woman in front of open refrigerator, writing shopping list

If you need some good news in these uncertain times, social distancing might be helping us fight climate change.  But while we hunker down at home, sustainability issues like food waste aren’t staying in a vacuum.

Since we don’t know how long telecommuting and staying home with our families will be a reality, you’ll naturally want to have food and supplies on hand. The problem is that fear of the coronavirus is leading many people to panic buy, resulting in empty shelves and more panic.

Experts say there is no need to hoard or stockpile food because the U.S. supply chain remains strong.

Empty rye bread shelves in Denmark
The supply chain remains strong, but that doesn’t stop panic buying in the U.S. or abroad, though what runs out differs by local. In this Denmark store, for example, the rye bread shelves were empty. Photo: Chloe’ Skye

While stockpiling is a natural reaction to fear, taking more than you need can hurt others as well as the environment. The large-scale overbuying of perishable foods in particular may worsen food waste when we already waste 30 to 40 percent of our food supply.

The best practices for stocking up? Have two weeks of food on hand and substitute ingredients where necessary.

Tips for Saving Money and Anxiety

Delivery and Takeout

We know that the virus is not transmitted through food when strong sanitary guidelines are in place. In light of the pandemic, restaurants are reassuring the public of their commitment to hygiene. Many now offer “no-contact delivery.”

  • First, weigh the benefits. This may not be the first time you’re pondering the environmental and other ethics of delivery. On one hand, it creates extra packaging and emissions from driving. On the other hand, delivery and takeout are supporting our burdened economy. These services are keeping food establishments and delivery services in business — and by extension, keeping workers employed. Delivery services also help keep the elderly and immunocompromised stocked and safe.
  • Consider how you can reduce the impact. Ask businesses to minimize packaging by forgoing unnecessary bags, condiments, and plastic cutlery. If you’re within walking distance, go for a healthy walk to pick up the food. Make sure to eat ready-made food before canned or frozen supplies.
  • Tip as generously as you can. It’s within your power to help others, even in small ways. As Neil Irwin at the New York Times puts it, “One person’s spending is another person’s income.”


  • Keep toilet paper alternatives in mind. Despite what empty shelves may suggest anecdotally, toilet paper is not an absolute necessity. Since supply chains should not be interrupted, there is no need to buy more than your family usually needs. Officials also don’t expect interruptions in water service, so if you’re brave of heart, take a note from those who use bidets and remember that your shower or bathtub is there in emergencies, no paper necessary.
  • Don’t stress about hand sanitizer. If it’s sold out in your local stores, don’t despair: Soap and warm water are more effective than hand sanitizer. Even better, soap is widely in stock. Mild bar soap wrapped in paper packaging is long-lasting, less wasteful, and does not transmit infection as there are no plastic surfaces for repeat contact.


  • Write a shopping list. This is always a good strategy to avoid impulse purchases. Now, in addition to helping you save money, a list reminds you to leave what you don’t need for others who do.
  • Contact local farmers. Here’s another way that you can help the economy. Farmers aren’t able to stop work, so patronize farmer stalls where they are still functioning or get in touch to ask about bulk deliveries for your family and neighbors.
  • Don’t buy what you don’t already use. A pandemic planner recommends against buying food you don’t actually like, fancy cleaning supplies, and air filters.
  • Ditch bottled water. Bottled water contributes massive amounts of unnecessary plastic to the waste stream. If you have water service and safe drinking water, coronavirus should not affect your service. If you are concerned about your water quality, learn about home water filtration.
  • Buy ugly and/or hardy produce. Misshapen carrots or apples with mild blemishes that don’t affect the taste are still safe to eat. If you’re buying fresh, now’s a better time than ever to show them some love. You can also reduce potential food waste by buying hardy, immunity-building ingredients like lemon and ginger.

Maximize What You Have

  • Audit your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Ask yourself, “What can I use now?” It’s a great time to implement a “Eat Me First” shelf in your fridge that’s in your line of sight. It will help you assess what you have before stocking up and reduce waste in one go. Make sure you put leftover takeout food here, and don’t forget to check the back of the produce drawer.
  • Cook based on the ingredients you already have. Try it at SuperCook. You now have an excuse to raid your own pantry. Use that leftover pumpkin purée or jar of applesauce as an excuse to make bread or pie and sweeten social distancing.
  • Cook recipes with five ingredients or fewer. Try Bon Appetit or BBC Good Food for starters. Low ingredient and one-pot meals keep things simple and allow for freezing in large batches.
  • Have a little fun. The New York Times reminds us that “Self-imposed isolation doesn’t require you to forgo good food or good wine.”

Though we’re facing an unprecedented period of social distancing, we are still all in this together. While we can’t yet know the total economic impacts of the pandemic, there are conscious choices we can make to reduce the environmental impacts. And when you do leave your home, don’t forget to thank the medical, food service, pharmacy staff, and others who are doing the important work to keep us safe and healthy!

By Chloe Skye

Chloé Skye is an avid traveler from NYC and based in Denmark. She writes about food waste, coffee culture, sustainability innovation, and circular solutions. See more of her writing here.