Wednesday, April 23, 2008

food talk: advice about emergency storage/hoards

I’ve heard a lot of interest in emergency food storage, modernly known as “food hoarding.” It’s a subject I have great interest in because it is a traditional skill that home providers grew up being very familiar with in previous generations. Here’s some quick background before my advice.

For all generations of humanity, until the past two generations, people generated much of their own food by farming, raising livestock, gathering, or buying in open air farmers markets. You need to realize that fields of vegetables, for example, only yield food during a very short time of the year. This is called the “harvest” time. It is the same with livestock. Most people kept livestock for the continuing giving of milk and chickens for eggs, and one or two animals would be a personal supply of the family’s meat. Obviously it takes years to have what would be a once or twice a year slaughter of an animal, and then the preparation of meat for both day to day eating and also for storage (such as salted meat, or sausages that are highly spiced for their preserving). So there is a time each year, or season, that certain foods become available, it becomes harvested, and then it is prepared so that it can last the family until the next harvest of that food. Potatoes and apples were prized, for example, because they could last up to a year in what was called “root cellars,” which were stone and dirt cool temperature cellars.

Every family who participated in its own food generation had someone who knew how to can food. While it’s called “cans” back then (and now) the cans are actually glass containers. Look up Ball containers on the web and you can see what they look like. I used to grow my own food and can it, just as my grandparents did. (It skipped a generation because my parents lived during the transition from living off their parents’ canned goods to finding all that they need in the grocery store). But I wanted to can goods so that I could have fresh, year around, access to food that I had grown myself. I made strawberry jam by picking strawberries at “pick yourself” farms. I grew tomatoes and canned them whole. I grew squash and learned how to can it, but typically kept it in frozen containers in the fridge for better flavor and freshness. I also made fantastic Concord grape chutney. Chutney is like a relish but with large chunks of fruit and vegetables. I also canned pickles from food I had grown. I even grew the dill that gives the dill flavor to the pickles. I also grew “cutting flowers” for having daily cut flowers for the table’s decoration. If you are going to have a food garden it’s a shame not to also have a cut flower garden in the same space. You learn to plant flowers that like your food come continually to bloom so you have a continual supply to harvest through each growing season. (And even during the winter I cut branches from evergreens and holly, or other ornamental plants).

The reason I describe my experience and how food storage traditionally worked is so that you can understand the reasoning behind the tips that I give, and how to adapt them to your own food storage or emergency hoarding endeavors.

1. Store food that is the exact same food that you would want to eat anyway. Do not waste your money on panic buying of either specialized “survival” food or on food that your family would enjoy eating only if they had a gun to their head. So do not buy green beans if everyone hates green beans. Buy what you would eat anyway.

2. Then, arrange your pantry or storage space so that you put the most recently bought food of each type toward one end, and the oldest stored food on the other end. So for example, if you buy tuna fish cans, you get in the habit of stocking the tuna in order that you buy it in a row along the shelf. This way you know at a glance for each food when you bought it and what it’s “shelf life” is, because you have it arranged from freshly bought to oldest bought.

3. Then, use your emergency food for day to day cooking, taking from the oldest bought end. This ensures that you are cycling through the emergency food and keeping it fresh, and not wasting your money on food that will rot in the basement if, God willing, the emergency that you are planning for never comes. This is why I tell you to buy only, for the most part, food that you would use in your regular cooking anyway. So whenever you make a tuna dish, you take the oldest can from your emergency supply and then make a note to buy a replacement can when you are next at the store doing your weekly grocery shopping. This is how people learned over thousands of years to provide for themselves and their families. When women canned food and when the men smoked the meat or harvested the food for storage, they arranged it in “oldest to most recent” order also, and women marked the actual dates with ink on the lids of the canning jars. I would eat the frozen or canned food that I had prepared also in order of eating the older food first.

4. You can involve the kids, and it’s a positive learning experience that is not like showing them a video tape of the world being destroyed by an asteroid and telling them that is “disaster preparation.” This is good stewardship and home making skills, and how to be a good provider. So when the kids are eating from their jars of peanut butter and jelly in their normal day to day lives, they learn how you took those jars from the supply, put on your shopping list to replace it, have them help you find the replacement jars in the store, buy them, and then put them in the right place in the pantry or storage shelves. There is an abundance of good learning and fun when kids learn to “keep part of the pantry stocked.”

If you are blessed to be someone with a great income and a generous heart, you could cycle your emergency food storage through your local food pantry. So instead of eating the food you have stored in your regular meals, you periodically take the older stored items to the food bank and replace the items through your personal shopping.

5. When selecting food that your family likes for inclusion in your pantry or hoard, remember that electricity and clean water may be a shortage during whatever emergency that you are planning for. Many people think that just stocking lots of water is the solution, but if you cannot heat the food in cooking, like bring water to a boil, it takes hours if not days to prepare some foods, even if you have filled water bottles. So my advice is to plan for foods that come in their own water, oil, syrup or other fluid and consider that part of your balanced diet (as you should anyway). For example, canned corn comes in nutritious storage water. If you are in an emergency, when you eat the canned corn be sure to also drink the water that it came canned in, because must nutrition is in the water anyway. The same with canned tuna. If you are in the actual emergency you will want to use the oil or water that the tuna is canned in also, and not drain and throw it away. Canned fruits, such as peaches, come in syrup that is good emergency “fruit juice” along with the eating of the actual canned food product. Soup is the obvious example, and chicken soup should be a “must have” for any emergency pantry.

6. Make sure that your emergency pantry has bags of salted chips and nuts and also cookies with real sugar. When you are in an emergency that is the time to forget about crazy diet schemes. Salt and sugar are essential to have in larger supplies than normal when under stress in an emergency.

7. If you have infants or young children, while you should of course store baby food and other food that is appropriate to their normal diet (and like I said, rotate the emergency food through your normal cooking cycle), think ahead of the adult foods that you have and how easy that, in emergency, you could prepare for infant or child appropriate food. It never hurts to research ahead of time (and even to test) how easy it would be to hand mash canned peaches, for example, if you had to provide adult food in an emergency to an infant. Read up on the Internet how people make their own baby food, not because you, God willing, need to do that on your own, but because it gives you rehearsal tips and tools that you might want to include in your pantry. For example, few homes have what every home used to have at least one of, and sometimes two or three of, which is a hand potato masher. People have food processors but no longer have the non electric hand kitchen utensils that every kitchen used to have. So if you imagine different scenarios, such as having to mash adult food into infant sized pieces or puree, and imagine having no electricity, you can think ahead to what utensils would be of great assistance. Most people bump into this problem when they have cans and no hand operated can opener, LOL. But if you want a real food hoarding and pantry system, you need to imagine a number of food provision scenarios and what kitchen utensils or tools you would need for each situation. Even if you don’t have an infant or child, what if your extended family or neighbors had to rely on your supply and then have one or more infants or children? Men and women of our previous generations knew how to handle each of those situations through experience, family lore, and planning.

8. Invest in sets of those ubiquitous home storage plastic containers with lids. But before you spend your money, think ahead of various uses. What if you have to leave your house and take your car to move your family and food to another location? Get storage containers that fit well in your fully loaded car, and practice in advance learning how much food you can pack in each one. If you really want to get organized, when you test what you can load into each container, keep a list that you write of type and quantity of each food and leave it in the storage container. Thus you will know in advance of the emergency that say 30 cans of tuna, 12 jars of peanut butter, 10 jelly jars, etc fits in say an 85 quart size container or whatever. So if you have to leave in a hurry, you open the plastic container and there is your checklist already inside of what would fit in it. Backpacks are great, especially if you imagine “being on foot running for the hills,” which is all very modern and science fiction, but it is easy to forget the baby food or pet food, or some other essential, if you are leaving because of fire, earthquake, natural disaster and so forth where you have time to organize but must move pretty rapidly. Some art supply containers are plastic, like giant shoe box sized, with handles. Those are great for the “backpack” scenario. One reason I prefer plastic boxes to back packs is that they can be floatation devices, while a backpack pulls you down, should you have to encounter water. So sure, have backpacks, but also have a plastic container for each member of the family.

9. I don’t want to jump ahead to non-food articles, but I would be remiss to not mention that each container should have a bottle of aspirin (whether you can tolerate it or not, other people will need it) and chewable Pepto-Bismol tablets. Pain relief (especially the anti-fever capabilities of aspirin) and diarrheal relief are essential to plan for in advance. When you have stress, a sudden change in food source and water, and possible contamination, fever and diarrhea are real possibilities and are more than just inconvenient. If you have children ask your pediatrician in advance that in a civil emergency, what dose of aspirin or Pepto-Bismol you could give to your under 12 child in such a scenario. If they have trouble imagining giving you open ended advice, give them the Katrina scenario. For example, say, “What if my family was one of the ones trapped for 5 days before rescue and my child got diarrhea? What dosage of Pepto-Bismol could I have given him or her in such a scenario where no medical aid is available?”

I could write a book, LOL, but I hope this is a good start for you. You are not crazy or paranoid to want to provide for your family and have an emergency supply. It is actually what homemakers used to do as part of their routine family life. But you need to plan for realistic scenarios and not for fantasy sci-fi hero scenarios, which, God willing, will not be required. And if they are, trust me; this country has not seen what war and panic will do to even the most well stocked family with food and guns. Dudes and chicks like to imagine that they can hole up in their house and fend off looters, but that’s just not what has happened throughout history. As Ben Franklin said, we stick together or hang separately. I think Katrina is a reasonable model for the type of situation that every family should plan for. It has both elements of possibly having to hold out without food or water in your home for weeks, or the possibility of having to leave home in a hurry in a survival type of mode. So while I’m not saying everyone should plan for a hurricane, I’m saying the Katrina model is a good imaginary template that includes lots of the scenarios that some genuine natural or civil emergency would contain.