Panic Buying. Do we need to buy into it?

Laura Kiely APD 

The nutritionally packed and fiscally frugal advice for you and your family during Pandemic

With the confronting scene of empty shelves in the supermarket at 8.30am, it’s hard to keep calm and not get caught up in the carry on that is panic buying!

Our basic human needs feel under threat, right down to the sensitive issue of wiping our bums! Most people have never before experienced uncertainty about access to essentials and in these unprecedented times we are all making it up as we go along and possibly feeling like a scrambled egg.

If you’re finding it harder to make decisions and are stock piling, hoarding or panic buying – it’s not your fault. It’s completely natural and you can blame your brain.

Our brains are extremely complex organs but put very simply, humans have a Big Brain (Cortex) and a Little Brain (Amygdala) which is a tiny little walnut sized piece, at the back of your head. Both essential to survival. The Big Brain is like the “grown up” and the Little Brain is the toddler. So, under usual circumstances the conversations in your brain go like this:

Little Brain:        “mummy!.. hungry….staarrrrving…. food now….!” <insert epic tantrum>

Big Brain:             “it’s ok darling, we’ll eat soon. Let’s cuddle until dinner is ready. Everything will be okay”

Little Brain:        “ok mummy” (and toddler takes a deep breath & relaxes)

What’s happening now, in this time of stress, threat and uncertainty, the toddler is screeeeeeaming – so much so that they can’t hear their grown up Big Brain and they are running through the supermarket so fast the Big Brain can’t even catch them. The regulating conversations between Big Brain and Little brain are not working. Kaput. Toddler’s on the loose! Hence, you may find yourself panic buying!

So, in these highly anxious and uncertain times, let’s take stock (pardon the pun). Is panic buying really necessary? Do we need to buy into this?

The short answer is – no.

Let’s consider our worst case, doomsday scenario (the Little Brain is very good at this), in which you are confined to your home for several weeks or months even, unable to seek help from a single other. All essential services are closed so there is no fuel or electricity to get food from A to B to C (warehouse to supermarket to home), nor a place to buy the food and keep it cool. So it’s just you, your family and a gas cylinder to cook with (frightening in itself for some!). For good humour – which is especially important at this time – we are also being chased by zombies and barricading up our houses. Got a clear picture? Good!

In the case of the above, where NO new food is added to our food supply chain, we’d have enough stocks in the warehouse supply chain to feed ALL Australians for 6 months. Some items perhaps more available than others but if we are hungry enough, we wouldn’t be choosy. And if things got really hairy the Defence Forces and AusAID would be called upon to get food to people. We literally have an army of options ready and waiting.

For peace of mind, Picture 1.0 has something to spare your Litte Brain.  This picture (or Table 1 at the bottom for those who like numbers) shows what you’d actually need to feed yourself in a day to meet 100% of the nutrient requirements of a big bloke. It’s not much and costs about 50 cents. Take a moment to focus on The Jar and reassure that Little Brain of yours!

PICTURE 1: The 50c Survivalists Foodie Jar

50C FOODIE JAR

This snap shot should be pretty reassuring. It includes environmentally responsible options that are cheap and also easy to store and prepare. There’s a fun food (chocolate) in there for good measure and the rest are staples: flour, oil, oats, noodles, lentils, tinned veg, powdered milk, vegemite, dried fruit and nuts.

So, aside from being bloody miserable it is highly unlikely we’d die of starvation. Also most of us have fat reserves and generally, healthy people can survive on very little for quite a while. You might have some serious food issues to work through with your therapist, once you’re on the other side, though!

So why the empty shelves?

The issue we are currently facing is one perpetuated by timing and human panic. At the core, it is a logistical, supply chain problem, not a food shortage. Turns out, our supermarket buying is fairly predictable and store owners are really savvy at carrying just the right amount of stock. This is ideal for minimizing capital investment and wastage, but can be an absolute disaster when you have unprecedented and unplanned demand for essential supplies – such as in the case of panic buying. To further add pressure to the cooker – our food supply chain was already interrupted by extremes of weather with floods and bushfires.

To put this into context, supermarkets start planning for the Christmas rush in July and for the Easter rush in January. So, with the unexpected demand for staples and essential supplies, as people prepare for lockdown, supermarkets are struggling to refill shelves with their carefully considered 3 week warehouse inventory. The problem is getting things from A to B.

A self-perpetuating cycle is at work – the emptier the shelves are, the more fearful people become, the louder their Little Brain gets and so they stock pile and our homes resemble mini-supermarkets.

If we look to modelling with other countries like Italy and Singapore – even during lockdown – supermarkets have remained open for essential supplies, production and manufacturing has continued and restrictions have been imposed on the number of items people can buy and everyone has had enough food.

Why to STOP our panic buying

The part that is actually alarming about all of this is that as an unintended consequence, panic buying has disadvantaged the more vulnerable members of our community: the elderly, the disabled, those living on a low income or are homeless, those dependent on food from Foodbank and people with special dietary requirements. It seems we will even buy gluten free bread when other types aren’t available!

As a positive outcome of these bleak times, perhaps we may have more appreciation and respect for the food that we have, waste a little less, be less picky about what we eat and maybe buy and consume only what we actually need and more locally.

So, if you have read this article and feel reassured that you have enough food and will not starve, consider donating some of your stash to Foodbank so they can get the food to those who need it most. Please don’t add to the unnecessary (but understandable) panic – put your energy into calming your Little Brain. Take a walk, meditate, relax, connect with friends online, sit in the garden and watch the kids play. After all, those with lower levels of stress have a stronger immune system and we all want one of those!

So, keep calm and don’t carry on. Slow down, stay home, buy what you need (which is much less than your Little Brain thinks it needs) and think of others.

We are all in this together.

Laura Kiely / Accredited Practising Dietitian / Counsellor & Psychotherapist

If you are concerned about meeting your family’s nutritional needs or would like to find out more  – contact Laura Kiely and colleagues at Advanced Dietitians Group for a telehealth consultation ~ https://advanceddietitiansgroup.com.au/

Summary

  • There is no identified threat to food production, manufacturing or supply of essentials
  • Food production has ramped up
  • The issue is unprecedented demand and problems moving stock from warehouse to supermarket shelf on the back of extreme weather conditions (fires and floods)
  • Panic buying, although understandable in the circumstances inadvertently makes the problem worse
  • You actually need very little food to survive
  • People are feeling anxious in these uncertain times. Put your energy into keeping calm, not buying groceries
  • Think of those more vulnerable and consider donating to Foodbank

TABLE 1 .              Cheap, Simple, Easy to Store Foods that will Cover Nutrient Needs

FOOD g/day/person Total UNITS per week

family of 4 (rounded up)

Wholemeal flour 150 4.2 KG FLOUR
Oats 100 2.8KG OATS
Oil 25 700ML OIL
Milk powder 65 1.9KG MILK POWDER
Lentils (dried) 30 840G DRIED LENTILS
Split peas (dried) 40 1.2KG SPLIT PEAS
Noodles (dry) 50g 1.4KG NOODLES
Vegemite 2 1/4 JAR VEGEMITE
Fruit (dry) 35 1KG DRIED FRUIT
Almonds (raw) 40g 1.2KG ALMONDS
Mixed veggie (canned)* 300g 21 TINS OF MIX VEG
COST (APPROX) 50c

(adapted from Haug et al. 2007) *You could swap the 400g can of mixed veg for a multivitamin tablet to save space and $

Image 2 Visual Representations of Table 1.0

Further Reading

Dept. Agriculture, Fisheries and forestry 2012. Resilience of the Australian Food Supply Chain. https://www.agriculture.gov.au/ag-farm-food/food/food-chain-resilience

Queensland Government. Emergency Pantry List. Online:  https://www.livingstone.qld.gov.au/DocumentCenter/Home/View/4202

Anna Haug, Jennie C Brand-Miller, Olav A Christophersen, Jennifer McArthur, Flavia Fayet and Stewart Truswell Med J Aust, 2007; A food “lifeboat”: food and nutrition considerations in the event of a pandemic or other catastrophe. Online: https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2007/187/11/food-lifeboat-food-and-nutrition-considerations-event-pandemic-or-other

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