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How to shop safely and sustainably for groceries during lockdown

by | May 11, 2020

Grocery shopping has changed fundamentally since COVID-19 took over the world. What once was a banal chore has turned into an activity resembling a special ops mission armed with a burning question: ‘What about COVID-19 and our food?’

Scientists say transmission from food is unlikely but not impossible. Multiple sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) currently indicate the risk of transmission from food or surfaces is low. 

According to a statement issued by the Commissioner of Food and Drugs at the US Food and Drug Association (FDA), Stephen Hahn, “We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”

Maia Lesosky, Head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the School of Public Health & Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town shares some information that you can take along the next time you do your weekly, sustainable grocery run.

Is it okay to use a reusable shopping bag?

Try not to go back to plastic for fear of infection or contamination from reusable bags. Treat your cloth bags like you would your masks.

Maia recommends “washing them [reusable bags] regularly and handling carefully to avoid cross-contamination of surfaces, plus washing your hands well with soap and water after use.”

Should we wear gloves when grocery shopping?

Masks in public will be obligatory. But what about gloves?

Given the limited supply of personal protective equipment, and the fact that health care professionals need this equipment, Maia says, “we absolutely should not be wearing medical supplies – gloves or masks – to carry out routine and low risk activities such as shopping. I don’t see any harm in wearing non-medical gloves, but it is important to remember that these are only useful if people can avoid touching their face with them, put them on and take them off without cross-contamination and ensure they are washed and ironed regularly. Individuals should still wash their hands regularly with soap and water and maintain physical distancing.”

We know the Coronavirus can last on surfaces for several days. Does this apply to food stuffs and packaging? 

According to Maia, “in general yes. As far as I know, only common surfaces have been formally evaluated and so it is fair to assume that the virus may survive on most surfaces for a few days.”

Should we sanitise groceries once at home?

You may have been struck by the number of people who have potentially rummaged through the crates of fruit and veg before you. Is sanitising our products advisable?

Maia says: “​If an individual was very concerned and could plan their shopping ahead of time, they could set aside non-perishables for a few days in a ‘quarantine shelf’ before using them. I would not recommend washing fruit or vegetables with soap or sanitiser as neither of those substances are meant to be ingested and some contents could be toxic. Otherwise I would just recommend normal food safety practices such as washing hands well with soap and water before and after preparing food, and cleaning food preparation surfaces regularly.”

While Maia advises caution when sanitising fruits and veg as disinfectant is not meant for ingesting, NUDE FOODS has a safer alternative and is recommending that people soak their fresh produce in some water with eco-friendly, chemical free dishwashing liquid or any feed safe bio friendly equivalent, and then rinse them really well.

Is it safer for groceries to be delivered, even though there are still people involved in this process?

Maia says that social distancing and self-restriction of movement is probably best practice until further notice. But, if you have to make a trip to the shop, try to limit your trips and order online instead.

“Getting groceries delivered means that you are less likely to interact with other individuals in close proximity, for example the cashier, security guard or staff member standing at the door, and so there may be an overall reduction in risk – although daily grocery deliveries are probably worse than once per week shopping trips. If everyone in a shop is carefully observing physical distancing (so staying at least 1.5 metres apart at all times) and people in the community are remaining home and isolated if they have any symptoms there may not be any difference in risk,” she says.

Is it ethical to order deliveries? Are we not just asking other people to shoulder our risk?

Food delivery may very well be the safer option but there are a few things to be considered on this point too.

Maia says: “In South Africa, where most grocery retailers simply have staff walk through the store and collect items to prepare an order for delivery, you could certainly make the argument that you are shifting the risk to someone else. In places where the grocery orders are filled from non-retail warehouses, it is likely that overall risk is lower because fewer individuals will have handled or come close enough to the producers to cough or sneeze on them.”

We spoke to small local businesses keeping us nourished about the measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect their staff and customers. 


Apart from practicing social distancing, plastic-free grocer, NUDE FOODS in Cape Town has reduced its team to key personnel only. Staff members wear masks and wash their hands regularly. Customers’ hands as well as shopping carts, dispenser handles, and scoop handles are sanitised regularly throughout the day. NUDE FOODS also has a professional virucidal disinfection service visit the store weekly to deep clean and disinfect the shop.  NUDE FOODS offers curbside pickup and home delivery. They use new boxes, and ensure that packers have sanitised their hands and wear masks. The plastic-free grocer also ensures that any produce and goods they receive are from COVID-19 responsible suppliers.

“Many have shared that they prefer shopping at NUDE FOODS versus a mainstream retailer, as there are fewer people around, and the mood is calm and serene,” says founder and manager, Paul Rubin. 

  • Nudefoods are doing curbside pick-ups and home-deliveries (Cape Town). Call 021 437 3003


At their fulfilment centres, national delivery service UCOOK conducts daily temperature checks and sends anyone who shows signs of fever, home encouraging them to get tested for COVID-19 if they suspect any form of sickness. UCOOK also sends frequent reminders to their workforce of their paid time off policy, encouraging warehouse staff not to worry about the financial implications if they are ill. Frequent, routine sanitation and cleaning of all surface areas after the completion of each production phase, as well as hand washing at the start and finish of every operational process.

UCOOK continues to deliver fresh meals to your door every week. They have however temporarily discontinued reusing boxes and their drivers are not accepting any box returns. UCOOK also encourages ‘non-contact deliveries’ where drivers ask customers if they can leave parcels at the door, floor, lobby or table, signing on behalf of the customer upon delivery.

If you are working from home or a different address, you can change your details on the Delivery tab in your account. You can also add special instructions, such as “Leave the box at reception” or “Contact me when my box arrives so I can collect it from my front door.”

  • UCOOK delivers all the ingredients you need to make one of their 12 weekly recipes. Call 021 447 4424 (from 9am – 6pm). (Nationwide)

Shop Zero

Shop Zero in Woodstock only allows three customers in at a time and has reduced opening hours Mondays through Saturdays from 12:00 until 16:00. They also deliver nationwide. Tables serve as markers for social distancing, and they have also implemented a temporary policy which ensures surfaces and products are not handled by customers. Instead, you are asked to take a seat and relax while a Shop Zero staff member fills up your containers.

  • ShopZero is doing deliveries of their dry goods and other essentials nationwide. Call 084 201 5652

Image credits: Supplied

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