A while back, when Brexit mania was at its height, I was part of a Facebook prepper group for a while. Its premise was that Brexit would cause disruptions to our food supply, and that it would be worth getting in a stock of staple items to see you and your family through the worst of any crisis, and maybe buffer you a little against price rises.

The group was widely covered in the press, and even more widely ridiculed. Project Fear! The Tin-Foil Hat Brigade at it again! People even called preppers selfish, for only thinking of themselves.

[I left the group when I stopped reading the news and muted Brexit on Twitter, because the constant barrage of fear-inducing speculation was fuelling unbearable anxiety.]

I was disconcerted to find a recent news article about coronavirus prepping, in which the group was mentioned. The report said that the group – after the virus crisis began – had a thread on where toilet roll was still in stock. In which people were gleefully explaining where they had been able to get toilet roll, and canned foods, to add to their “stash”. 

That’s not prepping, that’s panic buying.

It’s quite simple.

Prepping = careful planning and preparation before a crisis. 

Panic buying = clearing shop shelves once a crisis is underway.

Prepping is a rational and steady process. It involves thinking about what you and yours might need to see you through a future crisis, and then slowly accruing those supplies in a sustainable manner. It has to become a lifestyle, as you then have to use and replace those supplies in your normal life, to avoid them being wasted. It’s clear-headed and thoughtful. In the event of a crisis, prepping allows you to stay at home and wait it out, rather than having to venture out for supplies.

Panic buying isn’t rational. Even if you think you’re ahead of the curve, you’re stockpiling because of an imminent crisis. Other people do the same, and the shelves are cleared. Our supply system isn’t designed to gracefully cope with large fluctuations in demand; it takes time to compensate. People see empty shelves and start to panic. They start stockpiling, too. Shops run out of supplies. People who haven’t got the means or the space to stockpile are left with nothing. And a lot of the food that people buy in a panic will be wasted, because they haven’t thought about what they will need and how much they can use.

[It’s worth noting that in 2018, the Swedish government issued a booklet to its citizens on how to prepare for a crisis. It’s available in a variety of languages, including English. The message may not have sunk in, however.]

I don’t know which camp you’re in. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the fragility in our food system and quietly taken steps to improve your personal situation. You may simply be the kind of person who likes to cook and has a reasonable stock of food on hand, and are riding out the current crisis by making the most of what you find in the freezer and the kitchen cupboard. (We’ve had some delicious make-do meals!)

I hope you’re the kind of person with the sense to eat your perishable foods first, before they go off. I hope you haven’t been panic buying, but it’s entirely understandable if you have – the situation is very frightening. If you have surplus food, find a way to share it, and learn how to use/preserve anything perishable.

And I sincerely hope that you’re not one of the many people stuck at home worrying about where your next meal is coming from. My only comfort is the number of people volunteering to help, the companies (large and small) scrambling to get supplies to those who need them, and the rather belated government attempts to sort all of this out. 

One day, hopefully soon, things will start to get better. And if people can only learn one lesson from this crisis, I hope that it is (to paraphrase the British military):

Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Panic Purchasing