I would like to tell you that I’m settling into a new normal during this pandemic, but that would be a big fat lie. I am scared, overwhelmed, sad… I am grieving. I and so many other parents are trying to figure out how to balance our kids’ emotions and our own while trying to work and homeschool our kids. Each day is a long week, and at the end of a long week all I want to do is order dinner from our favorite local pizza or taco place.
But my state of Vermont and many others are ordering people to stay at home. People are starting to rely on food being delivered or available for curbside pick-up. But is this safe? Should I pick up takeout, or even the free meals offered through local restaurants and school programs? The answer is yes. Here’s why it is safe—and necessary—to keep indulging in comfort food from local restaurants.
COVID-19 is a virus that causes respiratory illness and is transmitted most effectively through airborne droplets passed from one person to another when an infected person sneezes or coughs into the air. While people can spread and contract the virus from a surface to themselves by touching it and then touching their mouth, nose, and eyes, that is not the main way it spreads. Here’s what you need to know about food and COVID-19.
The CDC, USDA, and FDA have not found evidence that COVID-19 lives on food. “Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission,” says the FDA website. Even if someone infected does cough or sneeze into your food (gross), ingesting respiratory viruses like COVID-19 will not make us sick the way inhaling the virus will. Respiratory viruses spread along the respiratory tract, not the digestive tract. Even if you eat that food by hand, say, fries or a burger, the virus has been diluted by packaging and your own touch, says Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist from North Carolina State University. You would then have to lick your fingers or pick your nose to even come close to transferring the virus. And honestly, you shouldn’t be doing that whether we are in the middle of a pandemic or not.
There is no evidence that says our food is not safe.
Your Food’s Preparer
With any food we want to eat, we have to trust that the person preparing it is following food safety guidelines. Those have been supplemented by the FDA during the pandemic with additional requirements. First of all, sick employees should stay home and follow the CDC’s guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Employees preparing and packaging food are washing and sanitizing hands, wearing gloves, taking extra care to clean surfaces with EPA and FDA approved sanitizers, and are practicing social distancing in the work environment and between customers.
Theresa Bertram, owner of El Gato Cantina, a Mexican restaurant with two locations in Burlington, Vermont, says that she and her staff are going above and beyond what is being recommended by state and city protocols. Bertram says, “We know exactly how and what touches your food and the packaging. Everyone is on board and doing what is expected and more.”
Bertram uses limited staff, and one person per shift is responsible for packaging the to-go orders. Employees are on timed hand-washing schedules, with extra washes as needed. Customers place orders over the phone with a credit card and when food is picked up, they sign a receipt that has been left out with a pen that is sanitized between uses. “We wave and say hello but do not have contact with the customer. Signs are posted so people know what to do and how to keep their space.”
Your Food’s Packaging
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus can be detected on porous surfaces like cardboard, paper, or fabrics for up to 24 hours, and on hard surfaces like plastic, glass, copper, and steel for up to 72 hours. But scientists, food safety specialists, and the CDC confirm that the virus is not easily spread via contact with contaminated surfaces. Also, the virus loses strength over time. So, even in the worst case scenario—an infected person sneezes on the packaging your food is in and then hands it to you—you would have to touch that exact spot where the virus lives and then pick your nose, put your fingers in your mouth, or touch your eyes to potentially become infected.
If you are using food delivery services, do it without contact. Pay via the phone or an app and ask your driver to leave your food on the step or at your door. Whether you picked up your food or had it delivered to you, bring it into the house and minimize the places it touches. I have read that some folks place packages in a sink or on a designated counter. Open packages, wash hands for at least 20 seconds, plate your food, and then throw away or recycle packaging. Wash and sanitize the surface that held the packaging and then wash your hands again before you eat.
Bertram, like many small business owners, needs and relies on folks to continue to support their favorite local eateries. Restaurant owners are working together to support one another too. “Not everyone will make it through this. It has been so amazing how we have pulled together to help strategize how we can support our employees, the community and still stay viable. The community has been very supportive [by] ordering takeout and delivery; they are tipping well which really helps the staff.” Bertram encourages folks to purchase gift cards too. Even if you’re still worried about leaving your home for pick-up or don’t want to have food delivered, money spent now can be redeemed on meals later, when we aren’t under such strict social distancing rules.
To minimize crowds at grocery stores, use popular delivery services or apps run by your local stores (and tip generously).
And please, take advantage of free meals for your kids offered through schools and local organizations. Federal and state funding for these programs is typically based on the number of people who use them. More use equals more funding. Even if you don’t think you “need” a free meal, there are plenty of people who do; your participation keeps food available to the food insecure folks in your town and it reduces the stigma around the idea of needing a “handout.” Consider it a hand-up, and we all could use a hand and a break right now. It’s a relief to not worry about morning snack or lunch for my kids during the week. And it is minimizing my need to go to the grocery store.
Give yourself a break, support a local business, and order some tacos tonight. It’s safe and good for everyone.
But wash your hands. And don’t pick your nose.