By Meredith Edelman
Social distancing. Remote conferencing. School closures. Toilet paper shortages. Tom Hanks. Amidst the widespread panic and fear surrounding COVID-19, the way that we perform basic tasks has abruptly changed, for the foreseeable future. The barrage of information surrounding the virus, from both not-so-factual and evidence-based sources, can be overwhelming. It is difficult to sort through the noise, and create a clear plan of action, whether that plan is for getting take-out from a restaurant or how to supplement lost wages. While retreating into our individual hobbit-holes may sound ideal right now, the immediacy of fulfilling our basic need for food will inevitably force us to Purell-up and brave the nearest Harris Teeter or Chipotle parking lot. The issue of how and where and what to eat to avoid increased risk of infection is of pressing concern to many Americans. Based on the most current CDC information, it is unlikely that COVID-19 can be spread through food. However, more investigation is needed, and the evidence base on the novel coronavirus is growing daily. The tips presented below represent current evidence and national guidelines to stay safe around food purchasing, preparation, and eating.
Cooking at Home
In addition to normal food safety practices, frequent and complete handwashing is crucial to “flattening the curve.” While the disease is unlikely to be spread through food, washing produce at home is a good practice to avoid foodborne illness, even when there is not an infectious disease outbreak. However, the World Health Organization reports preliminarily that coronaviruses may survive on surfaces for several hours to days. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there are simple steps you can take to be safe when cooking at home. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and clean water for a minimum of 20 seconds (or two happy birthdays) before food prep or eating, as well as after being out in public, coughing, sneezing, or touching your face. Other ways to protect yourself and others include cleaning and disinfecting cooking surfaces and countertops regularly.
When planning a grocery trip, limiting the number of trips and the time spent at the store is key, along with a little preparation. Wearing a cloth face mask is advised by the CDC for any trip out in public, and while it can seem daunting to make a mask from scratch, there are some easy and effective no-sew options. Be aware that many stores have changed or shortened hours, while some markets are offering a special shopping hour in the morning restricted to seniors. On April 13th, an executive order from North Carolina governor Roy Cooper went into effect, limiting stores’ occupancy to 20% of fire capacity (or 5 shoppers per 1,000 square feet of retail space). Most stores provide sanitizing wipes to disinfect cart handles, but consider bringing your own in case they run out. Use the same hygiene practices as you would elsewhere, including washing your hands before and after shopping and avoiding touching your face. Consider storing your phone somewhere you are unlikely to reach for it without thinking.
Take Out and Delivery
If you are anything like me, you are starting to tire of the same five dishes that you know how to make with pantry staples. Should we still be getting food from restaurants? That is an individual decision, as there are many factors to consider, including the health of delivery drivers, food safety, and the environmental strain on small businesses. While food is not considered a carrier of the virus, a study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 (similar to other coronaviruses) could be detected on plastics, cardboard, and other materials for hours (and days) after application. With our focus on the packaging and transport, good practices include removing the food from the provided containers (with gloves if desired) and re-plating them on clean dishes. Immediately recycle or throw away used containers, clean all surfaces touched by the packaging, and wash your hands before you sit down to eat.
At this time, little to no research supports supplementation or nutritional interventions as effective in reducing your risk of contracting the virus. Overdoing vitamin C tablets will be unlikely to affect anything other than your wallet. However, maintaining a nutritious diet and regular physical activity will maintain function of your overall immunity, which can help you stay healthy. If you choose to drink alcohol, practice moderation with your intake of “quarantinis.” Excessive alcohol consumption can suppress your immune response, which can result in increased susceptibility to pneumonia.
- ServSafe Coronavirus Resources: provides food service information and resources.
- National Restaurant Association: Restaurant Employee Relief Fund created to help restaurant industry employees experiencing hardship due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- State by state guidelines on food service restrictions.
- Food Research and Action Center: provides updates to federal nutrition programs.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: lots of tips for shopping, groceries, and meals at home.
- Feeding America: information on the impact of COVID-19 on national food insecurity.
- Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina: resources and information on precautions and response by local NC food bank.
Peer Edited by Jeffrey Letourneau