When the tech fails and the grocery stores are empty

News & Politics

I was wrapping bagels in BPA-free plastic wrap — first separating the halves, as I had learned to do on YouTube — and stacking them in BPA-free freezer bags when I paused to consider my weird situation.

My husband and I were white-collar professionals enjoying a modest but comfortable life in California. My kids went to “good” schools and had their own phones and Nintendo Switches. Yet, here I was, stationed at the paint-spattered workbench in my garage, prepping for a future in which the region’s grocery stores ran out of bread.

This seemed like a real possibility to me, born of experience: During the spring of 2020, the supermarket shelves were picked clean of toilet paper, paper towels, and many cleaning and medical supplies. Over the summer, as a baking obsession gripped housebound adults, there was no white flour or sugar to be had. A sign went up among the eggs: limit one dozen per customer. Everyone shuffled through the cavernous store, masked, like space explorers on some horrible new planet: an anxious, miserable world whose faceless inhabitants had never mastered supply-chain logistics.

Where was the old American world of cheerful abundance? Where were the shelves stacked deep with Charmin, Sparkle, Brawny, King Arthur, Domino, and Gold Medal? All of it vanished like a dream, only to come back mostly, gradually, and, above all, unreliably. The bedrock assumption of the middle-class American mother — that she could walk into a grocery store and purchase supplies for her family — was deeply shaken in 2020. Now, four years after “two weeks to flatten the curve,” supermarket shelves are noticeably emptier than they were pre-pandemic. Even as masks come off, the nation’s moms are starting to realize that “normal” life is never coming back. And none of us know what’s coming next.


Hedging against a breadless winter in ‘22-’23, I was deep-freezing the most nutritious bagels I could find. Made by an ex-felon named Dave who reinvented himself as a health bread mogul, each bagel boasted 11 grams of protein and five “super grains.” I imagined my kids’ eyes widening with delight as I extracted them from the toaster in January — surprise! — when all their friends with lesser mothers had not eaten bread for weeks.

“In this house,” I’d say in a twinkly voice, like a brunette June Cleaver, “we plan ahead for food shortages, bread lines, and the inevitable meltdown of the American economy. Cream cheese?”

Was I losing it? As I wrapped bagels, this unanswerable question vexed my mind. I was trying to override normalcy bias: the lazy notion that the future would be fine, same old, same old. But had I gone too far in the other direction? The previous month, I’d ordered a “Breakfast and Dinner Variety Pail” of freeze-dried foods; now the four-gallon tub hulked in the garage next to what my husband called the “beer fridge” but I was starting to regard as the “survival fridge.” When pasta went on sale, I purchased extra boxes of penne, spaghetti, and elbow macaroni, which now sat on the garage workbench as if stupefied to be there.

I wasn’t a serious prepper, just a Johnny-come-lately dabbler in the prepping arts. In the event of a NorCal Holodomor, we would last about five days. Then I would send my husband to Raley’s to vie for Cheerios, or whatever was left, and good luck to him. We could barter on the black market if we needed milk or cheese. I didn’t know! Was this idea even funny? I could no longer distinguish comic exaggeration from credible future scenarios!

Things, anyway, seemed to be going south. Grocery shopping became only slightly less unsettling than at the beginning of COVID, when few remote-working mothers ventured to the store at all (given the option of home delivery, this was viewed as almost criminally reckless) and nervously mopped down their purchases with bleach wipes, which soon vanished from the aisles, along with digital thermometers.

Those of us brave or foolhardy enough to keep showing up in person had a front-row seat to the alarming state of American commerce. Middle-aged women who’d handled the family’s purchasing for decades had never seen so many bare shelves, with arrows on the floor telling us where to walk and signs urging us to behave ourselves, as if we were in preschool. A civic backdrop of constantly changing state and local mandates reminded us that we were lucky to be allowed in stores at all.

In 2022, Americans were back to shopping in person, but the experience was not what it had been in 2019. Due to chronic staffing problems and a new $15 minimum wage, our local supermarket had installed a row of self-checkout kiosks manned by robotic scolds instead of human beings. Shoppers now scanned and bagged their own groceries while a lone clerk hovered nearby to troubleshoot the robots, which were hypersensitive and surly. At any given time, in a commercial hub the size of a football field, only one or two checkout aisles were open. Lines for these person-manned (person-personned?) aisles were punishingly long.

Self-checkout bummed me out, though I was not against manual labor, per se. I just wanted to do it at home, on housework breaks from my own job. Scanning groceries at someone else’s job, while they stood by and watched, was new. Also, I was terrible at bagging and could not tell a D’Anjou from a Bartlett, a Fuji from a Pink Lady: all produce-section inside baseball I was expected to key in. And I missed the social pleasantries of the checkout line, the civilized nicety of three minutes of customer service.

Worst of all, there was no human shield to distract me from the cost of food in 2022. Every barcode I scanned displayed a shocking price on the kiosk’s screen amid the robot’s yelps to place all items in the bagging area. (Obviously, it was accusing me of stealing. I was being profiled, humanly profiled, by some cyber-supremacist version of “Wall-E.”) Why did everything cost so much?

By April, food prices were so outrageous that I was talking down the value of the dollar to my kids. If they wanted money for a video game or acoustic guitar, I reacted as if they had their sights set on a five-cent gumball. “That’s like, three days worth of groceries,” I’d say. “Soap, peanut butter, mayonnaise, maybe a small plant if I’m lucky. Not a big number to me at this point. If you can buy something meaningful with it, great. Go for it, I say!”

In fact, the skyrocketing price of meat had me rattled. Over the years, I’d grown increasingly pro-meat, bucking the vegetarian or vegan trend in California. In my considered view, high-quality meat was optimal for growing teens. As beef, chicken, and bacon became up to 20% more expensive, I stubbornly stuck to my guns.

But if things got much worse, our family’s diet, which was working just fine for us, would have to change. “How about some delicious beans?” would not go over well in our house. If that day came, the kids would know we were too poor for real food.

Here was an alternative reason to freeze in bulk: Even if groceries were in stock six months from now, rising inflation meant that we might not be able to afford them. All over the internet, seemingly in-the-know Americans were urging people to find a local farmer, buy a butchered whole cow from him, and freeze 450 pounds of beef to cook up later, when things got real bad. Other suggestions included starting a vegetable garden and raising chickens. I could not fault these ideas in theory; they simply bore no known relation to my life. I was not Ma Ingalls but a symbolic analyst whose cooking relied on typing the word “easy” into DuckDuckGo. I could handle packaged cuts of meat, but the presence of a $2,500 bovine jigsaw puzzle in the garage would stress me out: I would be in over my head.

“Have some delicious beans!”

“But don’t we have, like, a whole cow in the —”

I’m doing my best!


Meanwhile, a susurrus of voices was growing ever louder: Maybe it was a good thing families were struggling to buy meat … and gas! Hadn’t we wrecked the planet enough? Killed enough innocent animals? Yet in 2022, we were still selfishly feeding and transporting our viral vectors — er, carbon footprints — er, kids. American parents were bad people who had to be reined in! Our boorish lifestyles of driving around, eating hamburgers, and listening to the radio — yes, radio! — was so 20th century, so privileged, so irresponsible, so over. The future we deserved was riding bikes while chewing dandelion stems and crying.

This recent phenomenon — the en-selfishing of normal American life — worried me more than missing a few tacos. After 2020, I knew social conditioning was serious business.

Four springs ago, a curtain of insanity fell over California, trapping 40 million people in a fever dream of clinical hysteria. Suddenly, walking through the park with one’s face uncovered was selfish. Going to the beach was selfish. Visiting relatives was selfish. Meekly voicing a wish to see your children back in school: so selfish. The governor seized emergency powers so that all such selfish behaviors could be punished by the state, and he retains them to this day. Over in Shanghai, it was considered selfish to leave one’s apartment — so selfish that leaving was simply not allowed!

Looking ahead, it was easy to see how things we now took for granted — eating red meat, owning a car, being able to paint a wall without first checking in with BlackRock Inc. — would become tomorrow’s despicable pursuits. Even if technically possible in the all-but-unimaginable year of 2030, such activities would be widely condemned and their remaining, furtive practitioners shamed.

Sometimes, I wondered if the kids would one day view our 2022 lifestyle — with a white stucco house and an eight-year-old Honda in the driveway — as a high watermark of luxury, a prelapsarian paradise, like Nabokov remembering his aristocratic Russian childhood in the 1910s.

Reasonable, educated people were now openly admitting that, for American kids, the future did not look super great. When not swapping canning tips or nuclear bomb shelter blueprints, many Americans were expressing pity for their children or grandchildren. On Easter Sunday, a relative and I chatted — calmly, reasonably — about the suddenly attractive option of leaving the country. Why hang around when you could work remotely from Costa Rica? Or wangle EU citizenship and watch it all burn from an ocean away, over wine and cheese?

But I did not want to advise my kids to move to Costa Rica. I preferred them to remain here, in the land of their birth, where citizenship was, until recently, viewed as a lucky break. Specifically, I explained, I hoped to see my adult daughter living in a “fortified compound with armed lookouts in every tower. And a big vegetable garden. And a cow.”

As these words left my lips, I realized I was describing a medieval castle. Yes! Exactly!

Well, we would see. It was impossible to know what form the dread future would take. All I knew was that we were 12 bagels better off than yesterday, with enough freeze-dried stroganoff to gather our wits when the s**t hit the fan.

The freezer bags were BPA-free, also.

Sharpie in hand, I labeled the sealed bags with the date: 4/19/22. Throughout 2020 and 2021, people had wistfully referred to the “Before Times”: a vanished era when life was relatively pleasant and carefree. The last month of the Before Times was February 2020, though, at the time, we had no idea that something was ending.

In April 2022, we were invited to believe that we were in the After Times, but for some reason, writing the date on a freezer bag seemed ominous. It felt like a second Before Times: a tiny pause before the next crisis engulfed us, a mere hiccup between the national disasters we could now expect.

A small voice whispered in my ear: You’re going to need a bigger freezer.

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