Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Food Security, Part I

I've been wanting to do a series on food security for a while now, and a question just came through one of my email lists about food storage. So now seems like a good time to begin talking about what food security means, especially during these uncertain economic times.

Back in the spring, the conservative paper The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pantry being the best return for one's money based on rising food costs. It was an interesting and telling piece because the ideas many of us have been talking about and thinking about for some time had begun to go mainstream. The idea that one could have home food stores instead of relying on capricious prices at the grocery stores is such a basic idea but so foreign to so many people that I used that article in many a conversation and correspondence to begin convincing skeptics that basic food security might be a good thing to have on their radar. The fact that at least half these people still gave me that, "Riiiiiight" kind of reaction didn't deter me from prattling on like a freak, citing Katrina, 9/11, and winter storms as evidence for my own increasingly debatable rationality... from their perspective, of course.

But now, we've gone past the writing on the wall (street) stage and have gone straight into the bashing over the head stage. To put it bluntly, folks who don't have some basic food and emergency supplies in place are downright irresponsible. Everyone, and I mean every one, with an income to manage it needs to have at least two weeks of food storage and basic survival supplies for power outages and water supply compromises, no matter how meager. Even if it's just a big ol' bag of rice and beans.

Folks need to take responsibility for themselves instead of relying on and then blaming FEMA's incompetence. C'mon folks, this is the federal government we're talking about—of course they're going to be incompetent! Of course they're going to drop the ball and leave people floundering and falling through the cracks. Don't let it be your family.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone has to go all Mormon or survivalist (and there's a lot to learn from both groups) as I've been gently teased of doing, but I am saying that as a culture we have become dangerously complacent. It's time to take a page out of our grandparents' Depression book and learn to take care of our own instead of depending on the system to take care of us. Considering most of us have been schooled in the system at every turn from an early age, this is a pretty tall order. I get that, and I've been there. I remember when Jim and I were on our honeymoon in a small New England town and couldn't figure out how people got money without any ATMs in town. Well, we got that people went to the bank and all, but how inconvenient that seemed! Why not just do everything electronically? Why not just run to the 24 hour convenience store if you run out of something?

This thought pattern is pervasive, and it's what the system itself depends upon. What we're now seeing unravel in the financial markets and beyond is the idea that the system is self-sustaining and doesn't need to rely on real goods or real money or real responsibility. But the minute people pull up and say "whoa!" the illusion of sustainability collapses, revealing the very tentative structure of the system itself. We're seeing the house of cards this illusion was built upon collapsing all around us, and it's not going to stop any time soon, certainly not until it reaches a supply chain near you.

I'm not talking about panic or hoarding. I'm talking about taking the time now while it's still a luxury to do the slow, steady food storage thing: a little bit extra here and a little bit extra there leaves plenty to go around for the time being. The more of us who prepare in this way ahead of time, the more supply will be available when it's really needed for those who didn't prepare in advance. If you still need a reason to act now, consider the fact that the US has lost more than 1 million jobs in the past three months alone. How comforting would it be to at least have paid for food to feed your family in the face of unemployment?

Enough ranting and convincing and on to the nitty, gritty practical details; I'll start with our pantry.

For my family, I store what we eat, so there's a constant rotation, with some things obviously going more quickly than others, especially based upon the season. I can't really give amounts off the top of my head, but I would say that at this point we easily have a year's supply of food. We don't have a year's worth of everything we like, but we have a year's worth of healthy meals.

It's taken me the past year to make that a reality, just buying a few things extra every month. I belong to a bulk co-op, which has made that kind of buying really easy—a bag of rice and case of coconut oil this month, a bag of rolled oats and a case of tuna the next, that kind of thing. Also, picking up extra jars of peanut butter or boxes of pasta from the grocery when it goes on sale helps tremendously. Spreading out this kind of purchasing not only leaves enough on the shelves for others, but it also ensures that your own food stores have different expiration dates. Once you have your food storage in place, then it's just a matter of basic maintenance purchasing to keep your rotation going.

Because we live on a small farm we have a steady supply of eggs, meats and dairy. I'll expand on our freezer storage more in the next installment, and I'll also do an installment on growing fresh food year round, as well as one on the practicalities of preserving. But for now, I'd like to focus on just a basic list of what's available in our pantry to give folks some sense of what a well-stocked pantry might look like.

Below is a general list of what's in my food stores, though I may be leaving something out—I didn't go in and do a detailed list, and no, I don't have an elaborate tracking system. My food storage system is based on the kinds of things I need on a regular basis. If I run out of something, then I know there's a gap in my storage plan.

My stores say a lot about how we cook and the kinds of food we eat. Pantries should reflect the regionality, personal preferences, cultural traditions, and diverse needs of the families they serve. I make most things from scratch, but not all, as you'll see, so I have lots of basic baking ingredients. I also have lots of home canned goods, in large part a result of growing my own food and cooking from scratch, but this kind of thing can also be done with bulk purchasing from co-ops, farmer's markets, and even grocers.

Most of my bulk grains are stored in the colored 5 gallon buckets on the left side of the photo just above. I finally splurged and bought the buckets and gamma lids, which make them much easier to open, from Pleasant Hill Grain, who offers free shipping on orders over $99. My buckets are somewhat color coded, but they're also labeled. The large wooden bins at the back hold potatoes, and I have wire baskets on my shelves for other stored produce like onions, garlic, and sweet potatoes. If you look at the first photo above, you'll see the baskets and the reused orange juice containers behind them that store water, not much but enough for an emergency.

You'll notice my list below loosely broken down into related categories that reflect different nutritional needs: be sure to have stored whole grains, fats, protein, and sugars. You'll also notice a lot of redundancy because I use different varieties for different purposes in my cooking; this is a definite luxury, and it's certainly possible to make do with less.

jasmine rice
brown basmati rice
arborio rice


rolled oats


wheat berries for long term storage
all purpose flour
bread flour
whole wheat pastry flour
whole wheat flour
dry pasta

Fats and Proteins:
red and green lentils
black beans
garbanzo beans

olive oil
coconut oil
peanut oil
hard cheese

peanut butter
refried beans
cashews (freezer)
pine nuts (freezer)

evaporated milk
dry milk

Sugars, spices, baking needs:
cane sugar
brown sugar
powdered sugar
turbinado sugar

maple syrup
chocolate chips
baking powder
baking soda

canning salt
real salt
sea salt
cheese salt

bay leaves
vanilla beans
sesame seeds
bottled lemon juice

Home Preserves:
dried apples
dried tomatoes
tomato paste
whole tomatoes
chicken and beef stock
dry cured ham
dried chilis

yellow onions
red onions
red potatoes
gold potatoes
fingerling potatoes
sweet potatoes

coffee beans
basic condiments
snack foods my kids like
cereals my family likes

Please feel free to ask any questions about why, how, what, etc. of anything I have in there, and I'd be happy to elaborate in the comments section.


Carolyn said...

Great Article!! I agree with you!

I have started a storage system too. We got a little sidetracked with money circumstances and it was real nice to have those storage items to eat from when we had no money coming in.

Now that things are closer to normal, I will get started with my food storage again.

Lewru said...

Thanks, this is great! I clicked on the link to your co-op and I can't figure out how to access it. Do you have to belong to a regional partner or can anyone order off the net? Thanks for the info!

Matriarchy said...

Nice list! I would add a wider variety of spices and seasonings, and more dried fruit - raisins, prunes, apricots, currants, pineapple, craisins. I also like to have citrus juice - bottle lemon juice, frozen OJ concentrate for Vit C. Oh, and vinegars for cleaning, canning, and dressings.

Which varieties of potato are keeping well for you?

And which blogspot app do you use to get those lists with crossed-off items in the sidebar? I'd like to do something similar on my blog.

Matriarchy said...

Wow! Your food co-op is based pretty close to me in York PA! Can you email me more info about how it is set up? I am looking into starting a coop in my city in January. (matriarchy at gmail)

Country Girl said...

EXCELLENT post. I am so glad you are back up and writing again. I put up more food that even this year but I would like set up a pantry like yours in the future, just not sure where?? ~Kim

Anonymous said...

How do you keep your potatoes form going bad? mine go on a regular basis how do you keep them for long? Do you do canning on you own? How long would a jar of food last?

Marcy said...

Can't help but think that the word 'pantry' doesn't do justice to your impressive storage arrangement. It's just my own take on the terminology but to my mind, 'pantry' is something of more modest scale while 'larder' is more akin to what you've got there. Regardless I'm glad to see someone else keeps a good supply of Smucker's peanut butter on hand!

Nicole said...

Great post, I read it twice straigth through and then went back and studied your two pictures. LOL! I would love to see your weekly menus that go along with that pantry.

Would you by chance be interested in giving your two cents on my pantry? I am lucky enough that I grew up with a mom that always had a pantry full of "emergencies" as she called it. So the idea is something that we use, but could definetely grow upon and refine. Our garden this year was our first, and I am so excited to expand upon it next year, I just keep daydreaming about rows and rows of home preserves. :)

Anyways, back to my question. If you are up for it, I would love your suggestions on our pantry/food situation.

Danielle said...

I'm glad folks are finding the series useful—your comments give me motivation to keep on blathering. ;)

Carolyn, I'm glad to hear that things are looking up and that your food stores were helpful for you. I have something coming your way very soon now...promise. When you see the "mail out packages" crossed off my to do list, you'll know it's on its way.

I'm not too sure about the set up of United Co-op, as I wasn't one of the founders of our group. It was pulled together by three women locally, and rumor has it that United is cutting back on new local co-ops that are within a certain radius of an existing grocery.

I'd definitely get in touch with them, though, and find out whether there are any existing groups in your area that they could put you in touch with or what you'd need to do to start one.

As far as potatoes, we plant red nordlands and Yukon golds, and we try to stagger the plantings so that we have two harvests spread apart. The reds are already starting to eye up now, and they were the first potato we harvested.

We harvested our Russian Banana fingerlings shortly after that, but they're keeping quite well with just the very first signs of eyes. In fact I just gave some out to my CSA this week. Unfortunately, my husband doesn't like this variety as much.

The golds were harvested significantly later than the other two varieties, and they're keeping quite well. If the quantity holds out, we should have them well into February and March, but they certainly won't last all year.

Part of eating seasonally is glutting yourself on stuff while it's available and then moving on to the next thing.

Matriarchy, I grow most of my own herbs fresh, even through the winter, so I don't rely very much on store bought. I'd like to get a bay tree so I don't even need to buy those, but for now, I use them so much in soups and stocks, that it just makes sense to buy them in bulk. I do have bottled lemon juice for jam-making, etc. but I'm really the only one who will eat the dried fruit. :-/ But those are definitely great things to have! Plus they take up way less shelf space than the canned fruit that my kiddos do love.

I use the html app for my lists, which lets me code them directly. If you know how to code a list, then the crossout code is just del and /del, enclosed in carrots.

Marcy, funny thing is that I used to call it the larder to differentiate it from our pantry. I combined the two recently, and the kids can never remember the word "larder," so it just morphed into pantry.

Nicole, I'd be happy to offer help if I can. You can email me at danielle at touchtheearthfarm dot com.

I'll be doing an installment on non-food storage as well where I'll talk about some of the things I have in there for emergency preparedness and cleaning, like Matriarchy was talking about. If you look in the photos, you'll see the top shelf has lots of non-food items. I'm just trying to break things up to keep the posts manageable! lol

Matriarchy said...

Oh, html! LOL - I was looking for an app, instead of just going old-school. Thanks!

I grow some herbs, but I also like the exotics. I stock a lot of peppercorns, ginger paste and candied ginger, garlic powder, baking spices, cumin, turmeric, curry powders, chili powders, etc.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading this page. Been putting food by for about 45 years. It is a priceless thing to do. As to how much to get or keep. There are 365 days in a year. There are 52 weeks. So, if you want to eat a quart of fruit a week make 52 quarts. if you want a quart a day make 52 quarts of 7 kinds of fruit. See? The same for all things like veggies and meats. Home canned meals like meat loaf in a jar etc are great. Pressure cook though. Have fun

Woolysheep said...

Thank you for posting this. For a while now I have been trying to get my husband to build me some shelves in the garage to put canned goods on. He keeps putting 2X4's horizontally between the studs and saying there ya go. Now I can show him what I am talking about. He's a city boy that has always had a supermarket in walking distance. Hopefully this gets the picture across to him.

Becca said...

Awesome post! And I love your food storage pics--especially the one showing your onions and stuff!

Rebecca said...

Great post! I work for Shelf Reliance ( and would love to send you some samples of our freeze dried food. Freeze dried is a great addition to any food storage program because of its long shelf life and ease in incorporating into everyday meals. Thrive is an FANTASTIC line of food and is highly recommended! If you would like to try some samples email me at

CatHerder said...

Great husband has been a grocer for almost 30 years, so i have always kept a stocked pantry. Its so nice knowing what is going on sale, and when so i can use my coupons and plan meals accordingly...we also do NOT waste anything in this house!

TheOrganicSister said...

Just found your blog via Homesteadin Unschoolers. Looking forward to following along. :]

Ren said...

Thanks for the inspiration once again! We always have the typical dry storage and extra oil, but I had let the food storage portion of our grocery budget slip lately. I dream of a well-stocked larder like yours. Lovely!

Indiamommy said...

Wow! What a fantastic larder/pantry. I started a food challenge on my blog last week (in conjuntion with the MDC group) and THIS is what I am planning to work on, a pantry of this level! At this point, I don't even have adequete food for a full 2 weeks. So I am imspired, and I thank you for taking the time to write about this!


noodle said...

Wow! This is awesome. I'm very interested in starting a pantry of this scale. I live in Montana, and the only space I have for making such a pantry is in my unfinished basement, which can get down to 20 below or colder! It doesn't seem to me like such extreme cold would have any effect on the kinds of dry goods we're talking about, but I wanted to see if you have a different opinion. Also, how long to home canned items such as chutneys and salsas generally keep? Thanks for your help, and for this wonderful resource!!