After the deadly super-flu epidemic in the film Contagion has emptied city streets and looters have cleared store shelves, Matt Damon's character finds himself shivering in a food line when a soldier announces through a bullhorn that he's sorry, but the supply of MREs has just run out. In response, the assembled hungry crowd breaks into a riot, rushing into the back of a military truck to find out for themselves that, indeed, there's no more food.
This is just one way that the film, whose heroes are elite researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, depicts a hapless lay public, completely unprepared for any disruption of normal life.
But with a freaky round of natural disasters probably caused by climate change hitting an ever shakier economy, more and more people today are trying to avoid this fate by starting to prepare for disasters and catastrophes of various kinds. The obvious place to start: storing food.
And while some preppers are hard-core survivalists girding their families against an outbreak of Ebola virus or a peak oil apocalypse, you don't have to be a total doomer to start storing cans and dry food down in the basement. You just have to care about making your family more resilient.
So, if you're considering starting to store some of your own food, why not start by learning from the experts?
First, you need to get past the jokes about their trailers and the rest of their lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina. Then, check out Ready.gov, a website run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that urges families to prepare at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food in case the household needs to hunker down during or after a hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster.
FEMA suggests foods that don't require refrigeration but says you should stay away from salty foods that will make you thirsty and cause you to deplete your water supply more quickly. And don't just load up on Spam, but make sure your cans are packed with food that your family will really want to eat. Even though hunger is the best cook, in a difficult situation you'll be glad to have some comfort and stress foods.
During September, in remembrance of 9/11, FEMA is observing National Preparedness Month, inviting individuals and groups to sign up to receive information and materials and participate in events, both online and in communities around the country.
Ever since the nineteenth century, when their first prophet Joseph Smith told Mormons that God commanded them to be self-sufficient, the church has required Mormon families to store food at home. As Elder L. Tom Perry put it in a church publication, "If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear":
As long as I can remember, we have been taught to prepare for the future and to obtain a year’s supply of necessities. I would guess that the years of plenty have almost universally caused us to set aside this counsel. I believe the time to disregard this counsel is over. With events in the world today, it must be considered with all seriousness.
These days, the church advises Mormons to store three months worth of food not only out of piety, but to prepare for emergencies, to get peace of mind and to learn basic food preparation. The church recommends storing "essential foods that sustain life, such as grains, legumes, cooking oil, powdered milk, salt, sugar or honey, and water."
And while the church reminds Mormons to rotate stored food to make sure the supply remains fresh, spoilage apparently remains a problem. Some who have left the fold say that church officials pressure families to store too much food and pay nosy home visits to enforce storage guidelines.
"Sadly, thousands of pounds of food go to waste when older Mormons do not rotate their storage supplies. Family members of deceased parents often throw out hundreds of pounds of rotten flour and frozen goods," claims a poster on a forum for the disaffected called The Mormon Curtain. Another says that her parents "had an entire room in the basement full of moldy wheat, botulism-bulging cans and oozing bottled goodies, most dated 1983 and 1984."
As much as backpackers, survivalists have made a market for vacuum-packed envelopes of freeze dried food. For families who are willing to spend the extra money to have someone else do the work, survivalist-friendly companies promise a pricey but convenient route to instant food security.
For example, Patriot Food of El Dorado, Kansas offers food kits that the company claims have a 25-year shelf life. Their Wise Food 2880 serving package contains a year's worth of food for a family of four. At $4,350, it's a serious investment in peace of mind, but, as the company puts it, "We are just $1.55 per meal compared to $6.89 per fast food meal, $12.55 per restaurant meal, and $4.91 per home cooked meal."
Delivered in 5-gallon plastic buckets, dishes keep safely to the mid-American palate, with Apple Cinnamon Cereal and Crunchy Granola for breakfast and the more adventurous Savory Stroganoff, Chili Macaroni or Teriyaki and Rice for dinner (there's no lunch when you're hunkering down in the bunker).
A focus on cooperating with neighbors to plant community gardens and share tools hasn't stopped people interested in the Transition movement from trying to make their own homes into more secure castles too.
A quick search shows that during this past summer alone Transition Lancaster in Pennsylvania included food storage in its emergency preparedness training while across the country in Washington State, Transition Ferndale taught Whatcom County residents about vacuum packing.
Storing food isn’t that complicated. You start by buying extra. Canned food is easy to accumulate and store. Begin with a case of chili or refried beans. Buy some cases of canned fruit and tomatoes. Consider adding some of the dehydrated foods offered by stores like Costco. If you want to get really serious and put up a years supply of staples buy some food grade buckets, some mylar bags, a Food Saver, oxygen aborbers, fifty pound bags of stuff and get to work packaging them up. I detailed how we did it here.
Apparently, the Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of Transitioners who store food. Grande Ronde Transition in Oregon offers this helpful video on three-month food storage with special tips on how to guard your goodies free of creepy crawlies and even how to include milk in your supplies. "Keep it simple. Don't over-manage your food storage or it can overwhelm you," says the video's narrator, Jamie.
-- Erik Curren, Transition Voice