Food Storage 102 – 2 Weeks Is Not Enough

Sharon July 8th, 2008

Last time I ran the food storage class, I started off with a Food Storage 101 post that discussed the bare minimum for food storage – the 2 weeks recommended by both the US Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross.  I reviewed the fact that 2 week extended periods in which we are unable to shop or get supplies are actually not at all uncommon – that they have occurred many times in rich world nations including the US, and that all of us should, as simply commonsense preparedness, have a 2 week supply of food.  I then went along trying to get you all to store much more food than that, but I didn’t want to push too hard on that, because I know that for some people, the idea that you might not be able to get food at the store for more than a couple of weeks due to a short-term disaster is just plain crazy talk. 

But this time around, I’m going to push the issue, even if it makes you think I’m nuts (if you are just figuring this out, you may be new to the blog ;-) ).  Because the truth is that 2 weeks is nowhere near enough – 3 months really should be the minimum.

 Why?  Five reasons, all of them, I think important.

1. Longer periods of large scale crisis/limited supplies are well within the realm of the possible – they fit with planning scenarios.  Government agencies and some nations are recommending larger quantities – often 3 months worth of food.

2. People planning for very short terms actually are at a disadvantage, both economically and in terms of how they think about their personal infrastructure – that is, in many ways, it is cheaper, easier and better to make plans for longer term disruptions, because the strategies commonly used for them are cheaper and better and make more sense.

3. Because it is mistake to view food storage and preservation as merely a hedge against a major, widespread national disaster.  Personal disasters occur all the time, and can be just as devastating as a national supply crisis.  Buying food now, and storing it in bulk means you can keep your family fed in a medical crisis, after a job loss, etc… 

4. Many crises mean you may be caring for more than just yourself. It is easy to look around at your family right now and say “ok, there’s me, Mom and my brother, we need that times 2 weeks” – but the truth is that a crisis in your region or your area may involve extended family who evacuate, your neighbors coming to you to admit their pantry is completely empty, and do you have anything at all for their hungry kids, someone coming and asking if you have anything at all to share with those who are worse off – and don’t doubt worse off can almost always happen.  

5. Those with the knowledge and ability to do so have the obligation not to drain resources needed for those who didn’t have the capacity to prepare.  So let’s say that the disaster does only last two weeks, and that there are people out there with soup waiting – is there enough soup for everyone?  You don’t know, and resources are almost always stretched thin in a disaster.  The mindset that says “I just have to make it until the safety net picks me up” is the wrong one.  I believe in safety nets – but they work best when people can be trusted not to use them unless they really need them.  Right now most of us (and yes, I know that there are some readers of this blog who simply can’t do anything or any more than they have already) have the ability and the knowledge of the coming crises to remove ourselves from the emergency lines when the time comes, and that’s both a privelege (we can protect ourselves and our loved ones) and a burden (we are now responsible for ourselves).

Let’s talk scenarios, and why 2 weeks food storage is not an adequate minimum.   The first reason is that a whole lot of people dealing with these issues think it is not unlikely that you might have to endure a much longer period of time without resupply than just two weeks.  For example, in the case of a flu pandemic, various government agencies estimate that a influenza wave might require quarantine periods of up to 12 weeks. The Australian Government suggests that average Australian stockpile food for 3 months.  So that’s just one possible scenario in which you’d want a much longer supply – in the case of a widespread epidemic, you don’t want to have to go the grocery store during periods where contagion is spreading. 

But more importantly, the scenario planning that government agencies are doing tends to focus on a short term, localized crisis – a tornado, a flood, wildfires.  The assumption of the two week theory is that there will be one big disaster, and the nation’s response will be mobilized to get to you there.  Even when that’s actually what happens, the two week limit hasn’t been adequate a number of times – in the ice storm that paralyzed much of the Northeast in the late 1990s, for example, there were areas of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire that didn’t have power back or road access for 16 days more.  In Kobe Japan, during the last major earthquake, it took more than 2 weeks for rescue workers to reach some of the hardest hit suburbs – and Kobe was one of the best prepared cities in the world for earthquakes. 

But let us imagine a non-localized crisis – either multiple natural disasters occurring simultaneously (not super likely, but not at all impossible), or a dramatic, sudden rise in energy prices that cut off many areas from food deliveries (again, not super likely immanently, but hardly impossible).  In that case, everyone has needs that have to be answered right now – and there’s simply no way for even the best organized response to cover everyone.

Finally, the most likely disaster to befall you is this.  You lose your job.  Your spouse losess their job.  You spend your savings on a medical crisis or two.  You are stretched trying to keep your house/pay your rent/buy gas to get to work, and you don’t have any money for food.  Your kids are hungry, and the food pantry is, as at least one US pantry was, down to stale Doritos because of the huge demand.  Maybe you get food stamps (assuming the program can still be funded after a radical drop in tax revenue), but they don’t stretch to the end of the month.  And two weeks worth of food won’t save you.  Neither will three months, but it gives you options.

I know that some of you can’t buy extra food because you can’t buy enough food.  For the rest, you need to do what you can, both to protect yourself, and to make sure that you don’t compete for food resources with those who have no ability to protect themselves, maybe ensure that you can drop a few cans at the food pantry, even when things get tough at home.  That means a minimum of three months of food.  Build it up gradually, write down what you eat, focus on meals based on staple foods like grains, dried beans, locally produced and home preserved vegetables.  I wrote during my last class about what a 3 month supply of food looks like.

I know this is hard – in March I was being soft, and helping people with baby steps.  I’m going to be blunt now – I don’t think we have that much time before it gets harder and harder for more and more of us to prepare and get ahead.  I don’t think it will be that long before many of us can’t afford those extra bags of rice anymore.  So I’m not going to suggest baby steps anymore – I think all of us should get very, very serious about this.  And I wish I didn’t think that.

 More soon,

 Sharon

28 Responses to “Food Storage 102 – 2 Weeks Is Not Enough”

  1. Michelle says:

    Good post. Bread and butter freeze reasonably well. I spend 5-10% of
    my grocery budget each week on
    long term food.

  2. Lisa Z says:

    We have times when our income is higher than at others, or when we can make a little extra money. Right now summer is that time–my teacher husband doesn’t pay union dues in summer so that’s a little extra. He also teaches private lessons in summer, for a little extra money. This summer we are using much of that “extra” to pay for food storage, and to buy lots of produce at the farmer’s market to preserve, to really stock up for winter and “just in case” emergencies.

    Food is important to us; we’ve always done this but now we have an added motivation. Good post, Sharon.

    Lisa in MN

  3. Crikey, woman, we must be on the same brain wavelength because I’ve been up since 5:30am thinking about food storage. I was having a weird dream about stealing thong underwear, Alec Baldwin and having to go pee. Repeatedly. That will wake up just about anyone, I think.

    Anyway, I wasn’t thinking about food storage the whole time I was lying in bed – the rest of the time I was thinking about passive solar heating – but anyway. Food storage. I’ll have to go back and review the link to your recommended 3 months quantities. I have the space for it, but I’m not sure I’ll store that much food. How much are you actually storing?

    My question for you (and maybe you’ve already covered this somewhere and I just need to grope around a bit) is this: what good is having food storage if you don’t have clean water (or yikes! any water) and fuel to prepare or cook it? I think I could hobble along with a solar cooker about 3 months of the year in Seattle, but what do you recommend otherwise? Should I store extra propane tanks for the BBQ/camp stove? Stock up on charcoal and get a mini grill (not really my favorite, but less flammable option)? Dig a firepit in the backyard and chop up the fence?

    As for water… assuming I have energy for boiling and bleach for disinfecting I think one could hobble along. What are other people keeping on hand for water purification? That doesn’t require electricity? Maybe I need a handheld home desalinization pump. Although seaweed is nutritious.

    For some stupid reason, the government is giving us $1800 in an economic stimulus check. I might as well spend part of it on something useful.

  4. Sharon says:

    Wow, I was having the Alec Baldwin/thong dream too – we really must be on the same wavelength ;-) . (Actually, I was having the same stupid dream I have everytime I start a big project, the one where I’m back in high school and failing, and keep trying to explain that I don’t have to learn algebra again because I graduated…)

    You have, of course, put your finger on a big issue. You need some way to cook the food and a source of water. Or you need to store things like MREs (ick) or other instant foods. This assumes, of course, that the only scenarios in which you need food storage are total disasters, when the water is not coming in and the gas/electric is out. This is not always the case – that is, you might have water, but no food, particularly in a city. But disasters do happen that could mess up that situation.

    I do recommend people store some water – FEMA recommends 2 weeks – a minimum of 1 gallon per person per day, but that’s only minimal drinking needs, and doesn’t cover any bathing or dishwashing, which you’d definitely want if you were stuck for two weeks.

    But you need a water filter – a solar distiller (I honestly don’t know if those work with seawater), a good filtration system so you can use rainwater from rainbarrels (I have a British Berkefeld – Sustainable Choice which advertises with me on the sidebar sells them at a fairly good price, but there are other sources). The Berkefeld people claim you can pour raw sewage in the top and drink what comes out – I have not field tested this feature ;-) . I would think Seattle has enough rain that you could catch sufficient quantities off your roof, and then filter it. You could put in a cistern or have a well dug (if legal) also, but those are bigger investments.

    For cooking – sterno, extra propane for the grill, a rocket stove that uses twigs and windfall wood http://www.inthewake.org/b1cooking.html, a solar oven, a wood stove, a firepit – these are all real possibilities. But they do take some time and energy and investment, all of which I imagine are short at your place right now. The link that I’ve included does a good overview of your options. Those are the big barriers, though. More here: http://sharonastyk.com/2008/03/05/food-storage-101-part-ii-water-and-buckets-more-to-come/

    As for how much I have stored – at this point, maybe a year and a half to two years for our family. Since I’m guessing that we’ll have at least twice as many people in our household in a widespread crisis as we do now, though, it isn’t as much as it sounds like. And, of course, I’ve been doing this a long time, and didn’t start all at once.

    Sharon

  5. Meadowlark says:

    Very timely. I have my stimulus check and my birthday money to spend. At least now the husband isn’t rolling his eyes when I buy bags of beans and rice. Or at least he’s not rolling them very MUCH.

    Looking forward to learning and thanks for sharing this valuable information in a form that’s easy to understand.

  6. Sarah says:

    Yeah, I think one of my priorities this summer, besides learning new preservation techniques, will be to acquire and learn how to use some form of non-stove cooking equipment, which will most likely be one of those little indoor sterno stoves. I’d like a solar oven, too, but in terms of emergency situations, one of the most likely natural disasters to happen here is an ice storm. Solar ovens are really not ideal in Massachusetts in January.

  7. cb says:

    Just went to the grocery. My brand of baked beans have always been 5/$2.00. Today they were 85 cents each. Tiny little cans of diced tomatoes (I can my own) were 1.19. A vanilla bean was $14.00. But!! Canning lids were on sale from 2.09 down to 1.89. What’s up with that?

  8. Shira says:

    Frank Kingdon-Ward has some wonderful advice on food storage. He was packing for long plant collecting expeditions in Asia, but his advice applies to more sedentary adventures. Here are some roughly paraphrased bits:

    Have a couple of cases of jam; it makes any kind of mush palatable.
    Bring hot sauce; you can usually buy barley flour to make chapatis.
    Always have a case of cognac in your stores, and a case of whiskey for medicine.
    Buy bags of sugar, but check to make sure that it is not adulterated.
    Pickles are a very welcome addition to a diet of bland grains and pulses; bring several cases, and buy more if you find some native ones to your liking.
    Bring plenty of rice; you may not be able to find any.
    Tinned meat may be the only meat that you have, as the hunting is often bad.
    Tea revives strength, warms cold bodies and makes long trips tolerable.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  9. Aahh. Brilliant. I didn’t think of the rain barrel / water purifier combo.

    Don’t most muni water supplies run by electricity to pump water to provide the pressure to get it to the tap? Same with sewage? To pump it all in the correct directions? Maybe I’m thinking a little too much into the catastrophe scenario here (long-term interruptions in electrical supply in addition to food supply), but I’m satisfied by the rain barrels. I’ll look into the filters.

  10. Bonnie says:

    Wow! This has been on my mind so much. I’ve only stumbled on “Peak Oil” in the last month… I feel like I have SO much catching up to do. I’m working hard to get into gear. I appreciate you giving as much detail as you do, as it takes some of the leg-work out of preparing for what lies ahead.

    Keep throwing us the hard challenges. We can take it!

  11. NM says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share this information. Definitely has me thinking.
    Some cities do run water on a gravity-fed system. If they happen to be located on a hill.
    In the Pacific Northwest, there’s plenty of rainwater from about October to May or June, but most years there is virtually no rain for two or three months in the summer. At least down in Oregon; I don’t know about Seattle. So I guess maybe we (I), need to focus on storing water over the summer. Also, I’ve read that you don’t want to drink (or water the vegetable garden with) water that has run over asphalt roof shingles. Though in an emergency, that might not seem important.

  12. Noelle says:

    My memory of living in western WA is that it rains all year long. Nonstop in the winter, in the summer there are extended periods of nice weather, but still plenty of rain. It does depend, though–the Olympics cast a rain shadow up north. I lived just south of the Hoh rain forest, so we got plenty of rain any time of year.

    I have a question (that may have been addressed in the last class or may be addressed later) about cooking from storage. A couple years ago I checked out the More-with-Less cookbook from the library. My memory is that it has a lot of simple, grain-based recipes. Would this be a good resource for cooking from storage?

  13. Rosa says:

    NM, I think the asphalt roof shingle thing is, the first few minutes of hard rain, or the first half inch of rain, don’t save the water because it’s full of dirt & debris & bird poop from the roof. We water our plants with roof-catchment water all the time, and I would be comfortable drinking it after running it through a filter (ours came from REI for camping).

    If I ever get around to it, I will also put up a spout to divert that water away from both my rain barrels and the garden if I need to. I stayed at a place in Indiana that had two weeks of no-drink warnings after a chemical plant fire. The creeks turned ectoplasm green and the clouds were not much prettier, so I would guess rain water in that situation might not be OK for a few days too.

    I think a combination of rocket stove, pressure cooker, hay box, and frypan will keep us well fed. I have everything but the rocket stove…I’ve seen internet directions for metal ones, but I’ve actually used a clay version and liked it a lot, plus it would blend with all the clay pizza ovens I see in people’s yards…hmn.

  14. Paula Hewitt says:

    The problem I’ve always had with storing food for emergencies is the food recommended is not stuff we would normally eat (spam, tin veggies, crackers) so it would sit in the back of the cupboard for the emergency but be out of date, before we could bring ourselves to eat it. However keeping large stocks of food you do eat and cycling through it is a better idea.

    an aside: our local paper ran a story this week so say the local food bank had bare shelves. scary.

  15. Rosa says:

    This reminds me – I buy apple juice in shelf-stable metal cans, like pop cans. Our local grocery store used to carry grape and orange juice in those cans too, but stopped.

    Does anybody have a source for that kind of shelf-stable juice? I can my own tomato juice, but I’d love to have shelf-stable orange juice. I’m not a fan of the tetrapak boxes.

  16. NM says:

    The asphalt roof shingle issue is whether heavy metals and/or toxic chemicals leach out of the shingles (or things like moss-killing strips applied to the roof) and into the run-off water. But there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether or how much they do, at least that I was able to find in a quick search. Partly it appears to depend on how the shingles were manufactured in the first place, and what went into them. Apparently, you don’t want to be drinking zinc (would that be referred to as zinking?)
    Anyway, it made me nervous. I did note on rereading that Sharon talks about decontaminating the water first, so maybe it’s just an issue of finding filtering mechanisms would remove said theoretical contaminants. Kind of a side issue of long-term storage, but it’s one that interests me, largely because of our lengthy rain-free months. Some people have started putting in cisterns around here, partly because water in Oregon is over-allocated — we’ve got more water rights than we do water, and this is not expected to turn out well in the next decade or two. Farmers and cities are worried (and occasionally, at legal war). The state Legislature, unfortunately, is not (worried, that is) …

  17. Anonymous says:

    To Rosa and others considering massively stocking up on tin can products:

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/04/bpa-danger-from-cans.php

    It would appear there’s more BPA in cans than in water bottles or baby bottles… Scary stuff.

  18. [...] Food Storage 102 – 2 Weeks Is Not Enough [...]

  19. Dody says:

    Very timely indeed. Let me see, my husband lost his job and I am partially disabled (temporarily) due to a car crash. I spent our stimulus, before all this happened, on food storage and gadgets to make food. I bought 300 lbs of food. I also bought 300 dollars of gadgets to grow sprouts, make yogurt from soy beans, and grind grain. All unfortunately electric. Next project SOLAR PANELS. I live in the south, sun central.

    I have a 750 gallon rain barrel, but honestly for my family that is only two weeks worth. (Family of 7) I am disinfecting with an MSR mini ceramic filter, distillation, and boiling. I am working on the solar oven with a Fresnel lens, but I know how to do solar distillation with out it.

    I don’t have “quite” a three month supply yet, but I am building it. As far as taking care of anyone else, unless they are under 12 they can forget it. I, unfortunately, was abandoned at 12 and learned how to fair for myself pretty well considering. It sounds cold, but it’s reality. I have my own babies to feed. ALL under this age.

  20. Shamba says:

    Since your last class series on Food Storage, I have at least 2 months of food but that’s just me and the 6 cats. If my elderly mom comes to live with me that will be less food than I eat these days, since she doesn’t have much of an appetite.

    I’m on the look out now for things to store up on all the time it seems. Best of all though since your last class ( I wasn’t in the class itself but read everything you posted here at the blog. It was quite a bit of information by itself.) I looked at various solar ovens and after about 6 mos of mulling it over I got myself a solar oven. I got th Tulsi solar oven, it comes with 4 pans with it.

    This thing is GREAT! I’ve used it almost everyday for the past 1 1/2 months, learning about how to prepare various foods with it. I live in southern Arizona where almost half the year it is terrible to even think about preparing food/eating well. This oven makes it so much easier for me to prepare good food and deal with the heat of our long hot season here.

    This oven and your blog and valuable food storage information have been extremely good for me, Sharon, I want you to know. and, all the comments others have here are always helpful, too.

    cheers,
    Shamba

  21. Paula Hewitt says:

    This is a bit off topic, but I was wondering if you are stocking up on non food essentials too – bedding, blankets, clothes, shoes etc? I am wondering if the cheap supply of these things from China will slow up/get more expensive with the increasing cost of fuel (and given Australia has decreased manufacturing locally – a lot is off shore now), and as it becomes more difficult to get to the shops, is it better to have extras of these things stored too? and if so, what would you stockpile?

  22. Rosa says:

    Hey anon, I didn’t say massively stocking up – I said when I buy juice concentrate, I buy it in metal cans because they’re shelf stable.

    But thanks for the heads-up, I wrote to Welch’s asking if they use BPA. We’ll see if they respond.

    But that makes me wonder what the coating is on my canning jar lids, too, and if it varies by brand :(

    Paula, I spend all summer stocking up on blankets, hats, and gloves when they are cheap at thrift stores. Then all winter I have them to give away. If I wasn’t *also* trying to declutter so we can move to a smaller house, I’d still be keeping denim for patching things and flat wovens for quilts and yarn for socks & hats and things, but I gave away my stashes a few years ago. I’m starting the denim stash again though – my son just started wearing out jeans before outgrowing them, this summer. Oh, and extra pairs of glasses are on our list for this summer – I do okay without mine but my bf really needs his. Just because right now we both have insurance that covers eyewear and that’s not always true.

  23. [...] more sound advice from Sharon Astyk. Last time I ran the food storage class, I started off with a Food Storage 101 post that discussed the bare minimum for food storage – the 2 weeks recommended by both the US Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross. I reviewed the fact that 2 week extended periods in which we are unable to shop or get supplies are actually not at all uncommon – that they have occurred many times in rich world nations including the US, and that all of us should, as simply commonsense preparedness, have a 2 week supply of food. I then went along trying to get you all to store much more food than that, but I didn’t want to push too hard on that, because I know that for some people, the idea that you might not be able to get food at the store for more than a couple of weeks due to a short-term disaster is just plain crazy talk. [...]

  24. [...] Food Storage 102 – 2 Weeks Is Not Enough Sharon Astyk’s Ruminations Blog (8 Jul 2008) [...]

  25. Tom Sponheim says:

    You can build the Fun-Panel solar cooker in less than an hour from half of a cardboard box an a few feet of aluminum foil.

    Tom Sponheim
    Solar Cookers International

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