Real Life Food Storage Stories

Sharon May 19th, 2009

The single most gratifying thing that happens in my writing life is a particular kind of email.  In it, someone writes and tells me that they have just endured a difficult situation, whether a personal crisis or a regional one, and that because of the stuff I’d written about preparedness, they did ok.  These emails are sent to me privately, and I can’t repeat most of them in detail, but I thought I’d (anonymously) give a sense of the range of stories that I’ve been told, and the range of situations in which food storage and preparedness have been helpful.  All of these are real cases, and I post them because I think it is important to see how common it is to need a reserve of food or basic goods – that is, some of us really think of this as extreme behavior, or as something unusual, but in fact, putting by for difficult times is the most ordinary and normal thing imaginable.

While some of these are stories of major disasters, others are stories of increasingly common personal disasters - job loss, falling through a safety net, injury or illness.  The most common reasons for needing a reserve of food is simply that bad thing happen to us. And implied in choosing *not* to have a reserve is a level of dependence – it says “I’m just going to cast myself on the charity of others.”  Now there is nothing wrong with needing charity – I believe strongly that in a large measure the reason for government is to provide a safety net.  But along with one’s absolute right to take help when needed is the responsibility to do what you can to avoid taking help, particularly in times like these, when more and more people do need it.  There is never any dishonor in needing the food pantry.  But I think there is some in choosing, when you have a choice, not to protect yourself and your own, and thus, falling back on what are supposed to be solutions of last, rather than first resort. 

I recently got an email from a single Mom.  She relies on food stamps and child support to supplement her small income and make sure she can feed her three children.  Well, one month, her ex didn’t pay up, and the food stamp payment didn’t arrive because of an administrative error.  She had no money at all after the utility bill and house payment were made.  While she wouldn’t have starved, she would have had to spend much of her time going around to relief agencies begging for help, and they would have gone hungry - except that she had managed on her small budget to accumulate a large food reserve.  While she missed fresh food, her family ate, and she was spared the panic that she would have felt otherwise. She said her children really enjoyed the meals she cooked.

Last year, during the Midwest flooding, I got several emails from people who told me how helpful it was to have a reserve of food, but in particular, water.  Because water was contaminated in so many areas with agricultural chemicals and manures, which can’t necessarily be fixed by boiling, one person wrote me that their water was actually nauseating in smell.  There was no way his young son or pregnant wife was going to drink that stuff, so he was enormously grateful that they did not have to, that they had enough water stored to get through until the supplies stabilized.  He also wrote of how shocked his neighbors were when he offered to have them over for a barbecue – they were stunned that they still had food enough to share a week into the event.

A woman wrote me last fall from Houston, where many people were without power for several weeks after Hurricane Ike.  She said she was grateful for the stored food – because the grocery stores had no power, they were accepting only cash, and she and her husband had run out of cash a few days after the crisis.  They lived on their food, and had enough to share with their neighbors, also out of food.  Their only other chance would have been to be shuttled out of town to a relief center, and none of them would take their pets.  This meant they could stay safely home with their animals.

Another correspondent told me that her daughter was born two months early, from an emergency C-section due to a placental abruption.  Both she and her daughter were in danger, and her daughter remained hospitalized for several weeks.  Meanwhile, it was lambing season on their farm, and while she was spending all day at the hospital pumping breastmilk, and recovering from surgery and blood loss, her husband had the care of their young son during the busiest season of the year.  She told me that the home canned food she put up was their lifeline – the meals were boring, but they were already ready, and she didn’t have to feel guilt about opening jars of homemade applesauce and beef stew for her husband and son, when that was all she could manage.  They did not shop for a full month, and they were fine.

 I’ve had a number of correspondents from the ice storms that hit this past year in the Northeast and in Kentucky.  One of them told me that she and her husband were out of reach of any transport because of downed trees for 11 days.  They had no power, and thus no well pump, and they and the three other families on their road lived pretty much entirely on their stored food and water, cooking on their woodstove.  No one else had anything prepared at all.

I’ve heard many stories about the value of food storage in job losses lately as well.  A man emailed me to tell me that both he and his wife, employed by the same company, were laid off in January on the same day.  Their income dropped by 50% that afternoon, and he said that food storage made it possible for them to make reasoned choices, to take their time and figure out what to do, rather than going immediately into default on their mortgage.  If they’d had to buy food, they wouldn’t have been able to keep up the mortgage payments.  As it was, they cut back on everything else, and have been able to stay in their house until the school year was over and also actually sell their house, rather than losing it. 

In another case, a woman writes from a place where she’s one of many people in great distress.  She’s raising her grandkids, because her daughter is mentally ill, and she hasn’t had a job since November.  The food pantries don’t have enough to go around, and her neighbors who go to the soup kitchens say you have to get there early, and stand in line, because the soup runs out when the lines are still backed up around the corner.  My correspondent has enough money for unemployment to pay her rent, but not enough for much in the way groceries, and not enough in food stamps to get by, and she doesn’t want her grandkids to join the kids in her neighborhood who only get to eat at school.  But she’s got a big pantry, and even though she’s been relying on it for months, she says there’s still enough to invite in the neighbor kids after school for cookies and milk – the milk is powdered, the cookies have fewer chocolate chips in them than they used to.  But she’s keeping her grandbabies fed, and she’s making sure that some of the hungry kids in her neighborhood get something to eat other than tater tots on a tray once a day.

I hope for everyone that none of us ever need our food storage, that it is always an agreeable luxury.  But the odds are good that it won’t be for everyone.  And I hope maybe knowing that you can need it tomorrow, not just in the event of some huge disaster, makes the project seem less abstract and more real.

Sharon

35 Responses to “Real Life Food Storage Stories”

  1. grandmabecker says:

    Been married 37 year this June. I have always had a pantry. There have been years where I canned and other I didn’t. But there is at least a 6 month supply of food in the freezer and downstairs in the pantry. You never know… Hubby was laid off in Dec. First time ever. Had all the gifts bought and goodies made. I didnt have to grocery shop for anything but fresh stuff.
    I tell everyone-grow your own, can and buy on sale. And have enough to live for a few months. It can be done.

  2. I’m harping on this one to all my friends and Facebook buddies. You just never know when that extra food is going to help somebody besides your own family.

    I’m grateful that the school lunch in Oakland is better than “tater tots on a tray.” They get a fresh veg and a piece of fresh fruit every day along with the usual commercial food service stuff.

    BTW my son now attends a public elementary school that is celebrating its 100th year. The Dad’s Club puts on a pancake breakfast each spring, and I was delighted to see real (mismatched, donated) dishes and utensils, and a couple of gorgeous, vintage, working restaurant stoves. Other schools have unhooked their stoves from the gas lines because the school lunches are now like airline food, heat and serve in individual wrapped portions.

    Why does this school still have a working kitchen? Because the Dad’s Club is SEVENTY YEARS OLD and counting – that’s 1939, pre-World War II. And they keep making pancakes. So if a big crisis hits, we can cook food for the neighborhood at the elementary school. I have enough rice and beans to feed about two hundred people, two times.

  3. MEA says:

    Have you noticed how much your emails and these posts are about sharing!!!!!

  4. Laurie in MN says:

    I need to make my DH read this one. And start in on the “Food Storage – Baby Steps”. :) THIS is the kind of stuff that scares the bejeebers out of me, and given how food oriented my DH is, maybe we can make some real planned preparation in addition to the usual stocking up we do. (Neither one of us is comfortable without a fairly well stocked house/pantry. It’s hilarious when we go camping and have to bring stuff BACK! ;) )

    On the flip side, how good to know that these folks were able to make the preps they needed before they needed them. There is hope….

  5. Shira says:

    Hi Leila, salaam alekam, what’s your recipe for yogurt cheese balls preserved in oil? Particularly, how do you get yogurt cheese solid enough to hang together in balls and not fall apart? I hung mine for two days and it still had the consistency of creme fraiche.

    Oh yah, food preserving stories… I am self-employed and the usual slow winter season hit earlier, harder, and lasted longer this past winter. A bad storm in December wiped out my normally reliable winter garden and a power outage turned the baggies of frozen green beans into compost. At least the frozen chickens and other large items survived OK.

    So it was a right tight winter, with the cash saved for the mortgage and utilities. We were fine. I fired up the sprouter in place of my vanished winter greens. We had homemade sauerkraut and tomato sauce; saved squashes and onions; a vegetable drawer full of beets from the garden; canned pineapple and dehydrated veggies and mushrooms in the soup made from refrozen chicken. I found myself resurrecting recipes from my Midwest childhood. I guess we didn’t have much fresh food in the winter back in the day.

    So kudos to Sharon and all for last year’s Independence Days, because all the work sure came in handy.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  6. Shamba says:

    Everyone–EVERYONE–should do food storage! Some kind of food storage.

    2 1/2 weeks ago i fell and have a stress fracture in my right arm–I’m able to type today since it’s doing quite well.

    fortunately, the injury is not very serious and my trip through the ER went quite well and I expect to recover fully. I had cat food stored, food of my own and so the inconveniences of this whole thing were made easier by the supplies I had on hand.

    I also had to get some frozen dinners to help out and someone had to open my canned goods and then we stowed them in the fridge for a day or so until i could use them with my good arm and hand. but I had the food on hand and hopefully in a week or so, after the dr visit tomorrow I will be doing much more.

    Celery and carrots can be eaten raw by hand easily enough and bell peppers like apples, if you really need to.

    Peace to All,
    shamba

  7. Shamba says:

    Also, nonfat powdered milk is easier to measure out and mix up a cup or two at a time than trying to handle any kind of milk carton!. :)

    Shamba

  8. Theresa says:

    These are powerful and compelling stories – thank you for telling them. We started storing food and water under your guidance about a year or so ago, and it is coming along well. Although we haven’t had to face any huge emergencies (yet), it has surely been handy in the face of a few small ones, like snowstorms and illnesses and such. Now I can’t imagine not having it!

  9. Theresa says:

    Oh, and one other thing: because of having food stored was able to quickly put together a really nice basket of comfort items when my sister’s mother-in-law passed away last year. Both the giving and the receiving served to comfort us all a little that day.

  10. Hi Shira, thanks for asking, I have never done the yogurt cheese ball thing so I can’t say I have my own recipe! Good luck with it. I guess if you’re having trouble, you should let the yogurt drain longer, to make it drier.

  11. oh Shira I see now that you said you hung your yogurt cheese two days and it was still too wet. Maybe your yogurt wasn’t solid enough? Maybe it needed to be from whole milk, and maybe it needed to culture longer (at warm temp, before refrigerating?)

    Maybe the starter was old? Maybe the starter was new but not powerful enough, or just had a tendency to be runny?

    This is really out of my area of expertise. I don’t make yogurt that often (used to) and I am now speculating, not speaking with authority.

  12. gaiasdaughter says:

    Okay, I’m going to whine. I find that if I whine publically I usually embarrass myself enough to come up with the answer I knew all along but refused to acknowledge. I’ve been reading Sharon’s posts and Sharon’s book and agree with pretty muchly everything she’s said, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make it work in my circumstances. My husband and I, and now my 82-year-old mother, were stupid enough to retire to a sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico. Our most likely emergency would be another hurricane with perhaps no house to come home to. So stocking a pantry is very likely a waste of time and money. Selling the house and moving is not an option at the present time — no one has bought in our area since 2004 when Ivan wiped out half the houses, and what’s more, DH loves our house and neighborhood and would never consider relocating. I go to bed every night saying the serenity prayer but still wake up at 3:00 am wondering how the hell I’m going to do what I believe I need to do. If anyone has any ideas, I am wide open.

    PS Daughter, son-in-law and brand new born-on-Earth-Day granddaughter live in Las Vegas . . . that’s one of the few places I consider to be more unsustainable than where we have hung our hats. Dang!

  13. Um, Gaiasdaughter, you could pray a lot.

    And if you have any money, you can rent a storage locker inland on dry land? Keep a bug out kit next to the car, one for each of your family members, plus keys to the inland storage locker?

    I agree about Vegas. My brother is in the water bidness and has been describing the treatment plan there. It’s pretty unbelievable, that place. But they built Vegas so that us Californians could have somebody to feel smug about. Yes we live on a giant fault and in a dry climate, but at least we have more water than… Vegas!

  14. More seriously Gaiasdaughter…

    I was struck in September 2005 by the story on NPR about a family from New Orleans who had a detailed get-out-ahead-of-category-4 plan. They assessed the skills of their 2 breadwinners and decided where they would relocate based on availability of jobs in their fields (Memphis, 5 hours north on the freeway). They developed a plan for who would get which relatives into what car. They set up kits to take with them. So when word came down about Katrina, they had everybody in their cars with all important belongings and were arrived at their new city while the rest of New Orleans was still stuck in traffic or fighting each other to buy bottled Kool-aid. The two bread winners got work right away and got housing. They lost everything but they landed on their feet.

    Planning ahead helps. If I were you I would get the family to agree on where you would run to if (when) running becomes necessary, with a plan for what you’re going to do once you get there.

  15. Lori Scott says:

    We have a big tropical garden. A cyclone could sweep through here and we’d still be digging stuff up for food. But everyone laughs at my ‘hungry’ categories.

    There is the nice stuff that I just can’t wait for it to be ready to pick. Then there’s the less than nice stuff which is functional and we would miss if we didn’t have it and it probably needs processing.

    Then there is the category ‘I’d have to be hungry’! This includes arrowroot, yacon, cassava, custard apples and a dozen other things that I really don’t like but would certainly keep me alive and healthy. When things get a bit tight, you’ll find me eating roasted arrowroot, sharing with the chickens and maybe I’ll get an egg or two….

  16. linda says:

    Hi Sharon
    I should of been one to have emailed you to thank you. I started reading your blog last year and began to not only store food but to save as much money as we could with the idea of applying it towards converting our country property towards being off grid. Unfortunately, my husband was injured on the job this last January and the insurance company denied his claim so we literally went to zero income overnight and have been living that way since then. I couldn’t find work myself.
    While our house money became our emergency funds and we were pretty fortunate to have that resource at all, we didn’t qualify for any aid, not even welfare because of that money. The food I had been storing helped ease the load quite a bit. Resourcefulness was another gift.
    Yesterday, he finally got a release for light duty and can now collect unemployment if his boss doesn’t have work for him. We have a long way to go before we are find ourselves ahead of the game but we survived this because I had the foresight to listen to your advise and teachings.
    So thank you Sharon! You helped to keep my family afloat.

  17. safira says:

    Many years ago, back when I was with my ex, I had a huge garden and amused him and my friends by freezing huge supplies of everything I could lay my hands on, including enough pesto to feed a small army. More pesto than anyone would ever eat, they thought.

    Only that winter was rough. I was working intermittently, we were hammered with unexpected expenses, and our neighbors, who sold preserves at the Union Square market in New York City, kept getting snowed in so they couldn’t make it to market and were dead broke. Well, I had pesto and frozen and canned veggies, the neighbors had preserves to cob together a cobbler, and someone could always scrape together a buck or two for pasta. We all managed to eat all winter.

    OK, it took about five years before I wanted to eat pesto again, but we made it through.

    And since then, I’ve always been careful to keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer–and a better balanced one, for that matter. Pesto’s delicious, but not every darn night.

  18. Jill says:

    It doesn’t always work out how you expect. We moved to a new home last summer, started a garden, and a pantry. I assumed it was a ‘just in case’ sort of thing or for when the kids were sick and we couldn’t make it to a store. Not so. My parents and brother live close by and were over nearly everyday helping us work on the new house. My dad lost his job in early summer and we were able to feed them a few nights a week out of our pantry and new garden. We sure didn’t expect to be feeding another family for the summer, but we managed to do it just fine (although near the end nobody wanted to eat rice with peppers and beans anymore).

    Most of the ‘success’ stories in Sharon’s blog and from the comments showcase people’s generosity and willingness to care for one’s neighbors. It’s encouraging to read.

    Jill

  19. Shira says:

    Leila,

    Thanks for the yogurt cheese tips. I guess it’s like anything, it’s about attention to detail: milk temperature, starter care and storage conditions, etc. Now that you mention focusing on the details, I had quite the learning curve with sourdough bread and now it’s just routine.

    I fed some folks hereabouts last winter. A friend with a small business had everything just stop completely for months. I sacked up a fat loaf of sourdough bread, beans, rice and oatmeal for his family several times. Other people just got homemade bread, or some of the refrozen hamburger meat after the power went out on the freezer.

    This year, I need to get a pressure gauge for the pressure canner that I have and learn to use it. Some of the chickens should be canned. A couple more days without power and nothing in the freezer would be salvageable.

    The other interesting thing that happened last winter was running out of things. We ran out of snacks and goodies early, and after that we ran out of various things. I kept adapting recipes. Going to the grocery store was a culture shock experience. It was like someone had edited out several decades; juxtaposed my hard scrabble Midwest childhood with current standards for American abundance.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  20. gaiasdaughter says:

    Leila Abu-Sabaon, thanks for the storage locker suggestion. I hadn’t considered that one. My biggest fear is being uprooted a few years from now — at a time when starting over would be much more difficult. I want to put down roots now . . . start building good soil, plant trees and a garden I know has a good chance of being there at harvest time. I even have my next (inland) home picked out at realtor.com! My best-case scenario is getting wiped out by a hurricane this summer, before we sink any more time and money into the current house. I would feel guilty about wishing this on my neighbors but I figure they’d be better off elsewhere, too :)

  21. dogear6 says:

    gaiasdaughter – if you had to flee a hurricane, where would you be most likely to go? If it to a friend or relative, would they be willing to give you a set of shelves in a room that you could keep extra supplies there? You could still accumulate it at your current house, but every few months drive it to wherever you would be most likely to go if you had to evacuate.

  22. Frogdancer says:

    I loved reading this post! I have always had a few supplies in reserve, but since renovating the kitchen and getting a corner pantry put in (oh how I love my corner pantry!) I’ve been able to store far more. I’ve mainly been using it as a way to only go shopping every month or so but as the sole provider for my boys I like to feel that they’d be taken care of should supplies to supermarkets be interupted for any reason.

  23. Houstonmom says:

    Thanks for posting this. Nice to read encouraging stories.

  24. What a rewarding blog post – thank you for sharing stories of folks who have sacrificed to prepare and then been blessed as a result in their time of need.

  25. Kati says:

    Here’s another one for ya….. Not that my hubby or I have lost our jobs, but with some medical expenses I’ve had, we’ve had several weeks (I do my shopping on a weekly basis) over the last 4 or 5 months where I’ve had between 25 and 100 to get us through the week for groceries. It’s getting to the stage where having $100 almost feels like a luxury. (And, about twice, in the past 4 months, I’ve actually had a period where I could spend $200 and actually do some stocking up.) Most of what I’m able to buy isn’t in bulk, though I’m trying to do more of that when & where possible.

    But, having that stocked “pantry” has many times over the past several months allowed us to eat reasonably well with only $35 spent at the grocery store for the week for the 3 of us. I know, some folks will feel like $35 for 3 people (and 2 large dogs!) is actually quite a lot. But, it really doesn’t buy a lot during the winter in Alaska (esp. fresh fruits & veggies). But, between my stocked pantry and searching old Quick Cooking & Taste of Home mags for cheap meals…. We’re eatting well even on just a few bucks a week. And that includes leftovers for work lunches, for at least 1 of us, usually.

    Thanks for your prompting and encouragement to be frugal & handy and stock up & garden. It’s helping.

  26. My husband lost his job in May 2008. Through the summer, while he was still able to get unemployment, I did what I could to stock up on veggies and fruits from the farmers market and freeze them so we could enjoy them in the winter. (Yes, it got to the point that we had to lock the freezer to keep it closed, but that’s ok.)
    Not only did we make it through the winter, but also the leftovers in our freezer have come in very handy the last two months. We were able to shift some of our food budget to supplies for building garden beds and buying seeds and sets so we can grow more of our own food this summer.

  27. [...] Real life food storage stories – MUST READ!   This entry was posted on Thursday, October 8th, 2009 at 11:52 am and is filed under Heads Up!. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  28. [...] For some more real-life examples of what can happen when the unexpected comes calling, check out Sharon Astyk’s most excellent blog “Casaubon’s Book-Real Life Food Storage Stories.” [...]

  29. [...] 1. Some real life stories that readers have sent me about how food storage changed their lives and he….  This is a good reminder that zombies don’t have to be roaming the streets to make a food reserve useful. [...]

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