The Art and Science of Stocking Up for a Storm

Quick: The weather outside is frightful and the National Weather Service says it’s going to get even worse. You’ve got 24 hours notice. What do you rush to the store to buy?

What leaped immediately to my mind was wine and cookies. But most of us, it turns out, are less frivolous.

In the shopping window of opportunity before the East Coast was smacked this weekend by Winter Storm Jonas, Washington, D.C. residents stripped local stores of staples: bread, milk, and eggs. The reproducibility of this behavior—possibly dating back to the fabled New England Blizzard of 1978—has led to a standing joke that the severity of a storm can be correlated to the public’s craving for French toast.

Milk and bread, as pre-storm necessities, are traditionally paired with toilet paper, though the Washington Post points out that frenzied toilet-paper-purchasing may be just an urban myth. Mid-Atlantic shoppers, when threatened with snowstorms, according to store surveys, along with milk and bread, variously stock up on bacon, fruit, water, soda, infant formula, Kool-Aid, canned goods, batteries, and—there’s no explaining human nature —ice cream. Toilet paper, as a pre-storm buy, didn’t even make it into the top fifty.

A customer looks at the heavily depleted bread section of a grocery store, as Snowstorm Jonas approaches the D.C. Metro Area. Photograph by Michael Reynolds, EPA

A customer looks at the heavily depleted bread section of a grocery store as Snowstorm Jonas approaches the D.C. Metro Area. Photograph by Michael Reynolds, EPA

Psychologists trot out a list of reasons for our universal pre-storm food panic attacks. Our drive to stockpile may stem from an attempt to feel in control in the face of an uncontrollable situation, such as approaching and unavoidable horrible weather. Or our primal instincts may go on red alert when confronted with a mass descent on grocery stores: the possibility of scarce resources may inspire us to compete for dwindling supplies of food.

On the other hand, purchases of milk and bread —both perishable items and lousy survival picks, especially if the power is prone to go out, may be a misplaced form of optimism. Pulling these off the shelves may be a version of an encouraging mental pat on the back, a way of telling ourselves that whatever’s heading our way isn’t going to last all that long. At least not long enough to spoil milk.

Yet another argument is that milk, bread, and eggs are, well, comforting. They’re the foods your mom served up when you were a little kid in bed with a cold. Milk, bread, and eggs, on some emotional level, make us feel good—which may be why we think we need them before heading out to shovel a driveway buried three feet under.

The bottom line, though, is that what most of us do buy in the face of impending blizzard is usually not what we should buy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an extensive list of supplies to have on hand for winter weather, which includes canned goods, crackers, dried fruit, infant food and formula (should there be a baby in the house), and bottled water. Other what-to-buy-for-a-blizzard lists recommend such sturdy, non-perishable items as peanut butter, canned soup and chili, beans, trail mix, canned tuna, and protein bars. In the event of awful weather, the consensus is, it’s a good idea to have on hand a supply of low-maintenance stuff that you don’t have to cook.

Numerous trapped-in-awful-weather stories bring home the importance of a secure and sensible stock of food. The Donner Party, trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains after an ill-fated shortcut in the winter of 1846, subsisted on the family dogs, twigs, string, and— just possibly —each other. The Shackleton expedition—trapped in Antarctic ice on a voyage of exploration in 1915—survived on seals and penguins.

Chances are, in any given storm, we’re not going to be that bad off. But if you’re going to stockpile, lay in some canned goods. And maybe a snow shovel.

Blew it this time? Brace yourself for another run. More bad weather is heading for the East Coast later this week.