Food Storage for Emergency Preparedness: the basics

Why Store Food?

Suppose that some type of moderate disaster occurs. Not the end of the world. Not a total economic and societal melt-down. Just the type of disaster that has happened, in one place or another, multiple times so far within your own lifetime. It could be a category 3 or 4 hurricane. It could be an earthquake, or riots, or a nuclear power plant disaster. What happens to the food supply in this situation?

When the tsunami and power plant disaster happened in Japan in March of 2011, panic buying by consumers quickly stripped the store shelves bare in Tokyo, a city 150 miles away from the power plant disaster site. The disaster did not directly affect Tokyo. Food stores were sold out purely due to unreasonable fear. But regardless, there was no food available for purchase.

When there is a hurricane approaching Florida or the Gulf States, even one of moderate size, the stores quickly sell out of bottled water, batteries, power generators, etc…

So the idea of food storage in order to prepare for a disaster does not envision a complete economic or social collapse.

What To Store

If you are like me, you probably have enough food in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to eat ordinary meals for a week, maybe two, before you would have to change your eating habits to make a meal. So what we are talking about here is food that you would store, over and above what is typically in your kitchen.

Right now, I have 90 person-days worth of food: sealed, stored in boxes, wrapped in plastic. That’s enough food for 1 person for 90 days, or 3 people for 30 days, etc. What do I store? Mostly foods that are high in calories and good sources of protein.

To survive, the first thing you need, by way of food, is kilocalories. What everyone calls “calories” are technically kilocalories (kcal). Many foods are high in calories, but most do not store well. So you need foods that store well and are good sources of carbohydrates, for example: white rice, white pasta, and instant mashed potatoes. These types of foods will store indefinitely, if kept well-sealed, cool, and dry.

Do not store whole grain pasta or brown rice. The bran in the whole grain contains oils that will go rancid after a few months. Whole grain foods are healthier, but, for long-term storage, the storability of the food is more important.

You also need good sources of protein in storage, such as: dried split peas, dried beans, nuts, seeds. Soy nuts are a particularly good source of protein. Nuts and seeds do not store indefinitely, but they should keep for at least a year or two. Peanut butter is inexpensive, stores fairly well, and is high in protein and fat. It also has high nutritional density for its cost and for the space that it takes up.

If you have space in your freezer, you can store some of those foil packets of tuna or salmon. These freeze well and are high in good quality protein. You might also want to keep some steak and chicken in the freezer. I don’t consider hamburger to be good for freezing, because it has high bacteria content. When you thaw frozen hamburger, you have to be careful to do so in the refrigerator, because the bacteria will grow quickly at higher temps. If the power goes out, you don’t want a freezer full of thawing hamburger.

The other main staple food that you need is dietary fat. A few 48 oz. bottles of canola oil or soybean oil should keep for a year or two, and will provide plenty of dietary fat.

If you have any additional money or space for food storage, you should add some foods that will make meals more enjoyable: some candy, granulated sugar, dried spices, freeze dried coffee, boxed mac and cheese dinners or anything similar.

What Not To Store

Don’t store diet foods. When there is a disaster, you will need calories. Like me, you might have a sedentary lifestyle right now. But if any type of major or moderate disaster strikes, I would anticipate some manual labor and more general physical activity dealing with the issues that arise. Instead of diet foods, store foods with a high nutritional density for the space that they take up. You don’t want your stored food to take up a whole room of the house.

Don’t store low-fat versions of foods. Unless you are choosing the lower fat food because it stores better, you want the calories and the nutrition of the fat. Dietary fat is a necessary nutrient. You literally cannot survive, long-term, without dietary fat, including the two essential fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3. But if you store some canola oil and/or some soybean oil, you will be getting plenty of both omega-6 and omega-3. Some oils now come with a listing on the label for the amount of each type of fat. Omega-3 is often advertised as the heart-healthy fat. The omega-9 fatty acids are not essential nutrients, but they are healthy.

Don’t store foods that you are not willing to eat. You might imagine that, in case of necessity, you would eat whatever is available. OK, fine. But I’m only storing foods that I typically eat. I might have to eat more rice and pasta than I usually do, but everything I store is within my usual eating habits. If I have to live off of my stored food, I’m comfortable with those food choices. You don’t want to be eating food that you hate, especially long term.

A few foods, such as white rice and white pasta, will keep for decades if stored properly. But most foods that store well still need to be used within a year or two. So the best approach is to plan on eating from your stored food, from time to time, before the food goes bad. Then, as you go along, you can replace the food that you eat, so as to keep the level of stored food about the same.

How Much Food?

I do not approach emergency preparedness from the point of view of indefinite survival apart from the rest of society. I’m not a survivalist, and this is not a survivalist blog. I believe in being well-prepared for a range of different possible disasters. So I only have 90 person-days worth of food, plus whatever is ordinarily in the kitchen (about 10 or 15 days more of food). In my opinion, that amount is sufficient for my circumstances. Your mileage may vary.

If you have no stored food, you might aim for 30 days worth of food. This is not so hard or expensive. Ten pounds of rice is enough kcal and protein for 7 days. Ditto for ten pounds of pasta. And 24 ounces of canola or soybean oil is enough dietary fat for the same period of time. You might also want some sugar, cans of tomato paste, and spices for flavor. Twenty pounds of rice, plus twenty pounds of pasta, plus two 48 ounce containers of oil is enough calories, protein, and fat for four weeks. Estimated cost is $21 for the rice, $34 for the pasta (if its a brand name, otherwise less), and about $7 for the oil, $4 for the sugar, $6 for tomato paste, plus the spices. Estimated total cost is between $75 and $100 dollars for a month’s worth of food rations for one person. (Prices may vary according to place and time. These prices are just a rough estimate based on what I paid for some of my stored food items.)

– Thoreau

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