What Food Storage Can and Can’t Do

Sharon March 11th, 2008

In the first post in this series, I said that it is important to think about the “whys” of food storage.  I argued that there were a lot of good reasons to buy in bulk and to store food, and that emergency reserves were only part of it. 

That’s true, but I want to talk here about how to think about those emergency reserves in an extended crisis.   I know some participants here don’t think an extended, widespread crisis is possible or likely.  I know some other people think one is immanent.  I don’t pretend to know the answer - I only know that I will be a lot happier in an extended crisis if I have a food reserve than if not.  I also know that it is possible to have a purely personal extended crisis - a sudden major illness or extended job loss. 

Also early on, I said I’d talk about how to both adapt your storage to your diet, and your diet to your storage.  Both are essential parts of this project, and figuring out which one you need to do is part of understanding what an emergency food reserve can and can’t do.

In a true emergency, food storage CAN provide a cushion or a hedge, allowing you to go for an extended time without depending on stores, or to extend limited food dollars by relying primarily on stored food.  Depending on how much reserve you have, it might be enough to get you through a shorter term crisis.  If, for example, a crisis occurs during a dormant season (cold in the north, hot and dry in some parts of the south), it can help you get from one planting season to another.

Food storage CAN’T get most of us through a long term crisis - we will have to find some way to refill our stores and meet present needs.  Food storage DOES NOT obviate the need for gardening, or supporting local food systems.  Thus, if a crisis occurs during a growing season, it is probably wise to rely as much as possible on your garden and local food system, and save your food storage if you can. 

Because you are eventually going to have to rely on local food systems that means Food Storage CAN NOT and probably SHOULD NOT reproduce a conventional Western Diet precisely.  By this I mean that for most of us, neither a diet that relies primarily on stored foods nor one that can be produced sustainably and locally is going to look like a conventional Western diet.  So we need to begin adapting our diets now.  You might look back at my first post in this series on appetite fatigue and other reasons to eat now (at least some of the time) the way you may have to eat in the future.

Why can’t food storage or local diets work like the way you eat now?  Well, technically it is possible to eat a conventional Western Diet out of food storage.  How?  Buy a lot of icky things - powdered eggs, bleached flours, shortening.  Spend a lot of money on canned meats (or raise your own and can a *lot* of meat).   Buy a ton of ramen noodles, canned tuna and twinkies.  But there are two problems - some of this stuff is expensive, most of it is bad for you (and the badness will show up quickly if that’s all you are eating), and sooner or later you are going to run out.  And when that happens, you’ll have to make a major dietary transition quickly - which will not be pleasant.

In the meantime, the sheer quality of your food will be really, really poor.  That is, if you’ve been drinking lots of local, organic milk, you are going to notice the difference when you try and drink powdered milk - something I’d only touch at all for baking (this is a personal preference - I don’t drink much milk anyway).  If you’ve been cooking with good olive oil, a transition to shortening is going to be quite unpleasant.  Think of it not so much as keeping your conventional diet, but mimicking it, creating cheap knock-off foods that look vaguely like the originals, but don’t have the nutritional value or taste.  Food Storage CAN be used to get you a really crappy Western Diet that is probably worse than what you’d eat normally, but I don’t recommend it.

On the other hand, it is possible to eat an extremely high quality, nutritious, good tasting diet out of your food storage that is not a knock-off of anything - it is the real thing.  But this is different than how most Western people eat now. It relies on whole grains, roots and legumes at its base, with some preserved supplements.  Meals based on these foods take advantage of things that don’t lose quality in storage, that do taste good when kept dry.  That is, instead of forcing things that don’t store well into the shape of your diet, this centers your diet around foods that do store well.

Meat, milk and eggs, if you include them in your food storage, CAN BE USED as supplements, but generally not as centerpieces (I am speaking here only of storage, not of home-produced versions of these foods).  The reason for this is that meat, milk and eggs simply don’t preserve all that well - there are substantive losses in quality in any method of preservation.   So if we store these items (obviously, some people will want them, others won’t) it is to use them as a supplement, a taste of something desirable and familiar, not as an everyday centerpiece to a Western-style meal.

Everyone will have to decide for themselves how important these foods are to them.  But as they are doing so, they should also think about how their food storage integrates with the diet that their region is likely to provide them with when their food storage runs out.  There is nothing wrong with eating rice or grassfed meat or whatever while you have it.  But if you don’t know how to cook what does grow well in your region, and how to eat and enjoy it, you will have to adapt to a difficult dietary change at a difficult time. 

And the reality is that people in the US at least, do actually go hungry because they don’t know how to cook and eat the foods that they have access to.  That is, many poor people in the US don’t stretch their food dollars optimally in part because they do not know how to cook inexpensive staples.  (There are also a host of reasons why poor people who do know how to do these things can’t do them, but that’s another post).  Lack of cooking skill actually leads to hunger in the US.  So it isn’t just enough to say “Ok, if we ever get reduced to Corn and beans, I’ll learn to cook with them” - the truth is that if corn and beans are what grows well in your region, your family needs to learn to cook and eat them now.  Eating out of your Food Storage now CAN prevent real hunger and illness later.

Food storage CAN help you make that transition - it can ease you over to a diet heavy on root crops and peas, while still allowing you some rice and salmon to smooth things over.  But you can’t live on it forever.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have value - but  FOOD SECURITY depends on the creation of local food systems - systems that start at your garden, but go outwards, across your local foodshed.  Because no one can store enough food to last forever.

Thus, Food Storage SHOULD as much as possible be built on a foundation of supporting your local food systems - that is, some of us may not have much choice about where we get our food.  But those of us who do have some leeway in our budgets and do have choices should build our food storage as much as possible from local farmers - or at worst, direct from farmers that help build someone else’s local food system.  Dollars spent building up your food storage at the supermarket or Costco are dollars that are working *against* the thing that we most need to rely on in the long term - local food producers.  I’m not suggesting that we won’t buy some things that support the industrial food system - we’re all bound up in it to a degree.  But every dollar we can spend locally on things that our region grows well, or every thing we can can, dry and grow ourselves,  makes possible not just your short term food security (that is, the stuff you’ve got in storage) but the long term possibility of security in a crisis.

So what’s the gist of this?  We should be thinking about what food storage can and can’t do for us, what it should and should not do for us.  Yes, it can save our lives - in the short term.  But think of it as a bridge to the local food systems that are our long term security and hedge against disaster.

 Ok, coming up: Learning to Love Your Local Food Staples, Help Transitioning to a Lower Animal Product Diet,  a Tour of My Food Storage, The Chatelaine and Learning to Manage Your Stores - not necessarily in that order.



5 Responses to “What Food Storage Can and Can’t Do”

  1. Idaho Locavoreon 11 Mar 2023 at 12:25 pm

    Great essay! I agree with your reasoning on what food storage can and cannot do. I look on it as insurance, and as a way to make what I CAN get stretch further and do more. I do take exception to a couple of points mentioned, though…

    1. Costco and Sam’s sometimes have local staples, so don’t completely write them off. For instance, the Costco nearest here sells locally farmed trout and our local Sam’s is where I often get our locally grown honey in large jugs. Yes, most of their stuff is so un-green and un-local that it’s not even funny, but if you or a family member already have a membership it’s worth taking some time to discover what they have that perhaps IS local. Plus, most of us with pets are probably not going to find any local sources of dry pet food, so when you buy it you might as well buy it in bulk and sometimes these places can be a source for doing that.

    2. I, too, plan to keep buying locally produced milk and eggs as long and as often as I can. But I don’t think dried eggs and milk deserve to be placed mostly in the “icky western diet” and “don’t store well” categories. Powdered eggs and milk are very good protein sources and menu extenders. They do store well when packaged properly in cans with oxygen absorbers (~10 years.) You can make some cheeses (”yogurt cheese,” ricotta and mozzarella, for instance) yogurt, and kefir from powdered milk. In addition, some powdered eggs are really not so bad in a pinch - there is a brand called Ova-Easy that can actually be scrambled once rehydrated. The other, less expensive brands, are good for baking and for adding a protein boost to homemade breads, pancakes, smoothie drinks, puddings and custards (the dried milk is also useful there.) So there is value, imo, to keeping some on hand. Are they as good as local fresh? Hell, no. I’d certainly much rather have a home flock of cluckers and a herd of mini nigerians in the back yard, but that’s not possible for us right now. So I hope these items will help us weather shortages of the local stuff we already buy.

  2. Sharonon 11 Mar 2023 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve never seen anything local at BJs (what we’ve got here) - nothing. So that’s one of those YMMV things (we have shared a membership at times with our neighbors) - but even if you do find local things there, generally speaking it would be far better for the local food economy if you bought that honey direct from local beekeepers, and paid them more directly. That said, I do think that they are good sources for some things that aren’t going to be available to use locally - but I wouldn’t use them as a source for local food unless no other options are available, because generally speaking, bulk places like that don’t pay their sources very well.

    And yes, I think that powdered milk and eggs do fall in the “icky western diet” category - that is, as far as I’m aware there are no sources of either that don’t come from factory farmed animals. That’s not to say that, as I said, some people might not want to include them in their diets, but buying these things does mean supporting the factory farmed industrial economy in most cases. At best, you might find organic industrial sources.

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting to use these things - but they are an environmentally and socially inferior choice, I think. We can get our protein in other ways. My claim is not that no one should ever use them, but that we should think very seriously about how and when, and that adapting our diets is probably better than trying to mimic our existing diets in storage.


  3. Leilaon 11 Mar 2023 at 1:18 pm

    1) SF Chronicle featured an article yesterday about a single mother in the East Bay who feeds herself and baby organic food on $300 a month. She has a garden (put in for her by a local gardening org. that serves low-income city residents), she shops wisely, she Dumpster dives.

    She also goes to the local Grocery Outlet. Now I normally avoid the place because it seems to be all about processed junk that I don’t want. But she says the one in Berkeley has quality food if you look. So I am going to drop by next time I’m in the neighborhood and give it a shot.

    Here’s the article:


    written by a local urban farmer/blogger. Should be of interest to those of you concerned with coping in the city.

    2) Eating from storage - I’ll pimp my own blog a little - I’ve been mentioning here that Lebanese (and probably other Levantine Arabs) keep food stored as part of their tradition. The other day I posted a roundup of my Arabic food recipes that use stored foods:


    (Post titled “Eating well as the markets go to h***”)

    I am proud to say that my blog’s red lentil soup post is the internet’s most popular for that dish. It’s Claudia Roden’s recipe. Plug “red lentil soup” into google and see what you get. For an obscure Middle East politics blog that’s an accomplishment. Also this is a dish that can be made completely from stored food although you will want to substitute vinegar if you don’t have lemons or limes.

    We could all learn a little something from our ancestors on food storage. I venture that even if you don’t live in a Mediterranean climate as I do, you might enjoy cooking Middle Eastern and other Mediterranean dishes from your stored foods. Having an herb patch with parsley and mint would help. Yes having access to fresh lemons helps, too, but if you don’t, use vinegar and/or sumac, a souring agent used in the MIddle East before the advent of the lemon from India.

    I’ll be posting another roundup of Middle Eastern recipes from food storage in a bit.

    Thank you, Sharon, for this series.

  4. Idaho Locavoreon 11 Mar 2023 at 1:37 pm

    “but even if you do find local things there, generally speaking it would be far better for the local food economy if you bought that honey direct from local beekeepers, and paid them more directly.”

    LOL. Well, ctually, I *did* call the honey folks and ask to do business with them directly, and they are the ones that recommended I buy their honey from Sam’s instead. Weird, huh? My guess is they prefer to mostly sell in large quantities and the overhead for selling some things directly to individuals is more than they want to deal with.

    I do buy our trout from the farm, or at least I did the last time I bought it. But that’s not an option for everyone who doesn’t live within a short drive of the trout folks. That’s why I mentioned it was an option at some Costcos.

  5. Sharonon 11 Mar 2023 at 3:02 pm

    Ah, well, it was worth a try, no ;-) ?

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