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.
brown basmati rice
wheat berries for long term storage
all purpose flour
whole wheat pastry flour
whole wheat flour
Fats and Proteins:
red and green lentils
pine nuts (freezer)
Sugars, spices, baking needs:
bottled lemon juice
chicken and beef stock
dry cured ham
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.