Lockdown! And the rush to stock up goes on

Spending spree: Consumers have squirrelled away £1 billion worth of food in three weeks. © AP

What’s so wrong with stockpiling? People facing an unprecedented lockdown are being called “selfish” and “shameful”, but humans have always stored up food to get through difficult times.

Over the past 48 hours, supermarkets heaved with families clearing shelves and filling trolleys, hunting for the last loo roll and tin of baked beans. Shops have now set limits on the number of popular items you can buy and some have argued full rationing may be necessary.

On Saturday, the government, the NHS, and supermarkets joined forces to plead with shoppers to “think of others” and shop responsibly. A video went viral of a nurse unable to buy fresh food at the end of her shift, and people have taken to social media to attack panic-buying as stupid and irrational.

But hoarding food is older than civilisation itself and a normal response to danger and difficult times. Everyone knows that squirrels bury nuts for the winter, but this kind of foresight is everywhere in the natural world. Moles stash worms in their tunnels, beavers build larders to store fish, and ants dry and preserve food in their nests.

And humans have turned food preservation into an art form.

To survive long dark winters, our ancestors developed sophisticated ways of making hundreds of varieties of cheese, drying and salting meat and fish, pickling vegetables, and making jam. Stockpiling was a serious business and pre-modern societies often faced famine as a result of failed harvests. In 1317, the Great Famine killed as much at 25% of the urban population of Europe.

Fear of starvation has made us a hoarding species. The modern inventions of tin cans, refrigeration, and additives have given us food security, allowing us to store more food for longer. These new ways of hoarding supplies became vital during World War Two – the last time western countries experienced severe food shortages. Even then, rationing was brought in to ensure food was fairly distributed.

In the post-war period, we have become used to convenience food, never more than a short walk from our next meal.

Fast food restaurants and local supermarkets have turned us into grazers instead of hoarders. But we may have become too complacent and too reliant on plentiful food. Experts warn that new challenges like coronavirus and climate crisis may bring an end to the years of plenty and a return to our hoarding ways.

So, what’s so wrong with stockpiling?

Horrible hoarders

It’s selfish and stupid, say some. Selfish because it takes food away from people who need it, including doctors and nurses working long hours. Stupid because we do not live in an age of famine and real food shortages. We do not need the extra food in our cupboards, but by stockpiling we make other people’s lives more difficult, create temporary shortages, and let other people go hungry.

Others say it is only natural. In times of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty, we make sure we have the essentials: our friends and family, plenty of food, and a roof over our heads. A well-stocked kitchen makes us feel happier and more secure. And when so much is beyond our control, filling the cupboards is something we can do to feel prepared for whatever is to come.

You Decide

  1. How much food does one family need to store in their house?
  2. If there’s no food in the supermarket, who do we blame?

Activities

  1. Get some paper and a pen and make yourself a clipboard. Now, make a food inventory of your house. Try to list everything there is to eat. Consulting an available adult, work out how many days it could comfortably last.
  2. Now, pick your favourite item from the list. Decide what it is mainly made from. Sketch a map of the world and chart the progress of that ingredient from the place where it was probably grown… all the way to your plate. How many miles did it travel?

Some People Say...

“There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.”

Alfred Henry Lewis (1855-1914), American journalist and writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Shops make predictions of how much food they will sell – and they have to get these numbers just right. If they order too much food, they will run out of space and their food will spoil before it is bought. If they order too little food, they lose money and shoppers will go elsewhere. People are now stocking up on extra food, causing shortages in the shops. However, there is plenty of food in the supermarket warehouses.
What do we not know?
There is clearly a problem when people who need food cannot buy it in the shops. But people disagree about who to blame. There is a lot of anger directed at people buying more than they need, but how do we decide what is too much? Some argue that the blame lies with the government and the media for creating fear and panic. Others think it is the responsibility of shops to keep their shelves stocked.

Word Watch

Rationing
Government control over scarce resources.
Irrational
Behaviour that lacks reason or logic.
Foresight
The ability to know what will be needed in the future.
Famine
A widespread scarcity of food. Not all famines are caused by bad weather and crop failures. Most of the biggest famines of the 20th Century were caused by war and government policies.
Hoarding
Acquiring or saving lots of things regardless of their value.
Tin cans
Cans made of tin, steel and aluminium revolutionised food storage by protecting food from the harmful effects of heat, light, and contamination.
Additives
Salt has been used for thousands of years as a preservative. More recently, food technicians have developed hundreds of chemicals to preserve the life and quality of food.
Food security
Reliable access to food without fear of going hungry.
Post-war period
1945 to the present day.
Grazers
To behave like sheep or cattle, eating little and often.
Complacent
Self-satisfied and unaware of danger and risk.

Subjects

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