermarket delivery. In addition, it meant I could remove some of these things from my supermarket delivery, freeing up my capacity of 80 items only for other things.

But you know what excites me most about the milk delivery? It's that I can order milk and juice in one pint glass bottles. How much of saving the planet has just gone out the window whilst we struggle to exist? Even the supermarket deliveries come in plastic bags and they are not accepting them back for recycling. The green bin food waste wasn't collected for weeks and we are getting through disposable PPE like plastic waste isn't an issue. Understandably so. Can't be helped. So it is lovely to be able to order my milk in glass bottles and put my empties on the doorstep for refilling.

As with my curiosity to wonder if some of our social changes and new business models will continue into our post-pandemic world, I am curious to know how our shopping habits will change as a result. Will there always be more demand for flour and basic essentials now that people have got to grips with home baking and cooking their own meals? Will people discover new local businesses that offer a fantastic service and decide to stick with them or will they return to their familar chains and brands? Will people still want, or even be offered, local food delivered fresh (and sometimes even hot) to their door or will we return to customers going out to events to find them?

I for one will be glad when booking a supermarket delivery isn't as stressful but whatever happens I will at the very least continue to support my local milkman and rinse and return my bottles.

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