‘We will get what we can’ from the shelves
Seeing empty shelves while picking up medicine at Walmart made Cheyenne Yazzie’s stomach drop.
“I thought to myself, while we are here, we will get what we can,” said Yazzie, Diné. “There were only a few items left. I ended up getting what they had in stock and this meant buying things we normally wouldn’t get like a different brand laundry detergent and even tofu.”
“It makes me wish I grabbed more things the last time I was here,” she said regarding the shortages. “I have five grocery stores in my area, two which are close,” she said. Close being within two miles of her in Tucson, Arizona.
To get the things she needs, she has to wake up at five in the morning to be there in line at 6 a.m. to get baby food, milk, vegetables and other products.
“I rely on fatty foods for breastfeeding,” she said. “Things like yogurt and cheese, I get for easy-to-grab snacks.” Yazzie is one of the hundreds of thousands of mothers in Arizona who depend on the food prescribed to her through the WIC program.
While many people stock up for social distancing, many shelves are left empty impacting people with limited access to groceries and household necessities. Many stores are hit with shortages with items like eggs, milk, water and toilet paper.
Shelf shortages and limited availability impact families on the WIC program. Families on the program can’t find their WIC prescribed food items in stores and supermarkets due to ongoing shortages, said Nicole Vaudrin, WIC supervisor and registered dietitian.
“There is really just limited availability and variety right now,” Vaudrin said.
WIC is a program that provides families with a monthly subscription of nutritious foods tailored to supplement their dietary needs to ensure good health, growth and development. The program is run by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service and focuses on serving low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, as well as infants and children.
“It's completely understandable to want to try to come up with two weeks worth of stock to get shelf-stable foods such as rice and beans,” Vaudrin said. “Keep in mind that there are families that can not buy large amounts of food at once and with WIC, our benefits are only available for a month and they don’t roll over.”
Stores across the country are being restocked nearly overnight, but some stores have not seen full shelves in weeks.
WIC in Alaska asks people to “reconsider” buying WIC labeled foods because people with prescriptions to those food items cannot substitute.
Grocery stores that are supplied with WIC approved foods and baby formula are facing shortages as well, said Henry Haskie, Navajo Nation state WIC director. Some stores are even taking WIC items off the shelf to preserve them for WIC recipients, he said.
While WIC clinics around the country are facing inquiries on shortages, they are also reaching out on social media to debunk COVID-19 myths going viral.
In Missoula, Montana, they are telling mothers not to believe everything they see on social media. “You may have seen on social media that if your local store is out of infant formula due to COVID-19 “panic purchasing,” you can call the formula company directly and they will send you free formula, Missoula WIC said in a post. “This is not true.”
They continued to say, “Good news: Infant formula manufacturers have increased production and are working with both stores and WIC to ensure there is enough infant formula for everyone who needs it.”
Keifer Pate, Chippewa Cree, shared his shopping trip experience on Facebook. The post titled, “2020 what a year for our children.” The photo shows his child in a cart amongst empty shelves in the grocery store.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Native Health WIC serves about 1,500 clients and about 76 percent of them are Native, Vaudrin explained.
The agency receives notifications from grocery stores and suppliers working hard to keep the shelves packed. Vaudrin said they’ve even received word from the formula companies saying they have enough formula. They just need to get it onto the shelves.
Wyoming urges clients to reach out if they have any questions as they too have to debunk viral posts going around. “Wyoming WIC is NOT cancelling WIC cards or sending out emergency cards due to COVID-19,” the post stated. “Wyoming WIC is working with participants to reload benefits on their current WIC card.”
According to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, all WIC appointments will be done via phone call and “there are now changes to your family’s ‘Benefits Valid Through’ date.”
Due to these shortages, grocery stores including Walmart, Bashas, Frys and others have changed their hours of operations while some have established a time for shoppers 60 and older to shop. Many states including California, New York, Washington and Arizona have activated National Guard troops to help stock shelves.
Governments and communities across the country are coming forth to help those in need with donations of food and other essentials while advocating social distancing.
President Donald J. Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18. The bill provides $500 million to the WIC program and $400 million to local food banks to assist low-income individuals.
In Alaska, the state shut down ferry services for the winter months impacting multiple villages.
After hearing about the pandemic, Alaskans began to stock up but with limited supplies already, shelves became sparse.
Governor Mike Dunleavy explained in a press conference his concerns saying it is going to get bad before it gets good.
“We have folks that are clearing off the shelves in grocery stores, are hoarding things, thinking that you know things are gonna shut down for some time. On the other hand, we have folks that are acting like nothing’s going on, like there's no issue, there's no problem. It’s really the middle ground we are looking for," Dunleavy said. "We shouldn't be afraid. But we also should be concerned, and we should change our behavior.
“It will help slow this virus down, and in the end, it will help save lives,” he said.
Casinos and resorts in Arizona are donating excess goods to charities and those who need food.
Pechanga Resort Casino announced that they were able to donate $100,000 worth of food to local charities including the Mission of Hope, Project T.O.U.C.H. and the Murrieta pantry.
“Grocery stores haven’t had excess product to donate, so Pechanga is stepping up with support despite being closed,” the casino said in a Facebook post. The food donation will help those who have lost their jobs and who aren’t able to access basic necessities.
Angel of the Winds Casino Resort in Arlington, Washington, also donated their inventory from dining venues to their team members and local food banks.
Since the outbreak, the Navajo Nation has been sharing encouraging messages both on social media and in person regarding social distancing and grocery shopping.
“I know there is maybe some panic and some concern out there, people are going to the supermarkets and stocking up, let me just say to the Navajo people and our friends here living in the Navajo Nation, let’s be careful, let's not clean out all the shelves,” said President of the Navajo Nation Jonathan Nez.
What we have heard is there is a constriction in the supply chain that is out there, so we are seeing shelves that are clearing out or running low, explained Vice President of the Navajo Nation Myron Lizer.
Buy sparingly and don’t feed into the frenzy that’s out there, especially with things like paper products and water, but also be thoughtful and mindful of elders and those that aren’t able to come to the local supermarkets often. So if we shop sparingly, there will be some more out there on the shelves for others to buy, he said.
“Through prayer, through diligence, and through caring we can do this unscathed,” Lizer said.
Quindrea Yazzie, Navajo, is a digital reporter at Indian Country Today’s Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @quindreayazzie or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org