Let’s say your home is safe but a regional disaster like an ice storm or hurricane has crippled normal electricity, water, and emergency services.
As you hunker down and wait for the amazing people who keep our grid running to repair damage, clear roads, reroute supplies, fix power lines, and generally to the dirty work of infrastructure maintenance, you may get hungry.
Many people who read this blog probably find this a bit inconceivable, but most Americans don’t keep chickens, can their own food, or buy staple foods in bulk. I’ve read conflicting numbers, but the general consensus seems to be that something like half of us have less than four days worth of food on hand at any given time.
I’m pretty sure I could list a dozen reasonable, totally-not-Zombie events that could disrupt the food supply system or regional food supply access for four days or longer in less than a minute. Shall we try?
- Snow or ice storms
- Dam collapse that interrupts regional electricity generation capacity
- Fires that damage electrical overhead conductors, interrupting regional electricity generation capacity
- Any hardware or software fluke that allows electrical transmission lines to overload, leading to grid damage that interrupts regional electricity generation capacity
- Oil price spikes or temporary oil supply disruption sufficient to impact timely transport-truck refueling
- Supply chain disruptions in key shipping ports half-way across the world
- A terror or cyber attack that interrupts the smooth functioning of the electrical grid
- The threat of a threat, resulting in hoarding and empty shelves
Okay that actually took just slightly longer than a minute to type out. My point stands.
food delivery, modern miracles, electricity and you
You may notice many of the things I listed are centered around the electrical grid. That’s not really a fluke.
We have an amazing, just-in-time delivery system for our food. It’s a logistical freaking miracle that many urban Americans can buy fresh strawberries from Peru, in November, online and have them delivered in about 90 minutes. And nearly everyone can buy fresh, refrigerated liquid milk any day of the year.
Take a second and just think about how unprecedented this level of integrated global food production and delivery really is. It’s mind blowing.
This system is highly dependent on refrigerated regional warehouses, refrigerated trucks and refrigerated supermarkets. It’s all coordinated over computer systems that require electricity. Anything that disrupts the free and continuous flow of electricity over a wide enough area and for more than a few hours is a painful disruption to the miracle that is the just-in-time delivery system.
Eventually, if there is a physical path (and, uh, the economic demand), supplies will get to you. But there are so many electricity and transportation-dependant potential points of failure in this system that disasters can and do interrupt it’s smooth functioning.
The first goal of hunker-down food storage, therefore, is to simply allow you and your family to continue to eat despite an interruption to the normal food delivery system, without standing in a FEMA or Red Cross line for 8 hours a day.
how much should i store?
The general rule of thumb for disaster scenarios is a minimum of 2 weeks of non-perishable food. There are people who will argue passionately that you need 6 months, 12 months, or even 2 years worth of food on hand.
If that makes you sleep at night, fine. I keep far more than 2 weeks of food on hand at all time, so I don’t see a problem with deep food storage per se.
But you had better not be carrying 5 years of food storage on credit. Be smart here. Purchasing extra food, even cheap food like rice and beans, has both a real cost (say, $20 for a huge bag of rice) and an opportunity cost (everything else that $20 could do for you, including help get you out of debt).
Sane preparedness is about reasonable steps to mitigate disasters – and after the first several weeks of a disaster, in most situations having an extra month of savings to draw from will be more useful than having an extra month’s worth of savings converted into pinto beans.
So, for sure, build up to that 2 week store of food in your pantry, and expand your food store if your time, inclination and finances allow, but before you attempt anything like 6 months or more of food storage, please ensure you are already in a strong financial position and have a savings buffer to draw from.
(Of course, if you think either a financial or worldwide agricultural collapse is imminent and that’s the disaster you’re concerned about, you will probably feel differently. You do you. This is why I asked you to figure out your Zombie Apocalypse Scenario first.)
what does two weeks mean?
Having two weeks in food storage doesn’t mean you just got back from Walmart with a full cart and everything will last about 14 days before your cupboards are bare again. Keeping a 14 day food storage pantry means 2 weeks is the lowest your food stores ever drop.
If “my cupboards are totally empty” is 0 days worth of food, then your new 0 is now 14 days. At the point where you hit 14 days worth of food inventory, go get more food. At the point where you have 16 days worth of food in your house, you are now 2 days away from being totally out of food. See how that works?
This idea of a permanent running back-stock is called “Par” in the food service world. I wrote a whole post about how I use the twin concepts of “Par” and “FIFO” to build and maintain a very deep larder of food I actually use. You can read all about that here.
what should i store?
Well, that depends. Do you want to build up a deep larder of foods you and your family already cook and eat, and rotate through your deep larder often enough that you never have to worry about special storage considerations or shelf-life issues? Or do you want to just go buy some freeze dried or other long-term emergency food, and put in a closet just in case you need it in an emergency?
One of my favorite YouTube Channels does a great job of explaining the multiple types of “Prepper Pantries.” In this video, Jaime at Guildbrook Farms calls them the “working pantry” and the “emergency pantry.”
I typically used the terms “deep larder” and “emergency food” but the meaning is the same. In any event, Jaime and I are on the same page here: either your food storage is integrated into your normal routines of cooking and shopping, or it isn’t.
What’s best for you? Well, that’s gonna depend almost entirely on how you live now. Do you cook from scratch (or nearly so) most days? Do you eat out far more often than you eat in?
Here’s a totally non-scientific quiz. See which of these statements you identify with.
If you tend to identify more with the statements in the left hand column, build up a deep, working larder. If you tend to identify more with the statements in the right hand column, store bought emergency or long-term freeze-dried food that you buy once and don’t worry about for another 25 years may be more appropriate for your lifestyle.
i’m a deep larder person – how do i build-up a larder?
I’m glad you asked. If you haven’t read it, this post goes into great detail about how I manage my own deep larder inventory.
For a two week pantry, keep it simple. Buy more of what you already eat. Here’s a few key concepts to get you started:
The simplest way to inexpensively build up your food store is to buy two of a shelf stable item you’d normally buy one of, every time you go grocery shopping. For example, if you’d normally buy one can of black beans at the store, buy two.
This technique is called copy-canning, because you are just “copying” the cans you buy normally. Copying one or two cans of food per weekly grocery store trip can help you build up a deep working larder for just a couple dollars a week.
If you have more funds, you can buy more cans. Let’s say you’re going to make chili and you need two cans of tomatoes and a can each of pinto and kidney beans. If money is tight, buy one more of something. If money is a little looser, buy one more of everything.
Any time you buy something non perishable, like canned goods, rice, pasta, tuna, soups, etc., you can use the copy-canning technique to slowly build up your larder. The only thing you need to remember is to not eat that inventory back down to zero.
Once you hit the two-week back stock, decide if you have the space, money, and inclination to go further with your food storage. If not, that’s ok – just maintain what you have by thinking of 14 days worth of food as your new “no food in the house.”
If you have the financial ability, bulk purchasing is a fast way to get maximal food security and deep-larder building in a hurry. You friendly neighborhood warehouse store almost certainly has 20-pound+ bags of beans, rice, lentil, oats and more that you can go buy right now.
Azure Standard, Bob’s Red Mill, and other co-op and natural foods type organizations can get almost any grain or legume in bulk. Purchased in bulk, organic versions of these types of items are only a bit more expensive per pound than their conventional counterparts.
Costco and similar stores also sell canned foods, including beans, fruit, tuna, etc. in packages of 12 or so cans. Often the price per can is not quite as good as you might find if you carefully track sales and/or coupon at a grocery store, but the convenience of one-stop shopping might be worth it for you.
Markets that cater to ethnic communities (Mexican, Indian and Korean markets are pretty common around me) are always a great resource for bulk staple foods. South Asian markets are well stocked with more types of lentils and chickpeas than you probably knew existed plus top quality, inexpensive spices. East Asian markets are typically excellent for various seeds and nuts in bulk, a wide variety of rice, and wheat and rice noodles. Hispanic markets are unrivaled for variety of dried chilis and corn products like masa and hominy. You’ll also find long-lasting lard (although it’s probably hydrogenated), and a wide assortment of dried beans.
Most grocery stores with a good bulk section will be happy to order you in a wholesale bag (20-50 pounds) of any of their staple items. You may even get a small price break if you buy in bulk by the full bag. It’s like a case discount, so don’t be afraid to ask!
think substitutions for highly perishable foods
Certain foods, like fresh liquid milk, are real staples for many families, but are highly dependant on that fragile, fully-refrigerated distribution network we talked about earlier.
Luckily, there are some “prepper” substitutions you can make. Dried powdered milk, properly packaged and stored, can last up to 20 years. If you don’t use it and it’s getting towards the end of the shelf life, just reconstitute and use it in baked goods.
deep larder things to remember
Again, this post covers how I personally manage my food storage in even greater detail:
1. buy what you eat, eat what you buy
Keep it simple – if it’s a food you eat regularly, buy extra for backstock. If it’s a food you were just trying out, or a small jar of something exotic you bought for that one recipe, don’t worry about that from a “larder” perspective.
2. replenish what you eat
In order for the deep larder concept to work, it has to stay, well, deep. Which means that as you eat down into your larder, you need to refresh your pantry stores to stay at or above that 14 day minimum.
Done right, you should never actually run out of your staple foods.
3. first in, first out!
Always eat your oldest staple food first. If you’re maintaining a larder that never falls below 2 weeks worth of food, you shouldn’t end up with anything more than a month or so old in your pantry. If your pantry grows to several months or more, sticking to FIFO (First In, First Out) principles becomes even more critical.
4. date and rotate
Just like FIFO, Date and Rotate is a way to ensure you are being smart about your food’s expiration dates. An easy trick is to simply write the purchase month and year on any staple food you bring home as you unload your cans and packages into your cupboard or pantry. Use sharpie and write right on the package.
i’m an emergency food person – what now?
For a variety of reasons – space, interest, inventory management, etc., you may decide that it’s too much bother to maintain a deep pantry. In that case, you’ll want two weeks of long-term emergency food that can be utilized in the event of a power outage or other hunker-down emergency.
If you go this route you have two basic options:
- Off the shelf long-term grocery items like canned goods that can store for several years, but are not integrated into your everyday food rotation.
- Specialty long-term emergency foods (often freeze dried) that can last for up to 30 years.
Here’s some typical foods in each category:
grocery store emergency food vs. specialty long-term emergency food
Here’s some pros and cons of each type of emergency food, to help you decide which is right for you.
advantages of grocery store emergency food
- No special ordering.
- It’s easy to try small quantities before you invest in more.
- Familiar form-factor (everyone knows how to eat canned chili).
- Can be very cost effective.
- Easy to build up over time.
- Many grocery store canned goods require minimal preparation – even heating isn’t absolutely necessary for most canned foods.
- Within reason, many ways of eating can be accommodated.
drawbacks of grocery store emergency food
- For a “set-it-and-forget-it” solution, you still have to rotate your food stores every few years.
- Bulky and heavy to move and transport in an emergency
- For longest shelf life, some items like grains, pastas, etc. are best repackaged into specialty longer term packaging like mylar bags.
- Grocery store dry goods like grains or dry beans require a good deal of water and energy to cook.
advantages of specialty long-term emergency foods
- Extremely long term shelf life – a true “set-it-and-forget-it” option – one well known brand, Mountain House, guarantees their freeze dried meals will remain in good shape for 30 years.
- Packed for maximum shelf life, typically with oxygen absorbers and in sealed cans or light and air blocking metalized pouches.
- Often freeze-dried, very lightweight, and packaged in buckets or tubs – which means moving your emergency food is far simpler.
- Most long-term emergency foods require only boiling water to reconstitute, so meals are simple and very low energy to prepare.
- Most options are also good backpacking and lightweight camping food options.
drawbacks of specialty long-term emergency foods
- Often expensive.
- Flavor is highly variable and it can be expensive to “try out” various meal options to find a brand and flavor options you like. Mountain House is widely recognized as one of the best in terms of flavor. I’ve tried 8 or 10 different flavors from the Mountain House line of freeze dried meals and they’re…meh. I mean, I’ll eat them in an emergency, but to me the flavor is pretty similar to a typical microwave meal.
- Dedicated emergency food rarely accommodates specialty diets or ways of eating.
- Many freeze dried meals are quite starchy, salty, and contain a number of food additives and/or preservatives. How much you care about this is a personal thing.
- Some freeze dried meal manufacturers are…how do I put this? Optimistic about serving size. In other words, it’s not uncommon for a what’s marketed as “a full day’s worth of food!” to be 1400-1600 calories. If you are a big guy doing physical labor, 1400 calories may not go very far. Conversely, military style MREs can load thousands of calories into a single meal. Just be aware of your caloric needs when assessing emergency food like this. Look at total calories per pouch or meal, not just days on the box.
how should i store my food?
This is totally dependent on your rotation schedule. If you have an extra 14 days worth of staple foods worked into your normal food use routine, no special packaging or considerations are really necessary. Keep the “emergency” backstock of food in the same place you keep your normal food – because it’s all integrated. Just FIFO and Date and Rotate and you should always have fresh food well within it’s best-by date on your selves.
If you opt for specialty long store food stuffs, like freeze-dried meals that last 20 to 30 years, you also don’t need to put too much thought into storage. Keep your emergency food in a cool, dry place. A closet or under a bed are good choices. The garage is a fine location if you live in a mild climate – but if you live someplace like Texas or Florida, heat buildup in the garage can shorten the shelf life of even well packaged emergency food.
An in-building storage unit if you are in an apartment or condo is another option, just think carefully about your likely risks and accessibility in the event of an emergency. Going down to the storage unit to get your food if a hurricane is predicted or if the power goes out isn’t a huge deal; it might be more difficult after an earthquake.
Modern packaging on specialty emergency food is pretty bulletproof, but excess moisture is never good in food storage. Avoid damp areas of your home if at all possible, and store your food up off the ground if moisture intrusion or flooding is a concern.
In some ways, the trickiest storage situation is for standard grocery store foodstuffs that are not integrated into your working pantry. According to the USDA most low acid canned goods will stay in good condition for 2 to 5 years, while high acid canned foods like tomatoes and fruit last 12 to 18 months. (See this link for additional information.)
These numbers are conservative, and in an emergency situation I would be willing to eat commercially canned food far older than 2 to 5 years assuming there were no signs of leaking, bulging or contamination. But the safest way to keep a back-up of emergency food from the grocery store will be to replace it every couple of years. Rotating your emergency food into your normal food-stuffs over the span of a few months, while replacing what you’ve used with new food is a low-waste way to go about this.