Rural pantry pain

Panic buying sees remote stations running out of grocery staples

Coronavirus
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The major supermarket chains have no immediate answer to the dilemma facing customers in remote areas that buy in bulk only a few times a year due to their distance from stores.

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Mates helping mates: Ellie and Robert French unpacking vital supplies brought to Gilberton by workers on the Georgetown property, after a fruitless visit to Townsville last week. Picture: supplied.

Mates helping mates: Ellie and Robert French unpacking vital supplies brought to Gilberton by workers on the Georgetown property, after a fruitless visit to Townsville last week. Picture: supplied.

The major supermarket chains have no immediate answer to the dilemma facing customers in remote areas that buy in bulk only a few times a year due to their distance from stores.

The limits on a number of products in stores, brought about by panic buying in response to the spread of COVID-19, has hit hard on large remote stations with mustering staff.

The issue is also of concern in the Northern Territory where the NT Cattlemen's Association has called on the federal government to intervene and even involve the Australian Defence Force if necessary to solve supply problems

Pick up delivery services offered by NT supermarkets closed down almost two weeks ago because of panic buying, and now isolated cattle stations are running short of supplies.

"The people in the bush don't have the option of whipping down to the corner store to secure a few odds and ends," NT Cattlemen's Association chief executive Ashley Manicaros said.

Robert and Lyn French and their family at Gilberton Station near Georgetown were one of those impacted in Queensland when they made a 1000km round trip to Townsville last week, only to return home almost empty-handed.

"It's the supermarket policy - only two items - there was nothing they or we could do," Ms French said.

Campbells, their usual bulk supplier, was out of many staples such as toilet paper and so they had no joy there either.

Ms French said she had placed a large order in December in anticipation of a wet season and so they weren't in dire straits, but it had been a long drive for nothing.

"I was planning a three-month shop, spending $1500," she said.

Related: Top End stations going hungry because of panic buying in cities

She added that bush people were naturally good at improvising and being resilient, and that they had a ready supply of beef, plus vegies in the garden.

"I just hope people will be sensible and think of others less fortunate than themselves," she said.

Underlining that thought, they were down to their last toilet rolls on Monday when workers arrived with a very welcome pack, along with a carton of UHT milk.

Two packets of peas and a pile of attitude

Another rural shopper experiencing a similar dilemma, as well as a belligerent attitude to her circumstances, was Duchess property owner Noela McConachy.

After flying back to Mount Isa with her husband, who was recuperating from his fifth back operation, fearing both that they wouldn't be allowed to return and that they might come in contact with someone with coronavirus in transit, Ms McConachy was under a lot of stress when she went to shop prior to returning to Ashover, 110km from Mount Isa.

After misreading the signs regarding food limits, she was chastised at the checkout for the amounts in her trolley.

"I suggested that maybe the company could be a little helpful to those off the land as they don't get to town that often and the limits are not enough to last," she said.

"The woman manning the checkout said 'why should people on the land be privileged' and people were all looking around at us.

"I tried to explain that if you were in town you could get two packets of peas one day, two more the next, and so on, and have 10 packets by the end of the week, but we couldn't do that."

Ms McConachy stressed that other staff were much more sympathetic in her distress, helping push her trolley out to the car.

"We have eight people living on the property, in three separate houses, plus my husband and I have heart conditions and feel we are vulnerable," she said.

"We're already pooling our resources.

"I've since asked if the youngest family member could come in and shop for all of us, but have had no reply as of yet."

'Doing our best'

According to a Woolworths spokeswoman, the company was doing its very best to get more stock onto their shelves in the face of the unprecedented demand across the country over the past week.

"At the present time we're regrettably not in a position to facilitate Pick Up orders for any of our customers including those from remote areas," the spokeswoman said. "We appreciate the frustration this is causing customers in remote areas and will look to resume our Pick Up service as soon as we possibly can."

Coles had a similar message, saying they were taking all possible steps to help improve the availability of staple items for all customers, particularly the elderly and disadvantaged.

"We have reluctantly limited the purchase of essential products to discourage shoppers from over-purchasing," the spokeswoman said.

"These measures are temporary and we are reviewing them every single day.

"Our teams are working to improve access for our customers in remote communities including through Coles Online delivery service and we will be announcing these options over the coming days.

"We continue to urge customers to be considerate in the way they shop and consider alternative options where limits might apply."

Foodworks in Longreach on Tuesday announced a number of changes in delivery methods, instigating home delivery or phone order options after closing public entry to the shop itself.

Its message advises that country orders will be hygienically packed and sent out as per normal on mail runs.

"We are very sorry for any inconvenience caused," the announcement reads. "This community means the world to us and we will do ANYTHING to protect it."

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