The combination of front and rear panniers, as noted above, is intended for really heavy loads (40 pounds and up) to let you distribute the weight so it all isn't at one end of the bike. For the load you want to take, this shouldn't be needed.
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If you really want to be able to shift without removing your hands from the brake levers and you have any reservations about brifters (including the cost which is sometimes nearly 25% of the bike), there are other alternatives for mounting down-tube or bar-end shifters right next to the brake lever hoods.