Following earlier warnings from many sources about looming food shortages and the need to keep reserves in case of emergency, I answered a number of reader questions last week. They keep coming, so here are a few more answers.
One reader asked about simple staple foods that keep for a long time, are nutritious, and can serve in a wide range of meals. Those are sometimes competing requirements, but there’s one food that’s often neglected. It’s plain old oats. Whether you like rolled oats, steel-cut oats, or any other variety, oats can legitimately be described as a “superfood” in many ways. We all know about oatmeal for breakfast, and I’m sure most of us enjoy it: but oats are also a rich source of fiber to add to any meal, particularly soups and stews (where they can serve as a thickening agent as well). They take on the flavor of the food they’re cooked with, so one doesn’t taste oats as such. A big pot of overly liquid stew can be thickened up very nicely with a few scoops of oats, and make it stretch further, too, helping to feed a larger number of people. They work as a meat substitute as well: cook up a stew or soup with bouillon or stock, add oats to thicken it, and they’ll take on the flavor of the stock, tasting more meaty than “vegetable-y”. Oats are also very low-priced; I buy ten pounds at a time from Sams Club, which currently costs a little over a dollar a pound and goes a long way. I’m sure better prices are available if you buy in bulk. Finally, if properly packed (I prefer mylar bags with oxygen absorbers), oats last for years and years. Overall, they make a great staple food, along with rice, beans, flour, etc.
A reader asked about emergency water storage. I have a simple rule of thumb: take the minimum recommended emergency requirement, then double it, to allow for the circumstances that most emergency manuals don’t cover. A gallon per person per day is the usual recommended minimum, but that covers only enough for drinking purposes, plus some for cooking, and leaves nothing over for personal hygiene, pets, or what have you. I work on two gallons per person per day. Also, many people have filtering and purifying devices to render ordinary lake or stream water potable. That’s great: but do you have a second set of containers, to gather such water and hold it ready to be purified? You can’t use your clean, sanitized purified-water containers to hold non-purified water, because then they can’t be used for pure water any longer. Make sure you keep a useful amount of water in clean containers, and provide more containers for non-purified water before filtering it. (Also, remember that filtering and purifying water can take time; most filters I know need up to an hour, sometimes longer, to purify a few gallons of water. You’ve generally got to be in one place to do that, not moving around or traveling. That’s another good reason to have non-potable water containers; if time presses, you can fill them at a suitable source, then move on until you have space and time to filter and purify it.)
Several readers complained that buying canned food is wasteful, because if you don’t use it by the expiration or “best by” date, it’s no longer safe. Well, that’s your call. I’ve eaten canned food that was over ten years old, long past its “best by” date, and found it perfectly OK. What I do, too, is to keep a spreadsheet of all my canned food. As it approaches its expiration date, I make a point to either use it, or donate it to local food banks, where it’ll go straight out to people who can use it, and therefore won’t be wasted. Food banks won’t accept date-expired foods, so you have to make sure to donate it at least a month or two before that. That way, I’m not wasting anything, and I can replace the food as it gets used or given away. If there’s a shortage at that time, I’ll use it myself, even if that puts it over its “best by” date. Whatever happens, it won’t be wasted.
There were several questions about the conditions under which food reserves should be stored. Obviously, a cool, dry place is optimum. If you live in northern Texas, as I do, summer heat (often over 100 degrees for months on end) will seriously degrade many of your supplies, so it won’t help to store them in a non-insulated garage that gets as hot as Hades every day. On the other hand, very low temperatures don’t necessarily help, either. Your reserve water supply will crack the containers it’s in if you let it freeze during winter, and canned food may “bulge” if it freezes, perhaps breaking the seal on the cans. Glass jars may also break if their contents freeze.
It’s worth making an effort to keep your food reserves in air-conditioned or otherwise temperature-controlled space. A lot of folks store them in totes under beds, or even arrange totes in a rectangle or square, put a piece of plywood over them, and lay a mattress on top of that, so that the totes serve as a base for a bed. That gets them out of the way, and makes them immediately available if needed. (If you use a bed skirt or other accessory to conceal your base, the totes won’t be obvious to nosy neighbors who want to know what you’ve got, or officials looking to confiscate “hoarded” food in an emergency. That might be more than a little helpful!) If you want to store more supplies than you have room for in your home, consider a small climate-controlled locker or room in a commercial storage facility. I keep some reserve supplies in such a room at present.
Finally, some people asked for a good source of information about preparing for emergencies in general. There are plenty of Web sites out there, including many articles on this blog about that subject. Some are listed in the sidebar under the heading “Emergency Preparations”. However, if you want a single-source digest of almost all relevant information, that anyone can use to get ready for any sort of emergency, there is one book – or, rather, a two-volume book – that I highly recommend. It covers all aspects of preparing for emergencies of every kind, including (but not limited to) food reserves and supplies. It’s expensive, but IMHO it’s worth every penny. It’s the “Civil Defense Manual” by Jack Lawson.
I’ve worked as a Civil Defense sector officer in one of Africa’s largest cities, and (as regular readers will know) have all too much personal experience of dealing with emergencies. I wish I’d had access to this book at the time. It’s seriously good material, well-informed and comprehensive. I highly recommend it, and I’ve spent my own money to buy a set.
A much lower-cost option, but still very, very useful, are the training manuals put out by Joe Dolio. There are four at present, with more on the way. They don’t cover food reserves as such, but they’re very useful for general preparation for emergencies. Again, speaking from my personal experience, I get the impression that Mr. Dolio knows whereof he speaks, and I recommend his books. You’ll also learn a lot from his blog, Tactical Wisdom. Scroll down past his “stickied” post to read his latest articles.
I’m sure the questions will keep coming. As I accumulate them, I’ll post answers from time to time.