Archive for July 15th, 2008

What I Store that Isn't Food

Sharon July 15th, 2008

Several people have asked me to write about my non-food storage more than I have (there’s a post here on the subject, which includes links to someone else’s recommended list).  This is one of those places where I start looking like a doomer wacko, I realize, but I do think that it is worth talking about.

 Right now, every shipping container that crosses the ocean has the equivalent of a 9% tariff on goods coming in from rising oil costs.  That doesn’t include the cost of the oil in the products itself - it isn’t just food whose price is rising out of the reach of ordinary people.  At the same time as food and gas eat up more of our budgets, it gets harder and harder to buy other stuff.

 Now a lot of us have more stuff than we need - but often, it isn’t the right stuff for a low energy world.  For example, most of us have winter wardrobes that are not designed to live in a house with minimal or no supplemental heating.  And yet, that’s a real possibility in the northern parts of the country this coming year.  Think about - most fuel oil companies have a minimum delivery of 100-150 gallons of oil - otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to run the truck.  Most small companies can’t afford to grant credit anymore, because of the sheer number of people defaulting on payment - and many smaller companies have gone out of business. Natural gas is expected to spike as well, while utilities will be renegotiating their shutoff policies.  Many people won’t be able to afford winter heating bills in the several thousand dollars, particularly advance payments on the order of 5-600 dollars for oil.  So they will switch to small electric space heaters - and grid use will spike as well, during the coldest weather.  We may see blackouts, because of this, but eventually people’s power will get shut off as well, unless mandates against shut offs are strictly enforced.  So many people will be living with minimal or no heat.  They need warm stuff for this - and most of them probably don’t have it, since all buildings have been 70 degrees for most of their lives.

Right now we can all go shopping at Goodwill and garage sales for cheap clothes and shoes - but what happens as more and more people need those cheap goods, and other people stop having the money to buy stuff and dispose of it for pennies on the dollar shortly afterwards - the quality of goods at yard sales will fall, and the competition will rise.  Or think about books - the sheer quantity of books available are a product of an affluent society that can afford to spend $25 bucks on a hardcover.  Sure, a lot of them are junk, but a lot of them aren’t - the library sales are filled with volumes for a quarter.  What happens as the library acquisition budgets are slashed (more) and the cheap books stop running over?  Or, G-d forbid, when the books are worth more to keep warm than to read (ok, there are some books out there that are already worth more for their burnable value, but you know what I mean ;-) )

So here’s my list of things I’m storing.  Now I have a big old farmhouse, and some disposable income, so this would be different for other people who don’t.  I’m not saying you need these things - this is me, and my list, offered for your perusal.

1. Shoes - I have a thing about shoes.  You see, I have crappy eyesight, and there is zippo chance I will ever shoot a deer for moccasins.  I’ve made felted boots and slippers, and could put old tires on the bottom of them with some work.  But I don’t want to.  I like good shoes.  And with four boys going through three or four sizes a year, I already can barely afford to keep my kids shod ;-) . Goodwill is my friend. Yardsales are my friend.  Bigger sizes while they are cheap are my friend. 

I store extra kids shoes, and also extra boots and shoes for me and the husband. 

2. Blankets!!!!  It is going to be a cold winter for a lot of people.  The thing is, it is perfectly feasible to sleep without supplemental heating - but you need blankets, and lots of them.  Down is lovely, as are wool blankets, but almost anything will work if you layer enough of them.  These are often cheap at yard sales and goodwill.  Since I’m guessing we’re the abode of last resort, I want to have lots of these so that no one is cold.

They are also great to insulate your windows from cold loss, to hang on walls that are drafty, to make rigged “four poster” beds that are kept warm by your body heat and for a host of other reasons.  Blankets are important - sleeping bags are especially great and often show up at my Goodwill.  Other bedding is good if you are expecting a lot of people to come to you. 

3. Yarn - Ok, I don’t need this, but I like it.  Hats, mittens, fingerless gloves and wool socks are, I think, the key to happiness in cold weather, and I really like to knit,.  So I get happiness and warm stuff - this is not bad.  Or maybe this is just an excuse to have yarn ;-) .

4. Books - I’m a junkie anyway, so like yarn, this might just be an excuse to buy stuff I like.  But in my case, five miles from a rural library which has a great kids section, but for adult material is better than mine only in the category of biographies of first ladies, biographies of first ladies’ dogs and Romance Novels, my feeling is that I *am* the really local library.  We have a big house, and most of it has books in it - many thousands.  And since I’m a writer, I never know what I’ll want to research next - I’m constantly hauling out random piles of books, looking for some fact or a quote I liked. 

We’re also homeschoolers - and we think the best way to get the kids to read a lot is to read to them and have a lot of books around for them to choose from.  

Yes, we invest in how-to books, but we’re also looking ahead to days when resources are dearer and our older kids may need homeschooling resources - physics textbooks and art history books are as important as how to books.  Novels, of course - the frivolous and the serious.  History books galore.  We buy a lot of books very cheaply - they are so undervalued right now.

5. OTC medications, soap, basic toiletries - I’ll do a seperate post on my medicine cabinet at some point, so I’ll leave these. Most toiletries we don’t bother with, but we do use a few things.  Baking soda can cover a myriad of sins, though.

6. Project materials - you know how you start building something (the bookshelves, the chicken tractor, the fruit press, whatever) or repairing something (the overalls, your bike, the chainsaw) and you suddenly realize you don’t have the parts for it, and you have to go to the store, and put the project aside until you do have the right parts?  Well, some of this is unavoidable - things will break, and you won’t have the part.  Still, some of this is predictable - buttons come off, things need nails and screws, hooks and chains.  There are obvious parts of things that break or frequently need repair, and often these things are cheap.  But as gas gets more expensive, the special trip to the notions store, the hardware store, etc… gets less frequent, and that means putting the needed item away longer.  So having a reserve of these items is useful, and often not very expensive.  Anything that fastens one thing to another, any part that is especially vulnerable, and basic repair kits are high on this list.  And if you have the opportunity to scavenge scrapwood or things that might be usefully taken apart and repurposed, this is good (provided you have space to store these things).

7. Clothes in larger - and smaller - sizes.  Everything I said about shoes goes here too, particularly since I do not like to sew (because it involves ironing and cutting carefully on lines and measuring, all things I loathe ;-) ) and am not good at it (for the reasons listed above), I’m all for storing a few sizes up.  I also store a few sizes down, because I have high hopes that peak oil (and self-discipline, if I can stockpile that ;-) ) will be good for my weight issues.

8. Intermediate technology tools - think simple things that can run on human power or readily available things.  Oil lamps, manual woodworking tools, treadle sewing machine, etc…  These often show up at auctions, and are useful even if the world doesn’t end and you just want to cut your energy budget.  In some cases the powered replacement is better - powering lights with electricity is less polluting than almost any other form of lighting, except perhaps very local beeswax candles.  But in some cases, they really aren’t.  I like the treadle sewing machine better than the regular one - it is tough and effective, and my dough mixer or my hands much better than a bread machine.  All are worth experimenting with.

9. Extra dishes.  In a crisis, we could expect quite a crowd, depending on where people were coming from.  I like people to have enough to eat, and a chance to eat it at my house.  Dishes are available at every yard sale, often very cheaply.  There are some issues if you keep kosher, as I do, but for most people, cheap dishes are a good deal.  I like to be able to feed a crowd.

10. Bicycles.  People dispose of these frequently, and since I have growing kids, functional, decent bikes are a valuable thing.  There are some older brands that are particularly worth buying - I’ll see if I can dig up a list and post it shortly.

11. Some toilet paper.  Now I think cloth is probably a better solution to any long-term problem.  But toilet paper is one of those niceties, and not everyone I know who might come to my house is cloth-tp ready.  Plus, there are times of illness when you’d rather not use a reusable.  So this is one item I buy in bulk.  I don’t buy a lot of disposable things, but tp we do use.

12. Basic medical care items - again, I’ll do a full list, but in emergencies, hospitals and doctors are often overburdened, and the ability to meet basic medical needs at home - and also to understand when you need a doctor or other professional is, IMHO, important.  

 Other suggestions?


Beans and Rice and Beans and Rice and Beans and….

Sharon July 15th, 2008

In my last post I talked about the fact that the diets common in the rich world *appear* to be very diverse, and that diversity, and the idea of constant “choice” are something we emphasize a lot.  Eating out of food storage, and eating cheaply both seem to constrict our choices dramatically - and thus we may feel deprived.

 Now the truth is that as Michael Pollan showed so well in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_ the classic American diet isn’t diverse at all - it is almost all corn based.  Corn is as central to our diet as it was to any Native population - the difference is that the corn is processed into corn syrup, Confinement meat, alcohol and other crap that isn’t good for us.  We really haven’t changed anything - we’re eating corn 3 times a day, just like our ancestors, but we’re eating the worst possible form of corn for us and the planet.  It would not be a loss of diversity to go back to eating corn or some other staple grain more often - and it would be a gain for the planet.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re used to the idea of eating a varied diet, and eating a lot of staple foods doesn’t necessarily line up with our mental image of what we or our families should be eating.  In fact, it is pretty much precisely what we should be eating - we’ve seen this several times.  There’s the Western Diet Paradox, in which immigrants from cultures with staple style diets made up of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes and small amounts of meat become less healthy and have shortened lifespans when they move to the US, and start eating a typical American diet.  Or there’s the research from WWII, which showed that the British got healthier during periods of restriction in which they were eating more grains, and fewer meats, fats and sweets. 

But the stigma of “poor people’s food” of reduced “choice” (which often isn’t any kind of meaningful choice) is huge, and we’ve got to overcome it.  That means making the staple diet a badge of honor, talking about it, enjoying it, and integrating it into the culture as a source of pleasure.  The thing is, food trends are fairly easy to start and move - and they can be really powerful.  All of us have the potential to change the culture’s relationship with inexpensive, basic staple foods, simply by cooking them well, eating them enthusiastically, serving them to guests.  The words you want to hear are “I never knew lentil soup/beans and rice/whatever could be so delicious.”

And that means learning to cook inexpensive foods well, and to create a varied diet using basic ingredients.  Which means you need recipes and ideas. 

Which brings me to the point - first, here’s my own stuff:

There are some ideas for meal planning here at my friend Pat’s blog:

Not so much a rice and beans thing, Hillbilly Housewife has some recipes for very low cost family menus - $70 for a week (although some prices have risen since then).  There are also links to even cheaper ones, but from an older period. There are some foods I simply don’t recommend - margarine, for example, but the price qualities are good, and they are “typical American” but cheap, which is nice and accessible to a lot of people:  She also includes a schedule, which is great.  Hers is a great site, btw - particularly for those who are new to frugal food.

There are a gazillion bean recipes on this site: , and tons of ethnic bean and grain recipes here: 

For cookbooks, here are a few of my favorites - some of which I’ve mentioned before on the blog, and some of which I haven’t.

 1. The More With Less Cookbook (and its several sequels) by Doris Janzen Longacre has a lot of simple, staple food recipes that are wonderful and delicious - if I had to choose only a couple of basic cookbooks, this one and its sequels (including the wonderful children’s cookbook, Simply in Season (there’s an adult one of the same name) would be the start of a library.  We eat their Apple-Cinnamon Crunch as a snack regularly, or mix it into yogurt, and it was where I got the idea of serving not-too-sweet rice pudding for breakfast.

2. Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman’s _Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook_ is really a cookbook of the whole former Soviet Union.  And while it has plenty of meat recipes, it emphasizes the staple foods of Eastern Europe - lots of roots, whole grains and very simple, inexpensive foods.  The recipes are delicious as well.  I lived on cabbage pie (which is really bad for you but spectacularly delicious), lentil and dried apricot soup, and pumpkin fritters in college, and they are still part of our regular food rotation.  Great borscht, too.

3. Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables by Georgeanne Brennan - Brennan is one of my absolute favorite food writers (among other things, she’s the author of my son’s favorite cookbook, The Dr. Seuss Cookbook).  Rutabaga and barley soup, deep dish turnip gratin, green onion and gruyere bread pudding and salsify fritters are all favorites of my family.

 4. Paula Wolfert’s book _Mediterranean Grains and Greens_ is one of my favorite all-time cookbooks.  It was from her I learned the easy way of making polenta without all the stirring (it works on American style mush as well).  Eric and I eat pasta with bitter greens and tomatoes all summer long, particularly as the greens start to bolt, and my favorite bean and grain soup ever is her Greek-style medly of lentils, herbs and grains.  Spiced barley bread is also one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, especially dipped in Harira.

5. Lane Morgan is the author of _The Winter Harvest Cookbook_ which I discovered through Carla Emery.  The emphasis is on foods available in the Pacific NW in the winter, which means, roots, beans and greens.  Very nice recipes - how many other cookbooks have more than a dozen parsnip recipes, or seven for daikons?  My kids love her teriyaki beets (me too)  and we like her broccoli dal as well.

6. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s _Seductions of Rice_ cookbook is fascinating and wonderful.  It explores authentic rice recipes (and foods served over rice) from all over the world - their “Flatbreads and Flavors” did the same for wheat and flat breads of other sorts.  The risotto al birra, which sounds weird (risotto with beer) is spectacular.  We eat beef and lettuce congee anytime we can get it, and we make khao ped (Thai fried rice) all the time.  Yum.

7.  All the Moosewood Cookbooks are good, of course, but for diversity of staple food recipes _Sundays at the Moosewood_ which focuses on their Sunday ethnic days, is probably the best.  Some of the sections are better than others - the sections on Japan and Finland are good, others not quite as much.  And generally, IMHO, the recipes need more seasoning.  But they are still good.  We make their sweet potato paratha quite often, and the tomato, lime and tortilla soup is a summer staple. 

8. Crescent Dragonwagon’s _Soup and Bread Cookbook_ is one I’ve mentioned before, but it has the remarkable utility of offering ways to make just about everything (I mean everything - she has a section on nut soups!)  into soup.  The recipes are great - flavorful and accessible, and she’s a fun writer.  I have no southern credentials at all, but I like her Green Gumbo a lot, and the Broccoli and Potato Curry soup is a winter staple here, as is her Split Pea Soup with Caraway. 

9. I think I’ve praised Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s _From the Earth: Chinese Vegetarian Cooking_ before, but I’m going to do it again, because it is so damned good.  I’ve never made a bad recipe from this cookbook.  The sizzling rice soup is incredible, and the many congee recipes (did I mention congee before - we love the stuff!) are wonderful.  Lima beans with soybean cake sounds beyond weird and is terrific, and lemon noodles with mushrooms are spectacular!  I don’t think I can say enough good things about this cookbook.

10. Finally, _Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations_ by Lois Ellen Frank has a fair share of foofy recipes for people with lots of money, but also a ton of great recipes for staple foods, southwestern style.  The posole is great even without the meat, and in the fall, we eat sunflower cakes as a snack or as a breakfast.  I wish I lived where I could try the recipe for tumbleweed shoots with pinto beans and wild rice, but we make pumpkin corn soup often. 

Food Storage on No Budget

Sharon July 15th, 2008

The people who most need a food reserve are the people who struggle the most to get it.  As food and energy costs inflate, and the safety net for the poor begins to break apart, the lower your income, the more urgent it is for you to take advantage of economies of scale, to buy food at lower prices, the more necessary it is that you have some reserve to tide you over in hard times.  But that’s incredibly tough if hard times are already here.

And often, the people who have the least ability to take advantage of these resources are the ones who need them the most.  Millions of really poor Americans are homeless, or effectively so, living in subsidized motels or other housing that has no cooking facilities.  Millions of American working families combine two, three or four jobs and leave the cooking to younger children - or simply have no time to cook or shop at all.  Millions of Americans have budgets that already don’t reach the month, and can no longer put together an extra $50 to buy beans and rice in bulk or pay for a CSA share upfront than they can fly to the moon.  And these are precisely the people most likely to lose a job, have their kids go hungry, and find that their barely-making-it budget is a no-longer making it budget.

Now much of the time when I’m speaking of food, I advocate ethical practices.  Because most of my readers - not all by any means, but most - are comparatively well educated (whether autodidactically or otherwse), and most of them have some ability to pick and choose their foods, either because they are middle class already or because they have carefully and consciously managed to leave some reserve in a small budget by the choices they’ve made.  I want to be clear - for those with enough money to do this, ethical food is still the priority - the dollars we spend now on food are investments in future food systems - the systems we will need to feed us in difficult times.  We can’t afford to throw that money away on systems that won’t be there, if there’s another choice.

But for those without a range of choices, just having some food stored is essential.  At present, the safety nets are fraying - the food pantries are struggling, food stamps and other social welfare programs are heavily burdened, and a food stamp budget no longer enables people to make it to the end of the month.  Those programs are likely to struggle further as energy and food prices rise.  And because there are no large government stockpiles remaining, because costs are rising so rapidly and because jobs are so unstable, it is essential that lower income families have a reserve of food - no matter how they have to buy it.

So here are some suggestions on how to build storage cheaply.

1. Emphasize foods that haven’t had huge price rises - potatoes, for example, peanuts and peanut butter, and oats all have gone up, but not nearly as much as corn, wheat and soy.  Consider a storage program that emphasizes these lower cost foods - but make sure you are focusing on things with high nutritional value. 

The more you can adapt your diet, the better off you will be.  So do some research on what foods are reasonably priced and find recipes and practice with them if you can.  

2. If you have minimal or no cooking facilities, or if the household cooking is being done by children,  you need foods that can be heated up easily, using sterno or hot plates.  The best really cheap ways to get a lot of instant and pre-processed foods are to dumpster dive and frequent odd lots stores.  Because stores discard cans with damaged labels, or anything dinged or damaged, processed foods are often discarded when they are still safe to eat (do not eat anything from a can that appears to be leaking or has odd bulges on it).  Do this carefully - wear gloves if possible and watch out for sharp objects.  Websites on “freegans” will have a lot more information than I can include.  I will note that dumpster diving is on the rise, and you may find more competition than in the past.  The other advantage of dumpster diving is that it may cut your food budget enough to allow you to make additional bulk purchases, even if you don’t need pre-processed food.  And don’t forget drugstores for slightly-past-expiration vitamins to supplement your diet.

Odd lots stores buy stuff up that other stores can’t sell - you get weird brands, sometimes cans with no labels, but often quite good prices.  And sometimes you get good stuff cheap - the one near my Mother offers tons of gluten free foods from Bobs Red Mill at very low prices - tough things to find for low income people who need special diets.  They aren’t as cheap as dumpster diving, but I’ve seen canned goods listed at 10 for a dollar there.

3. Glean - in many places, there are gleaning programs.  Most commercial harvesting programs leave a lot of fruit on the tree and a lot of vegetables in the field.  So Gleaning Programs (our farm is actually named Gleanings Farm, because in Judaism, we are prohibited from harvesting too fully, because a share belongs to the poor by right - we do our own gleaning, though, and give it to the food banks).  In some places you split your gleanings with the local food bank, in others you keep everything.  But that food can be stored and preserved for offseasons.

4. Minimize waste.  Create a “soup jar” and make soup out of leftovers.  Do a daily check of your fridge - what needs eating?  Don’t think that just because it isn’t a meal’s worth, you can’t eat it.  Fruits and vegetables are especially expensive on a low budget - so make full use of them - peel and eat the broccoli stems, grate the orange zest and dry it for flavoring baked goods if you can.  Make fried rice out of bits of leftovers and cold grains (you can make fried rice equivalents out of barley, bulghur, etc…).

5. If you can cook at all, beans, rice, lentils, and cabbage are probably your best friends in the world.  They are cheap, bulky, nutritious and can be made to taste good.  It is hard to get used to a limited diet of these foods - it is also worth noting that a limited diet in a norm in most of the world - it is not at all unusual to eat beans and rice 2xs a day, or bread and lentils the same.  Americans put enormous emphasis on diversity in their diet - and our nutritional information puts that emphasis on it to.  But war era diets are often more nutritious than more diverse diets - what you need are a reasonable quantity of several fruits and vegetables, and staple foods.  The rest is really not so very big a deal. 

The cheapest places to buy these are from coops, buying clubs and warehouse stores - although you should check that the warehouse membership will pay for itself.  Or maybe go along with a friend who has a membership or take advantage of free 1 month trials.  Buying in bulk can be tough - but if you can find the money anywhere, you’ll pay so much less than you will at the store.  Remember, if you can’t afford veggies, most grains can be sprouted, and offer the benefits of fruits and vegetables this way.

6. Animal products are expensive - think the parts that most people don’t use. We all know meat isn’t necessary, but some of us like it for flavor, and if you are eating a lot of low-protein, processed food, some meat probably will improve your nutrition.  Soup bones, chicken feet (they make great stock and are a texture delicacy in parts of Asia), chicken livers, etc… make good gravy to flavor bread and beans, good soup stock to fill with cheap vegetables, and generally provide some nutritional benefits.

7. Farmer’s markets at the end of the day.  This can be tough (all of this can be tough) if you work long hours, but consider pushing your lunch break late on Farmer’s Market day, and arriving at the end of the market - many farmers won’t want to haul home produce that has sat all day in the hot sun - it isn’t worth it.  Buy it cheap in quantity, take it home and dehydrate it in your car or can it or whatever.

 8. Some food pantries have trouble getting rid of bulk foods like wheat berries, dried beans, etc… They receive these items, but comparatively few people know how to use them.  Ask if they ever have extras of these to give away, and explain that you are trying to build a food reserve - the worst anyone can say is “no.”

9. Give the gift of food - if someone wants to buy you a present, consider asking for a gift certificate to Walmart or Sam’s Club or Amazon or some other place that sells food and other goods - that way you don’t have to admit that you need the food badly - but you can use the gift for what you need most.

10. Don’t expect to do it all at once.  All of us need to scale up gradually, unless we’re Bill Gates.  If your budget is tight, and you are new to food storage, at a difficult time, it will take time to build a reserve.  An extra can here, a few lbs of beans there - it doesn’t seem like much.  Remember that it is - small things count.  They add up.  If you can find $10 in your budget to cut out of something - get rid of an appliance, turn down the power, etc…, it will count and it will build up.  I know you may have already cut all the fat you’ve got to cut, or it may be a struggle to find a little more.  But this is worth it - this is a measure of hope and security for your family.