In all the change wrought by the great viral hunkering down, the most notable to me involves obtaining food for the family.
Here on the edge of Houston, Texas, I’ve taken our food supply for granted. Restaurants thrived and spread, and several giant grocery chains have been vying for market share, building numerous huge stores around the edges of the booming suburbs.
Then county officials declared a lockdown last month. As if by magic, toilet paper and hand sanitizer disappeared from grocery shelves. On an irregular basis, so occasionally did eggs, bottled water, milk, flour, yeast and certain brands of frozen pizza. Restaurants went dark.
By the time Gov. Greg Abbott declared that the whole state should more or less stay home from everything, the big chain grocery stores of HEB, Kroger and Walmart were packed with people at all hours of the day, and you got the feeling that if you didn’t get in there with the crowds, you might not eat too well in the coming week.
But Fort Bend County, just southwest of Houston and Harris County, had begun reporting a steadily increasing number of Covid-19 cases, at least two in a retirement community a few hundred yards from my favorite HEB. I quickly stopped caring about doing my shopping in-store.
Initially, Texas-based HEB won me over to its curbside pickup program. You go to their website and pick an available time slot when you’ll be able to drive to the store and pick up your groceries. Then, you scroll through their food and dry goods departments, pick what you need and add it all to your shopping cart. You agree to pay in advance with a credit card. If you remember something else you need, you are able to add a few more items to your order before pickup. Then, reality hits and they inform you which of your choices are unavailable, and which have been substituted for something approximating what you wanted. On the day of pickup, you pull in, text the store, and an employee comes out wearing a mask, and loads your goods in your car.
The first time I tried it, I looked over while my car was being loaded and watched as a very long line of in-store shoppers waited in the parking lot for a chance to get inside. So I was hooked on curbside.
However, within about 10 days, my favorite HEB had no curbside time slots available unless you chose one about two weeks out. Then sometimes you could go back to the company website and find that a new one at a closer date had come open. So I had these experiences where I filled one order by trying to imagine what our food needs would be in two weeks, and then the next day got another order that would be filled earlier, so had to wrap my head around what we might need in a week that would not be duplicated the following week. That’s not easy to do, at least for me.
But by another week, HEB had no curbside delivery slots open at all. They stopped offering slots two or three weeks in advance. The result was that curbside essentially had been removed as an option.
Luckily, by that time I had discovered that HEB had partnered with an outfit called Favor Delivery and, if you were more than 60 years old as I am, they offer free grocery delivery. This turned out to be better than curbside in many ways. There is no delivery fee, to HEB’s credit, you just designate a tip to the driver (and they do a lot, and in my opinion deserve big tips). You go to a delivery website and *write in* what you want, instead of filling a shopping cart. This gives you the ability to request, say, Honey Nut Cheerios, but you can add instructions such as “but Frosted Flakes are fine if they’re out of Cheerios. Also, the Favor website shows you when their driver has your order, when he’s driving to the store, when she’s arrived and buying your stuff, and when he (or she) is headed back to your place. If the driver can’t find what you’re looking for, she’ll call you up and tell you in advance, and you can ask for a substitute. The only drawback compared with curbside delivery is that you’re limited to 25 items, and they won’t deliver alcoholic beverages.
But the beverage thing is no problem, because it turns out that giant liquor store chain Total Wine will deliver all your wine, beer and booze needs to your home (or they have curbside as well).
Still, we found that certain items we like are not available for delivery or at curbside at our nearest HEB store. To get around that, I set up a curbside pickup account with Krogers, which has a system similar to, although slightly more clunky than HEB’s. (I tried doing the same with Walmart, but for some reason this giant retail chain can’t get it together to offer any available times for either curbside or delivery anywhere near me.) You might think the billionaire Walton family could afford the very best IT and logistics departments in the world. But apparently you would be wrong.
As more members of the public have discovered they don’t have to join the herd of potential Covid carriers romping through the grocery aisles, both curbside and delivery options have grown more cumbersome. However, for people located at the edge of a major city, as we are, this is not a huge problem. We probably have at least 10 and maybe 15 or more very large major-chain grocery stores within a 20-mile radius. Most are HEB or Kroger stores, and all offer curbside pickup. So if you can’t get a time slot at your closest store, you can try the next-closest, and so on.
I should also mention that this is an appropriate time to maintain a garden and think about how you can supply yourself and your family with as much home-grown food as possible. We’re set up for this already, mostly because we live in the Gulf Coast hurricane belt right above a major river that has tended to gift us with 100- and 200-year floods quite often lately.
So the result is that we are always fairly well prepared for emergency, maintaining gardens, fruit trees, power generators, excess refrigerator capacity and a 15-cubic-foot freezer.
One thing I almost forgot. The same outfit (Favor) that handles deliveries for the HEB grocery chain also seems to have struck an arrangement with most of our local restaurants, right down to the burger joints, pho houses and taquerias. These restaurants cannot by law offer dine-in eating right now, but they are allowed to do take-out or delivery. Most if not all of them are hurting financially and need a lot of help if they’re to survive. So we try to support our favorites by ordering delivery from them whenever we can. Wherever you are, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford it, I would urge you to find a way to support the small businesses that have made your lives enjoyable back when things were “normal.”
And hey – lets be careful out there.