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A Primer on Food Storage

Author: min S 

Americans have long been blessed with abundant food.  It has been this way for so many years that the majority of us never worry about running out of food.  We assume that anytime our kitchen pantry runs a bit low we can fill it right back up by making a quick trip to the grocery store.

But this happy situation is not typical in human history (it is also not true for many people in other parts of the world right now).  Our standard of living, including our easy access to food, is far above the historical norm.  Americans today spend very little of their money, time, or effort on meeting their food needs.  In contrast, not very many generations ago food production and storage was central in most people’s lives.  Is there any chance that our food situation could revert to that of our ancestors?  Could there ever be a day where we can’t simply pick up some food at the grocery store?

Certainly today we see short-term food shortages in the US.  Most often these involve some natural disaster – a hurricane, earthquake, or blizzard.  When this happens the evening news predictably brings us footage from a grocery store in the affected area.  The scene is always the same – hoards of shoppers descend on the store and buy every can of food and bottle of water.  There are long lines at the checkout, and within hours the store is picked clean.  Luckily in most cases a few days later the situation returns to normal, the store shelves are restocked, and the crisis is forgotten.

But what about a longer-term food shortage – one in which the grocery store shelves remain empty for weeks or months rather than for just days?  If there is even the remote possibility of such a shortage, wouldn’t it be wise to prepare for it?

Unfortunately, the fact that we have had abundant food in the US for so long discourages Americans from thinking about food storage.  Those that speculate about events that could lead to a food shortage, much less actually take steps to prepare for one, are considered to be “a bit nutty”.  There is a stigma associated with food storage that is difficult to overcome.

However, food storage makes extremely good sense.

First off, you may think of food storage as a type of insurance.  There is a low probability that your house will burn down, but you carry an insurance policy on your home.  There is a small chance you will smash your car next year, but you pay for auto insurance.  Likewise there is a small chance of a disruption in your food supply next year.  Food storage is, in a way, insurance against that.  There is also a very important difference between food insurance and typical insurance – if you don’t burn your house down or smash your car, the insurance company keeps your premium.  In contrast, if there is no food shortage in the future it cost you nothing since you can still eat your stored food.  At most you can say it cost some of your time and effort to stock your pantry.  Of course if a disruption in the food supply does occur, you will be much better off with some food stored than without it.

But while a food shortage in the near future may be only a remote possibility, food price increases resulting from monetary inflation are a certainty.  Food storage provides you an easy way to avoid the wealth destroying effects of inflation.  For example, say your family eats lots of macaroni and cheese.  You wisely decide to start storing food, and so buying a few cases of macaroni and cheese above and beyond what you will use in the near term is a natural place to start.  Your first, immediate benefit is that each box of macaroni and cheese costs less when bought in a case than individually.

Now you set your purchase aside for one year.  In that time, say the price of macaroni and cheese goes up 7%.  Provided that the taste and nutritional value of your food was unchanged by storing it, you successfully avoided the inflationary price increase.  Considering that you would be hard pressed to find an investment that consistently provided a 7% rate of return after taxes and fees, your macaroni and cheese “investment” just soundly outperformed any stock, mutual fund, or bank CD – and you didn’t even need a stockbroker.

So what types of food should you be putting away?  They fall into three broad categories:

1)   Foods you already eat lots of today that store (at least moderately) well.  This would include (approximate shelf lives in parenthesis):

·      Canned goods (2 years, and buy a spare can opener)

·      Pasta (5 years)

·      White rice (10 years, the shelf life of brown rice is much shorter)

·      Dried fruit

·      Sugar (indefinite)

·      Salt (indefinite)

·      Coffee

·      Tea

2)   Food that stores well (in some cases extremely well) but you are probably unaccustomed to eating in quantity now.  Examples would be:

·      Whole grain wheat (25+ years)

·      Dry beans (10 years)

·      Honey (indefinite, but dangerous to feed to infants)

·      Nonfat dry milk (2 years)

3)   Specialty storage food – this is food specially processed and packaged for long-term storage.  Military MRE’s (Meal Ready to Eat) are one example.  Specialty storage food is also available from many commercial companies.   Food in this category is typically more expensive than supermarket food and will not be discussed here.

There is a saying regarding food storage:  “Store what you eat and eat what you store.”  With this in mind, the obvious place to get started in food storage is to simply start buying and setting aside extra items that fall into category 1 (foods you would eat anyway).  If you buy extra foods that your family will consume regardless there is little risk of filling up the dumpster five years down the road with spoiled food no one wanted to eat.  Note that even at this basic level of food storage a bit of effort will be needed on your part.  First off, you will need to dutifully rotate your food.  In other words, if you have two cans of corn in your pantry and you wish to open one, choose to open the older of the two cans.  Set up whatever system you find helpful in rotating your stock.  It is very handy to have a shelf with both front and rear access – take food from the front while placing newly purchased food at the back.

Secondly you will need to keep an eye on inventory.  Watch which food products your family consumes a lot of.  It is safer to stock a large quantity of a food item they eat daily than something they eat infrequently.  Keep a list of what you are running low on for your next trip to the store.

If you choose to stock items that fall into category 2 (items you are not used to eating now) please avoid the temptation to simply place the food into storage and then forget about it until the day you need it comes.  For example if you store whole wheat, at least experiment with soaking the wheat overnight to make wheat berry cereal in the morning.  Then try growing sprouts, or buy a grain mill and make your own bread.  Even items you know how to prepare such as dry beans will shock your digestive system if you suddenly go to eating them daily.

As an aside, one type of food completely absent from both categories 1 and 2 is fat.  That is because fat is very difficult to store.  You may be thinking, “That is no big deal because fat is bad.”  While it is true that most Americans currently consume far more fat than is good for them, the human body still needs to consume some fat.  If a long-term food crisis ever does occur, sources of fat will be very valuable.

Now you should give some thought on how and where to store your food.  The enemies of stored food are:

·      Heat

·      Humidity

·      Light

·      Oxygen

·      Rodents and insects

·      Fluctuating temperature

First consider packaging.  Canned or jarred goods, as well foods you intend to eat in the relatively near term are fine to store “as is”.  Foods packaged in paper or cardboard however are vulnerable to humidity, oxygen, and rodents and should be repackaged for multi-year storage.  The key to remember is that the container in which your food is in contact must be food grade.  For example, a galvanized trash can, while providing excellent rodent protection, must still be lined with a food grade bag prior to receiving any food.  Food grade buckets are also an excellent option (make sure to also buy the lid with the rubber gasket).  Never reuse a container in which dangerous chemicals were previously stored for food storage.

After the food is in the container but before it is sealed the oxygen should be purged.  This will prevent both oxidation of the food and any insect infestations.  Probably the easiest way to do this is to use dry ice, which is available very inexpensively at some grocery stores.  In this method, a piece of dry ice is placed on top of the food and allowed to melt (the proper amount for a 5 gallon bucket is 4 oz).  Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide and it sublimates directly into gas.  It is also heavier than air, and so as it melts it will displace all of the air from the container.  When the dry ice is very nearly completely gone, seal the container.  Some experts also advise placing a desiccant (moisture absorbing) packet into the food as the cold from the dry ice may have condensed some water vapor out of the air.  Repackaging food in the driest section of your house would also be helpful.

Next, find the consistently coldest, darkest, driest part of your home and store your food there.  For most of us this is our basement.  Avoid placing your food container directly on the concrete floor – that may lead to moisture problems.