Beijing’s on lockdown, so what’s for dinner?

“Every society is three meals away from chaos” — quote attributed to pretty much everyone

With no traffic, and factories temporarily shuttered, the air in Beijing is beautiful. Yesterday we had deep blue skies, and a clear view of the Western mountains. When I looked out this morning, I saw a few inches of wet slushy snow, and to my surprise, a pop-up vegetable market!

Ten years ago, this sort of market would have been a fairly common sight, but one of the big transformations of urban planning has been to radically change the way that people buy food. Fresh markets were concentrated into special purpose built structures, and street vendors were phased out. Part of the reason was hygiene, but at least as important was tax–that the street markets don’t pay. In smaller towns, it’s common to see some this sort of “direct marketing” devolve into a slow motion game of cat and mouse between vendors who show up with a truck full of fruit or vegetables, and the police who come and chase them away. Bigger cities tend to be more strict, and at this point I doubt an outsider with a truck full of produce would even be able to get in.

So what are people eating?

I can’t speak for places like Wuhan, but in Beijing, there is no shortage of food. Just the opposite–the closing of restaurants and school cafeterias has created a glut of fresh produce. Despite restrictions on who can come into the city, supplies arrive on time, and supermarkets are well stocked. Home delivery continues. With restaurant workers in short supply, takeout has slowed considerably.

Since they don’t rely as heavily on local labor, restaurants with big central kitchens have a distinct advantage. McDonald’s is open and still delivering. Bakery chains like this Paris Baguette remain open, if a little lonely.

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With people unwilling to mingle in public, home delivery is more important than ever. There’s a whole economy consisting entirely of concerned family members mailing each other face masks and alcohol swabs.

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This morning’s market was apparently set up by a local housing association. This is a common arrangement for farmer’s markets, who often bargain with condominium management to use the space for free.

This morning’s market was more impromptu, set up in space that is normally an overflow parking lot.

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_cfe4It was fun but fairly unremarkable. The produce was fresh, normally priced, and not so different from what is on offer a couple in regular markets ten minutes down the street. It did have the advantage of being outside in the fresh air, which most certainly is where people would rather be, but I think that for many, the real attraction was simply an excuse to get out of the house.

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