With social distancing the new norm to halt the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, access to food and household products is top of mind for millions of Americans who are shuttered in their homes. People overbuying and hoarding items, such as toilet paper, have only heightened concerns.

While manufacturers and distributors are making behind-the-scene adjustments to meet demand, rural grocery stores have proven to be a haven for many big city shoppers.

“We’re seeing people in the store from well outside our normal area, even out of state,” said Adams County Farmers Union director Libby Gravning, who works part-time at Kennedy’s Fresh Foods on Main Street in Hettinger. “At the very beginning, we had limits on bread, milk, eggs and meat for a while.”

Yeast is now a hot-ticket item, which the store hasn’t been able to stock in several weeks, Gravning said, especially with people making their own bread and school assignments focused on bread making, too.

John “Jiggs” Dyste of the North Dakota Grocers Association said there was no way for manufacturers to forecast the sudden demand in specific products given consumer overbuying, but adjustments are being made to ensure everyone has essential products. One adjustment is the cut back in product varieties, so store shelves may appear thin.

“The classic example is Bush’s baked beans that have 15 varieties. They’re only manufacturing their four best sellers, just to get product out there as fast as they can,” Dyste said. Warehouses are also allocating products in equal ratios. “A larger box store might get 10 cases of something when they want 20 and the local grocery store maybe wants four and gets two. The supply line is getting better, they’re ramping up and changing how they’re doing things. You may not get the variety but your gonna get most everything you need.”

To protect consumers and workers, stores have implemented a number of safety features including tape on the floor to show six-foot distancing guidelines and arrows directing one-way traffic flow. “We’ve requested families send only one member per trip, if at all possible, and make the trip expedient and not a social outing. Make it a weekly trip instead of an every-meal trip,” said Gravning.

Dyste agrees, “This is not something we normally would say in the grocery business, ‘Get in, get your stuff and get out,’” said Dyste, “but it’s safer for you and safer for employees.”

He also encouraged everyone to wear masks and realize that wait times for online shopping or deliveries may be several days. “Our employees and store managers are doing everything they can to get product. Some items are out, but the gal at the check stand can’t do anything about it so don’t take out your frustrations on her. Please be kind to one another.”

What the pandemic has shown, both Dyste and Gravning agree, is the importance of shopping locally. “We’ve been losing rural grocery stores at a pretty quick clip,” Dyste said. “This shows you the value of having a local grocery store, local hardware store, pharmacy. Think about how important those things are today.”

– NDFU Communications Director Pam Musland