EDINBURG, TEXAS (Border Report) — From Laredo to Brownsville, South Texas officials are trying to get the message across to families to stop grocery shopping together to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But that’s not easily done, as many families living in these mostly-Hispanic border communities traditionally shop together, and they continue to do so despite the COVID-19 pandemic and orders to stay home.
Through social media and video conference calls, community leaders have been pleading to inform residents of the dangers that leaving their homes puts on themselves, and their children, during this coronavirus pandemic.
In Hidalgo County, two infants ages 8 months and 10 months this week were diagnosed with COVID-19. There are 62 cases of COVID-19 in this largest South Texas county where 1 million people live. On Thursday, the city of Laredo in Webb County reported its fourth death and the 63rd case in the couny, which only has 250,000 people.
The high rate of infection in Laredo prompted officials to issue an order that took effect on Thursday requiring residents to cover their noses and mouths when in public spaces, such as public buildings, gas stations or public transportation.
“Please send only one person at a time to go pick up groceries,” Laredo Fire Chief Steven Landin, who is in charge of the Webb County emergency response to COVID-19, said Wednesday during a video conference call with media. “We know that you all like to shop together. But the rest of the family we’re encouraging and we’re telling you all to please stay home.”
Landin looked directly into the camera and seemed visibly frustrated by what he said they perceive as a lack of compliance in Webb County with a countywide shelter-in-place order. Residents are only allowed to leave their homes to perform essential work services, for medical care and to buy groceries, but Landin said “everyone doesn’t have to go together.”
During a Facebook live chat Thursday with Hidalgo County Commissioner Eddie Cantu on the need for health precautions right now, several social media watchers commented that families are continuing to take entire households to the store.
One woman wrote: “No one is listening these speeches are pointless! No one is listening stores are packed!!!! People take all their kids and family come on realize that people are not caring what you are saying.”
From Southern California to El Paso to Brownsville, the act of grocery shopping together as a family is a weekly tradition and bonding experience. It often follows church service or other weekly outings.
A 2017 story by GroceryDive.com stated Hispanic grocery shopping habits differ from the average U.S. consumer base. The article was based on a study that found: “Hispanic families look at shopping more as a group activity than other racial demographics. They are more likely to grocery shop with their spouse or partner and children. And they like to plan meals, participate in cooking classes and try new products.”
The study found “more than two-thirds of Hispanics say they enjoy grocery shopping, while 79% — nearly twice the percentage of total U.S. shoppers — say they shop with at least one other person.”
But for many low-income Hispanic families, like the majority in South Texas, their reasons for going grocery shopping as a group are often socio-economically driven. Many lack the resources to drive themselves to the grocery store and they catch rides in unison when they can.
Martha Sanchez, who works for the nonprofit La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) to help low-income families in South Texas, said poor families often own only one car if any. The family’s top-earner typically takes it to work leaving the others stuck at home. In colonias, poor subdivisions with multiple housing units, it’s not uncommon for several families to load into a vehicle and go to a grocery store together.
“People are trying to share rides to the store because people in the colonias not everybody has a car,” said Sanchez, who lives in McAllen, Texas.
Transportation issues are compounded by the fact that many colonias are located in “food deserts,” meaning families must travel far to find nutritious ingredients. “People have to travel long ways to find a grocery store,” she said. “I don’t have to travel that far. I have Walmart next to my house. But people living in colonias have to travel long ways and especially right now nobody wants to try and walk outside far.”
She also believes that for many low-income families, the weekly grocery store shopping is a welcome outing and some form of entertainment. “A lot of people can afford to go to the movies and other entertainment but people living in the colonias go to a grocery store on a particular day as their outing for lack of other activities,” Sanchez said.
People living in the colonias go to a grocery store on a particular day as their outing for lack of other activities.”Martha Sanchez, La Unión del Pueblo Entero
Dr. Cinthya Saavedra, director of the Mexican American Studies Program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, cautioned against generalizing about Hispanic families on the border. She said with 90 percent of residents in South Texas being Hispanic, yes it’s common to see Hispanic families at the grocery store, and she highly believes their reasons are likely more socio-economically driven than culturally.
“I don’t know if this is a Hispanic issue. It may have to be a socio-economic issue, such as not having childcare or not, when going to the store,” Saavedra said Thursday.
She added that she suspects there also is “misinformation of the severity of the virus,” among low-income households who have no childcare and think their only choice is to take their children with them to the grocery store. “It’s really hard. If you have young kids where do you leave them? Maybe you put them inside the cart. If there’s more than two what do you do with big families?” she said.
A solution would be to offer free grocery deliveries to low-income neighborhoods, or single-parent households, she said, but added that would be up to lawmakers to fund.
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