No, I didn’t experience the Dust Bowl. I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression, although I was raised by parents who lived through them. The media is having a heyday with our stores having empty shelves depicted with this bone-chilling image. Check out this recent story in the Washington Post. Social media is adding to the hype. One would think the world is coming to an end here in the U.S. Whether it be snowstorms, floods, employee shortages, supply chain issues, COVID, or whatever is contributing to the empty shelves, I’m sorry, but I don’t feel the panic.
Even though I didn’t experience the food shortages of the Great Depression, I did live in Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1971 for two years. In my small village of 1000 people, I had no running water, no electricity, and no store in which to buy fresh food. The village of Zorgowee did have a Lebanese store, Sami’s store, that sold nonperishable items.
An excerpt from my memoir, In Search of Pink Flamingos, Part III, Chapter – Sami, My Rock:
...Sami’s store, only the size of a small two-car garage with double outward swinging doors, was much smaller than the ones I remembered in Monrovia. Without electricity or windows, even at high noon on a sunny day, its interior remained dark and dank. He scanned the shelves with his torch [flashlight] to show me his stock of nonperishable items: African fabric by the yard, sewing thread, razor blades, batteries, rubbing alcohol, soda, beer, canned goods, including fifty-five-gallon barrels of kerosene and gasoline sold by the bottle or gallon. He also sold sugar, flour, salt, and rice. Sami was the only person in the village to have a generator to produce electricity, and he turned it on a couple hours a day to chill his fridge to sell cold Coca Cola, Fanta, and Liberian Club Beer. The villagers relied heavily on Sami’s store for these items….He was admired and respected by the entire village. (In addition to the excerpt, there was only ONE choice of each item.)
The sporadic outdoor market in Zorgowee sold greens, bananas, ground pea (peanuts), dried salted fish called boney, and a few other odds and ends. Locals displayed these items on a piece of fabric lying on the ground. That was the extent of my shopping choices. After a couple of years I became adjusted to my limited supply. It was when I returned to the U.S. two years later, on a layover before my next Peace Corps assignment in Tonga, that I experienced the unexpected described below.
An excerpt from Part VIII, Chapter, Power of Shame:
…on a shopping run to Kanton [Nebraska], I momentarily froze staring at the grocery shelves: five brands of catsup and mustard; eight varieties and textures of toilet paper; soap in every shape, color, and smell one desired; packaged bread products of every kind: muffins, buns, sliced, brown or white. Though the Peace Corps warned us of reverse culture shock upon reentry to the U.S., I was surprised by my disgust at Western abundance and America’s obsession with choice. Did we really need five or eight varieties of anything? With relief, I’d be leaving for Tonga in a few weeks.
Somehow, we in the Western world forgot that we live in the Land of Plenty. If our grocery store is out of Heinz Ketchup, there are always six other brands to choose from. Maybe the scented, extra soft toilet paper is out of stock, but we still have the unscented store brand to choose from. God forbid it we run out of paper towels. Has anyone ever heard of a cloth towel? Most of us have never experienced hunger or having to do without. Most of us reading this don’t have the Dollar Store as our nearest and main food store. Just think about that for a long minute.
WHO has recently reported that 2.3 billion people (30% or our world’s population lack year-round access to adequate food). No, we’re not talking about the techie device they were out of during the holidays. We are talking FOOD. My Lebanese surrogate family outside Beirut, Sami’s family who has adopted me as their own, told me they pay $80 for a carton of eggs, when they have them. Here in the U.S. we have no clue about scarcity. If ever we are unlucky to experience it, maybe we will learn.
I don’t want to preach or sound like I’m a 100 years old and lived through the Depression, but most of us reading this do have enough of everything…everything we really need. I’m not holier than thou, but Liberia helped me to realize that I can live very well with less. Take a deep breath and look at the silver lining. Maybe we don’t need the top-of-the-line of any one thing. Just having what we need will be good enough. Then maybe we would have no shortages. No need for a larger pantry.
Let’s try living without paper towels for a week.
I welcome your comments in the REPLY box below. See my website if you are interested in learning more about my memoir or reading my previous blogs.
16 thoughts on “Empty Shelves”
This is your former neighbor in Liberia , Bill Fetter from Sanniquellie . Down the road from Zorgowee. I think the last time we met was in Oregon in the 70’s. We first met in Liberia in 1971 when you arrived as a volunteer. I left the following year after 4 years in Sanniquellie. What a delight to re- connect with you! (Thanks to recent information from Bob Artell and Stephanie Schnable ). I’ll send you a picture of the gang as we traveled down the West Coast from Oregon to San Francisco in the 70’s. I’m looking forward to catching up and excited to receive my copy of your book! I should receive it in a few days 👌🏻 Take time, yah
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Hello Bill, OMG I have wondered what has happened to you. Where do you live? Maybe too much to put on this website but you can email me personally through my website contact.. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Liberia Peace Corps Anthology that I am leading and will be published this summer. We have 63 stories spanning 60 years from people who lived there. You must come to the book launch in Washington DC in September. Let’s be in touch and let me know when you finish the book. So good to hear from you. Gowee Sue
For most Americans, not all, we have a cornucopia of plenty. One way or another, we can get enough to eat, have a decent place to live, have access to medical care, can find work , can practice our faith. We can turn on lights with the flick of a switch and have safe drinking water at our taps. And still we aren’t satisfied or happy. So many of us are never satisfied, are always looking for more. It’s like the old song, ” Is that all there is?” We cannot seem to enjoy life’s simple pleasures like watching a sunrise, enjoying a thunderstorm, or watch the miracle of life as mayflies emerge from a mountain stream. Or watch snow fleas in the winter (I’m not kidding, check out springtails!) When I returned from the Peace Corps I had lost 15 pounds, friends thought I looked like a concentration camp victim. To me everyone looked fat and overweight. It was easy to travel on good roads, didn’t have to boil my drinking water, put up with dust and dirt nor worry about getting schistosomaisis if I went swimming in a pond. Life was good back in the old USA! Okay, so maybe the store is out of your favorite brand of cookie; try something else you may find one you like. Like the Marine Corps says, ” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” So suck it up, buttercup and stop whining!!
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Hello Randy, you said it so eloquently. Most of us are spoiled privileged lot of people. I wish many could see how the other half lives. According to WHO over 2.3 billion people or 30% of the world’s population lack year around access to adequate food.
I didn’t get to finish that reply. What I’m trying to say is let’s be thankful for what we have. I’m not going to buy the hype an the scare, fear tactics. And if there is real fear to be had then let’s help each other out.
OMG, agreed! Most of us can actually eat out of our pantry & freezer for a good long while if we needed to. And as the gentleman above said, American’s are never satisfied with what we do have at our fingertips. I’m feeling like a long hike is in order!
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Yes, a good hike and maybe even skipping a meal wouldn’t hurt me. I will be donating to our local food bank this week. Now that is food insecurity right on our back door. They are just not people we know.
Hidey Gowee Sue, great essay putting all of this silliness in perspective. Yes, the over selection of everything, including multiple flavors of cat, and dog food still repulses me 48 years after returning from Liberia. That said, completely empty shelves in many stores is a somewhat scary reminder of how truly precarious this whole system really is. Good food for thought.
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Well this post certainly has caught some interest. I couldn’t help myself when I saw how social media can contaminate the brain with exaggerations. What we really need to see is the true suffering of those who don’t have the basics. That is truly food insecurities. I’m donating to the food bank this week. Bless you Phil.
i agree with phil. our whole system seems to be build on a foundation of sand – of our own making. small inconveniences take on major proportions….especially for those with families…live simple
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Hello Tim, nice to hear from you and your comments are always welcome. I like your metaphor of a foundation of sand. I just went to pick up an uncooked Pizza I had ordered by phone. The whole place was paralyzed because the computer register was down. They couldn’t take cash because the cash register drawer wouldn’t open and I left and returned two hours later to pick it up. In that regard it wouldn’t take much for sabotage to lock us down, “A foundation of sand!”
Several years ago when I lived in Pennsylvania a major water main broke in the middle of winter impacting 18,000 folks. So most people could get bottled water at the store and local EMS supplied emergency quantities as well. Well, my Peace Corps experience and improvisation kicked in. We melted snow in our bathtub to use for the toilet. We drove 12 miles to a state park facility to shower every other day. We had enough water to wash hands and cook. During the dry season in Liberia I had 5 gallons per day; a gallon for drinking, 1-2 gallons for cooking and 1-2 gallons for bathing (yes you can bathe with that amount; get wet with a few cups of water, lather & shampoo, then rinse with a few cups of water and with any luck you’ll have some left over). Here in the US we may use as much as 30 gallons per bath. But in parts of the US and many locales in the world potable water is a scarce resource not to be wasted in such manner.
Just another example of how well off most Americans are and how we tend to take such amenities for granted!
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A couple weeks ago I had frozen pipes in my kitchen. However the rest of the house had hot and cold running water. Six other households had the same problem in our complex. It took three days for them to thaw out with no damage. Some people were really out of sorts when they couldn’t wash their dishes without the dishwasher. Yes it was inconvenient but they they didn’t have to carry water in a 5-gallon bucket on their head for a mile as they did in my Village in Liberia. It’s really hard to explain that experience if you never lived it.
Malo aupito Susan! I enjoyed reading your article on empty shelves in the supermarkets in the US of A. Here in the Kingdom, we have woken to fresh clean air thanks to the rain that fell in the early hours and took away the stench of sulphur from the underwater volcano between Tongatapu and Ha’apai which had been active since mid December last year. The volcano has disrupted the weekly planes from NZ but not the cargo ships which means that our supermarket have been well stocked so far except for a short period around August last year when there was no sugar on the shelves and there was heaps of whining in the social media about government inefficiency etc similar to that described in your article! Yes. I don’t think you will recognise Tonga if you were to return for a quick look-see!! ‘Ofa atu!
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So nice to hear from you. I hadn’t heard about the underwater volcano in Tonga. I hope the islands will be safe. I have a photo of main street Nukualofa which looked like a village back in 1973. Yes, I would like to see it. Is Teli Piloka still working at the hospital? Please say hello to him if he is!
Ofa Atu, Susana
Lopeti, just after you posted your first message, the underwater volcano that you spoke of erupted. I saw only part of the devastation since all communication has ceased in Tonga. I hope you and your family and your community are doing well. Please write and let me know. The best to the people of Tonga.