Friday, October 3, 2008

Crisis Shopping: Food Storage When You Haven’t Been Storing Food

Sharon Astyk October 2nd, 2008

Several readers have asked me to do a piece on what to do if you have been procrastinating about food storage, but plan to stock up before the end of the world (I’ve heard that Paulson and Bernanke have scheduled that for this weekend, but it could potentially be moved due to a conflict with some other disaster ;-).) So for all you procrastinators out there, here are my suggestions.

Now let’s note - my first suggestion is not to procrastinate. Because unless you are fairly well off, procrastinating and buying a lot of food probably means putting it on your credit card and paying it off. Not only is this extremely risky (I would not bet on any version of the apocalypse that doesn’t actually involve real zombies to get you off the hook with your credit card - and I’m pretty sure that they have zombie collection agents already, so maybe not even then.), it means that you will pay interest on the food, thus mitigating much of the benefit of even having it. But I do also know that sometimes one gets a big check, bonus, windfall, sells something or maybe the food is worth the price. So let’s assume that you all know better, and are doing it anyway.

Let us also assume that you are doing this shortly before everyone else starts their panic buying or shortly after (which makes it harder and makes the selection of stores more crucial), and that one or two stop shopping is the name of the game - you need to get as much that is useful as possible, as quickly as possible, perhaps not using much gas. So let’s start with where to shop.

My top few choices, in no particular order:

1. BJs/Sams Club/Costco: This is probably the most accessible (ie, lots of people have these reasonably nearby) and has most of the things you’ll really want. The downside is that often the bulk prices aren’t really very much or at all cheaper than smaller sizes, that the warehouses are huge and shopping there annoying and that they probably won’t have anything ethnic, or a large selection of nutritious things. Also will probably be mobbed if there’s a real or perceived immanent crisis. My tip for shopping here: if there isn’t an immanent apocalypse, you can probably get a free 1 shot membership to do a stockup even if you can’t/don’t want to pay the fee - they usually offer trials, and if you say you’d like to check it out, this can often be arranged.

2. An Asian grocery store of some sort. Best grain source for rice and often some kinds of noodles in quantity and quality, often have large quanties of spices and useful flavorings quite cheaply. The downside is that unless you cook asian food you will be confronted by many unfamiliar items, and you may find yourself with all the ingredients for Nasi Goreng, or Palak Paneer and no recipes, or idea whether you like it ;-). Also, not common in areas without large Asian or Indian subcontinental populations, so it might not be available. Tip for shopping here: go when it is quiet (weekends are tough) and ask for help - there’s usually someone who can help you figure out what you are buying.

3. A feed store. If a panic has already begun, this might actually be your best bet for getting large quantities of edible grains and pet food (plus livestock feed if you’ve got this). If you buy organic, whole feed grains, they should be adequate for human eating - and they come in 50lb quantities. Pick up your emergency supply of dog or cat food, some seeds for spring, and cracked corn and whole oats for you (and your horses). The downside: feed grains may not be especially tasty, organic feed is pricey, feed mixes may have things you don’t want, unless you live in a reasonably rural area, there probably won’t be one. Tip for shopping here: human consumption grains would be a better choice - save this option for food for yourself for a true crisis.

4. A coop or bulk food store. Coops are great because they tend to be run by good people and have reasonable prices. Privately owned bulk food stores also have good stuff - the thing is, most of these won’t have large quantities of staples in large bags - you’ll have to empty out the bins or place an order in advance. Still, not a bad place to get unusual ingredients, seasonings, yeasts, salt, nutritional supplements and meet special dietary needs. Tip for shopping here - you might ask if they have any bulk grains they can sell in larger quantities lying around - instead of asking for “50lbs of wheat” you might come at it the other way, asking what they’ve got a lot of.

5. Odd lots store/dollar stores: These are unlikely to have large quantities of things, but if you’ve got a big enough vehicle, you might be able to buy a pallet load of weird cereal by a a manufacturer you’ve never heard of for $1 box. These are good places to get canned goods and to pick up bug out bag foods that are light, nutritionally dense and portable. Soap and shampoo are often cheap here as well, and you may be able to get a few needed household goods, a couple of extra flashlights and whatever. Tips for shopping here: if you see something you want, snag it then - inventory changes fast.

6. Supermarkets - this is the classic crisis food shopping space, and the one that tends to get ripped into pieces until all that is left is Preparation H. These are to be avoided if you can avoid them during an actual crisis. If not, get there as early as you can, avoid the bottled water aisle (store some water in empty bottles instead and save your money for food). If you must hit one of these, choose one with a health food section and bulk bins, and ideally, a supercenter sort of thing, where you can also pick up anything else you need. Tip: Even if the crisis is likely to be long term, most people see supermarkets as a place to get short term needs met - so you are likely to find that staple foods and things like vitamins sell worse than boxed chocolate chip cookies. This is good, since you want more staples than cookies.

7. Drugstores, hardware stores, etc…: I’ve included these because you may have to stop at one - you may need a refill of your medication, to fix up the family first aid kit, or to buy flashlights. If you do need to stop, and are doing them in a rush, take a couple of minutes and think about other needs you might meet in such a place - drugstores may have some food and cheap spices, hardware stores may have other useful things at reasonable prices, like seeds. I’m not saying you should buy everything in sight, just working under the assumption that you may be able to make a limited number of stops. Generally speaking, though, if you can, you might want to consolidate trips the other way, and get your meds at a place that also primarily sells food.

Ok, now what to get. This assumes you mostly eat a regular American style diet (which ideally you don’t), that we shouldn’t push you too hard, and that you will be shopping at the above sorts of stores. That is, if you normally eat a lot of dal or mung bean noodles, please do add them to your plan. This is meant to cover mainstream ground - it is not meant to imply optimalization.

Here’s what I’d concentrate on. I am not including quantities here, because I don’t know how much you can afford, how big your household is, etc… What you should do is get as much as you can afford/haul and *manage* without spoilage. That means, get only what you can find a safe, bug and rodent proof spot for.

I’m also assuming that you don’t have a lot of fancy equipment - ie, I think life would be better for you if you had a grain grinder, but I’m going to assume no.

1. Vitamins. Get enough for everyone in the household. Regular, generic mulivites are fine, and any special supplement you take (although if these are optional luxuries and money is tight, forego the vitamin E capsules for more food instead). Yes, it is better to get your nutrients from food, but this is important. Also make sure you pick up children’s or prenatal vitamins if anyone in your household has a special need for these. You might also want to pick up a couple of bottles of vitamin C tablets.

2. Rice - as much brown rice as you can eat (and remember, you may be eating a lot more of it than you have been) in 3 months, plus as much white rice as you can. Why rice? It is widely available - even supermarkets sell it in 10 or 20lb bags in many cases. It is comparatively cheap, it is hypo-allergenic (ie, nearly everyone can eat it including infants and the ill), and it is familiar to people in just about every culture in the world. Brown rice is dramatically more nutritious, but it is also prone to spoilage - maximum storage is about 1 year, and it often goes rancid before that. A not-insignificant percentage of the population can’t taste rancidity in grains at all, so won’t know if the rice is still good to eat. So it is safest to get a short time supply of brown rice, and then mostly use white rice (supplemented with more nutritous grains).

2. Flour - get as much whole wheat flour as you can use in 6 months, and then get unbleached white flour. Again, you’ll be using the less nutritious form of the grain, but at least you’ll have food.

3. Rolled or steel cut oats. Get as many packages as you can. These are fairly nutritious and will help balance out some of the white stuff in your diet. This is breakfast.

4. Legumes: These include beans, split peas, lentils, cowpeas, pigeon peas, etc… Buy 1/3 of the weight of your combined grains (flour, oats and rice) in dry form. Check out the ethnic foods section for large quantities. These will provide protein, fiber and a host of other goodies. Don’t be afraid to try unfamiliar things here - they have a fairly wide taste range, but if you can eat one, you can eat another.

5. Something that sprouts. If you get stuck eating off your stored food in the winter or a summer dry season, when not much is going on, sprouts can save you. Ideally, you’d have a variety, from broccoli to onion to mung bean… In reality, you may not have much of a choice. But a lot of things in the bulk bins at whole foods or your health store, or available other places will sprout. They include whole wheat, alfalfa sprouts (just make sure you aren’t getting seed that is treated, and only use organic), untreated sunflower seeds, and a host of designated sprouting seeds. Nutrionally, if I had a choice I’d get broccoli, alfalfa and sunflower, as well as wheat, but you’ll be fine with just one.

5. Some other protein food - unless you are quite odd, you probably will not enjoy rice and beans for dinner, bread and beans for lunch and oatmeal for breakfast every day. You will be fine eating this - maybe even healthier, but you would be happier if you had something with a bit more fat, flavor and protein density, particularly if you are shifting from an average American diet. You do not need a lot of this - you might prefer a lot, but it

Best choices:

1. Whole nuts, flaxseeds or sunflower seeds in the shell

2. Peanut butter. Not the natural stuff - you want it shelf stable and in large quantities.

3. Canned fish - don’t overdo this if you have kids, are pregnant or nursing. But canned fish does have important nutrients, is tasty and makes people happy. Canned wild salmon is lowest in mercury, but can have high levels of PCBs. Don’t forget sardines, mackerel and other unusual fishes. Don’t go crazy also because it isn’t good for what’s left of the oceans, but occasional fish is good.

4. Shelf stable tofu, dried tofu sticks (asian groceries) or other stable soy protein.

5. Canned meat - I’m not a big fan of this, generally speaking, because unless you have a ton of money, canned meat is always from horrible sources, often troublesome in environmental ways, and doesn’t taste good. But others love their spam, and I won’t try and turn you away from it. Again, though, you don’t need that much - think occasional treat, and enjoy the flavoring and fat.

6. Fat: Olive oil in metal tins keeps several years if kept cool - that’s what I’d get of the choices available, with a bit of coconut oil to provide a tasty, shelf stable fat for piecrusts and “butter.” If you have to go cheap, get what you can afford that’s not too awful.

7. Dried fruit - if you are at a Sam’s Club type-place, you can buy big sealed bags of dried raisins or cranberries or something. Otherwise, you can take what’s available at the dollar stores or go hunting in the bulk bins. You want this for nutritional reasons, and so that you don’t get so constipated you can’t breathe. Also good for kids, to help them transition, or picky adults who are kind of like kids.

8. Powdered milk, soy, or rice milk. This is for calcium, protein to enable you to bake, to add creaminess to things, etc…. It will never taste like real milk, but you can live with it. It lasts a long time, and you can use it baking if nothing happens, so you might as well get as much as you can.

9. Salt - get a bunch, iodized for eating (you only need a little of this - and if you don’t want to store iodized salt or want something better, you can also buy dulse or kelp supplements to meet this need, but the easiest, most stable source is iodized salt) and uniodized for preserving, livestock if you’ve got it, brushing teeth, etc… This is cheap, and necessary to life.

10. Sweeteners - unless you have weaned yourself off of this entirely, you will want these. Sugar is probably cheapest, a lot of bulk honey is watered down or sugar syruped up. But you can use maple syrup, sugar, sorghum or whatever is most easily available. You may also need to stretch it - so work on reducing sugar now. We don’t need anywhere near as much as we eat.

11. Canned vitamin rich vegetables. Get a couple of flats each of pumpkin/squash/sweet potatoes, and some kind of canned green (mustard or turnip greens hold together better than spinach). If you are used to eating fresh, these will not taste as good as fresh - but can be mixed into things in the background to add nutrition. Make sure that you use the liquid from the greens as well. Some canned fruit is nice too, if you have room/can afford it. Canned pineapple is, to my mind, the best tasting commercially canned fruit.

Alternately (and better), you might be able to hit a farmstand and get sweet potatoes, cabbage and turnips, which would be much better for you, tastier and local, but the assumption of this discussion is that you aren’t doing that. Still, if there’s anyway to buy fresh food that can be root cellared, you’ll be a lot happier than relying on canned veggies.

12. Something(s) to flavor water/powdered milk. This depends on your preference, but if you are using non-traditional water sources, or drinking powdered milk for the first time, making it taste better will be worth a lot. Plus, if you are a tea or coffee person, you will be sad without them. So get vacuum packed cans of coffee, or lots of tea, cocoa. And if you have kids, or vitamin C worries, or the water tastes horrible, you might want to get some Tang or HiC powdered drink mix. The stuff is icky, but will add some sweetness, and also some nutrition, while covering the taste of bad water.

13. This is controversial, but you might want some alcohol. There are a couple of reasons. First, if things are bad enough and you have no major responsibilities, you might want to get drunk. Second, and more practically, a small amount of alcohol in your water will kill many bacteria, and is safer than inadequately filtered water. Oh, and you can probably use it like money to get other things.

14. Lots of seasonings. Varying your meals is key. Buy lots of spices, and you may also want ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, chili-garlic paste, fermented black beans, chutney, worcestershire…whatever. Depending on what you can afford and where you are, don’t forget this.

15. Get some treats. You will need them. So put some smoked oysters, a few bags of chocolate chips, some beef jerky, peanut brittle - whatever you or your family crave. I’d also suggest some kind of small candy that stores fairly well (we use those tiny dum-dum lollipops which come in bags of a zillion) to be doled out as rewards for children who are eating their new diet reasonably graciously and responding to their new reality - they are small and sweet and ease transitions. Adults might need other bribes. Also, don’t forget the ingredients for your special Easter bread, matza balls, or whatever other special occasions your family will still want to remember.

16. Some things that are dense and require minimal cooking in case you have to evacuate or if you are under stress - some ramen, some dried fruit, energy bars, instant bean soups, canned soup, etc…

Then add some extra batteries (if you aren’t already stocked), gas for the car and the can, a way to cook without power (sterno, camp stove, woodstove, more propane for the grill), and water purifiers (it will be easiest if you get this first). Ta da! You are ready for the zombies!



  1. There seems to be more and more scary survivalist stuff coming out on sites about growing vegetables and sustainable living. AND It is really starting to worry me that there are good people (I am assuming you are a good person because your site is about permaculture but frankly this post but would make me question that assumption) who have attitudes like this. What do you think would happen if everyone followed your example tomorrow?????

    The reason the world is experiencing an economic melt down can be explained in the attitude you display here on this post.

    Get everything you need for yourself, (the richer you are the better because you can have a bigger share), to hell with the next person and everyone else for that matter.

    Please explain what is sustainable about your recommendations in this post.
    PS please do forgive my negative response if this post was just a joke, I did think it was at first but I can't see where the punch line is.

  2. Laura,
    #1 "scary survivalist stuff about growing vegetables and sustainable living"????? I've been gardening for 35 years and I have never yet been attacked by a vegetable and the terrors of sustainable living have yet to reveal themselves...and if everyone tomorrow chose to garden and live sustainably, quite frankly, I would have little to do but celebrate.

    Now, if you are asking what would happen if everyone went out tomorrow and restocked their pantries, then the supermarkets would be emptied in days (likewise if everyone filled their gas tanks tomorrow). This suddenly revealed weakness in the food supply would cause a massive reevaluation of the limits of corporate food production (most of which has already been recognized by organic growers like myself).

    "The reason the world is experiencing an economic meltdown" has little to do with the attitude of being prepared and recommending the same but a lot more to do with the game of "scapegoat" and "blame" which seems to be the format you have been trained to employ. (How many people does your garden feed?)

    Nowhere in the post is it recommended that we "get everything [we] need for [ourselves]". That's your interpretation and projection and is an attitude I do not share.

    Remember, Permaculture is based in the ethical perspectives of Care of Earth, Care of People and Sharing. This ethical foundation motivates me to share helpful information to people asking questions like those to which this essay was a response.

    This was written (and not by me but by Sharon Astyk) in response to the question about waiting until the last minute to be prepared for upheaval (economic or environmental). Family AND community ARE the subject of Sharon's writing, which you would have discovered if you had bothered to explore further.

    And finally, the sad "joke", or irony is, when I point out that we have both a responsibility and opportunity to respond EFFECTIVELY, you interpret it as fear-mongering instead of a call to critical and personal action in the face of actual (and not merely feared or potential) change.

    I'm glad you are starting to be worried. Now that you have reached this stage, PLEASE avail yourself of the multitude of positive solutions that Permaculture offers. You will find that study and practice in the real world will empower you to be truly helpful as our global crises continue to unfold.

    Good luck.

  3. Final comment excerpted from Sharon's article reprinted above:

    Maybe you don’t know what your role is. Maybe you do have a little time or energy that could be used to build community, fix things, help others, but you are shy, and you don’t know what to do. And I can’t tell you exactly what you should do - you know your talents and skills best. Maybe you are a natural organizer and leader, and you should get started with your community’s victory garden movement, building the community health center or getting neighbors to pool their resources to get a shared transport network up. Maybe you are more comfortable following, in some already existing role - and it is time to get out to the local food pantry and start figuring out where they are going to get enough food to help all the hungry. Maybe you care most about kids, or elders or women or the hispanic or black or asian community, and that’s where you should concentrate your energies. Maybe you want to work with members of your faith, your family or your friends. Great - do it. But do it now.

    We’re all going to need reliable sources of food.
    We’re all going to need some transportation.
    We’re going to need health care, and emergency services.
    We’re all going to need good work - even if it is only for food.
    We’re going to need ways to keep people housed, to connect folks who need homes with those who can’t keep them unless they rent some space.
    A lot of people are going to need warm clothes and blankets.
    A lot of people are going to need a meal, a helping hand, help with disabled family members and elders.
    And folks, when the formal economy falls away, when we cannot trust our government to act in our interests, all of us have to get acting to compensate, to keep the wolf from the door.

    The truth is that the bailout, on one level, was the final reminder of what Hurricane Katrina taught us, that no one is coming with a helicopter to rescue us. Fortunately, some of us have boats, and the rest of us can build life rafts, and there’s a lot we can do to rescue ourselves.

  4. An earnest and heartfelt plea, Keith, I hope it falls on fertile ears.
    Ian in Dundas ON