As the threat of coronavirus took hold in our collective psyche in early March, Nevada retailers saw a month and a half’s worth of inventory fly off the shelves in just three days, according to the Retail Association of Nevada. And while grocery stores report a drop in the number of “panic buyers” over the last half of March, it still behooves the greater good to remind anyone shopping that purchasing more than you need isn’t just unnecessary and comical. It can be irresponsible and hurt the poorest people in our community.
Especially this week.
That’s because the beginning of the month is when people receive their monthly allotments from the food assistance programs known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). Approximately 400,000 Nevadans benefit from these programs, often referred to as “food stamps.” For many of them, hoarding a stockpile of food meant to last weeks or months simply isn’t possible. They need stocked shelves.
A handful of states distribute benefits to all recipients on the first of each month.
Nevada is luckily not one of them.
Here, SNAP distribution is spread out over the first 10 days of each month. People receive their benefits on the date that matches the last number of their birth year. For example: Someone born in 1976 receives their benefits on the 6th.
That distribution change went into effect last summer. It was designed to reduce strains felt on grocery stores and food pantries. Grocery stores typically see a spike in shopping at the beginning of the month because many SNAP recipients use their benefits immediately. Food pantries typically see a spike at the end of the month because some SNAP recipients find themselves in need of additional assistance.
While the change wasn’t made with a pandemic in mind, Bryan Wachter of the Retail Association of Nevada says it benefits the state in its current public health crisis — and not just because it spreads out demand on the grocery stores he advocates for.
“Social distancing,” he said. “It’ll be nice if we don’t have 100 percent of those beneficiaries going to the stores all at once.”
Wachter says local grocery stores have been quietly preparing for SNAP shoppers and they expect no disruptions or shortages beyond things like hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and other specific products that are already difficult to find.
“We are not out of products or supplies in any sense,” he says, emphasizing that panic buying is unnecessary. “The supply chain has a few kinks in it. We’ve been that way. We’re not concerned but this is something on our mind and on our members’ minds.”
That said, there are some things Wachter says non-SNAP shoppers can do to help ensure that low-income Nevadans have access to the food they need to feed themselves and their families.
Don’t shop unless you have to. Work with what you have in your kitchen already. Consider coordinating with a neighbor to have one person shop for two households. That will allow for better social distancing for shoppers who may not have a choice but to shop this week or next. “We shouldn’t be making daily trips to the store,” adds Wachter.
Buy non-WIC products. WIC is an especially rigid program. Recipients are restricted to certain brands and products on pre-approved lists and substitutions often aren’t allowed. That’s why most grocers include a “WIC approved” label on shelves. “If you’re not particularly picky and you’re flexible on brand of product, maybe choose something not-approved by WIC,” says Wachter. That will ensure WIC recipients whose shopping isn’t as flexible have options.
Adhere to product limits set by stores. Many grocery stores have put restrictions on high-demand items like eggs and baby formula. Doing so is the only way retailers can ensure there are enough of those items left for people who cannot afford to buy in bulk. Don’t try to skirt those restrictions.
Don’t panic buy. Wachter stresses that consumers should have confidence in the supply chain, which he says has risen to the occasion. “If there’s disruption, they are due to demand but not supply,” he says. Wachter suggests going to the grocery store armed with a list of things you need. That can help curb the impulse to grab other items that you may not truly need but feel compelled to grab when you see others buying them.
Wachter describes what occurred at the beginning of March as “Christmas-level shopping patterns.” He says retailers typically start preparing for Christmas in August. In the wake of increased COVID-19 shopping, retailers have responded quickly to restock many goods that initially ran out, and to convince the public to trust the supply chain.
Meanwhile, Nevada WIC has attempted to ease anxious women who are set to receive benefits this week. An update on their website reads: “We understand the worry families utilizing WIC benefits feel and want to assure our participants, we are in contact with our infant formula suppliers who have assured us they have plentiful inventory and have ramped up production. Additionally, we are working with retail partners to prepare for April 1, when we know many families will be shopping.”