Amid COVID-19 fears, shoppers rush to stock up on rice

For some Asian Minnesotans, running out of rice is not just inconvenient. It's reminiscent of the Vietnam War.

A woman talking to two people near empty shelves at a store.
Daisy Haung (right) of Shuang Hur Supermarket talks to customers looking for jasmine rice Tuesday in St. Paul. The family-run Asian grocery store ran out of jasmine rice over the weekend as people stood in long lines to stockpile the food amid the COVID-19 scare.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

At the Shuang Hur Supermarket in St. Paul, huge bags of rice are typically stacked high along the entire front window. But lately, 25- and 50-pound bags of beloved jasmine rice are all gone.

Daisy Haung, whose family owns the supermarket, is standing by the empty pallets, explaining to customers when the next delivery truck should arrive.

Buyers — mostly Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese — have been stocking up on rice over the past couple of weeks in anticipation of a COVID-19 community spread in Minnesota, Haung said. She thinks some of the customers were in the restaurant business, but others were building up rice reserves for their families.

"There was a week that people were buying five, 10, 15, 20 bags per person,” Haung said. “We had to set limits starting last Wednesday. It’s important that you have some stock on hand, but overstock, I think is not necessary. We have a lot of rice here in the United States."

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A sign reads "Limit 1 bag of rice per customer" near bags of rice.
Golden Harvest Foods rice shelves sat empty on Monday. The store has limited rice quantities to keep up with the demand.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Her store is not alone. Across the Twin Cities, rice joins paper towels and hand sanitizer among the items in limited supply. And it’s not just Asian markets that are affected — Costco and restaurant suppliers are also facing questions about their empty shelves.

State health officials have advised people to make sure they have enough food, prescription drugs and cleaning supplies in their house in case they need to stay home for a couple of weeks. They’re also urging people not to gather in crowded areas, to take the necessary preventative measures, and to stay home when they're sick.

On Wednesday, state health officials confirmed two more cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s tally up to five. They said patients in Olmsted and Ramsey counties are recovering at home. Also on Wednesday, the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic.

Why rice?

For many Asian Americans, rice is not just a satisfying side dish. It's a household must-have served with most meals.

And for some Hmong elders who came to the United States as refugees, a run on rice brings back difficult memories of the Vietnam War era, when American planes dropped bags of rice in Laos.

War trauma is what came to mind for Lee Pao Xiong, the director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, St. Paul, when he noticed so many people scrambling to find rice.

"For us, young folks, we grew up with plentifulness,” said Xiong, who came to the U.S. when he was 9. “But for these elders, they knew what it was like to be hungry. They knew what it was like to not have rice to eat."

Xiong, too, had to go buy a couple of bags of rice for himself. His mom, on the other hand, asked him to track down much larger quantities. He said she told him, “Here is $1,000. Go to Golden Harvest, see if you can reserve a pallet.”

Xiong said he wasn’t able to buy a pallet. But he did venture out to other stores looking for rice. At one wholesaler in North St. Paul last weekend, he saw a line of more than 100 people deep coming out of the store as they waited for rice that was on the way.

"Rice is here,” the store’s owner Mo Chang can be heard on a video posted to the store’s Facebook page. “Anybody who wants to come, you need to get in line, first come first serve."

The threat of COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, but at least a fully stocked pantry brings some comfort.

Watch: People line up to buy rice at a Twin Cities supermarket