Emergency Food Storage

When I first announced the Ruly Challenge for this month, one of the first private comments I received was a question about emergency food storage. Food is, of course, necessary for survival and getting rid of your food supply can trigger a sense of unease. Many sources recommend that we store extra food in case of emergencies. The problem is that there is not much specific guidance about what to store, where and how much.

Ready.gov suggests a minimum of a 3-day supply of non-perishable food that requires little to no preparation and is not salty. They provide a partial list of items like dried fruit and nuts but leaves the advice generic, “Choose foods your family will eat.”

The book, “SAS Survival Handbook: For Any Climate in Any Situation,” by John “Lofty” Wiseman, gives some general guidelines about how to store food (cool location, place not vulnerable to flooding, hurricanes or whatever disaster you are likely to experience) but also advises that “choice of foods will depend upon individual taste.” The book also makes the point that food does not have unlimited shelf life so whatever goods you plan to store, you need to be eating them and purchasing new on a regular basis. It also advises that you store multivitamins to ensure you are getting proper nutrition.

“[T]he main elements required for survival are food, fire, shelter and water. . . Food is rarely the first priority. Even in those places where it is difficult to find there are usually other problems to face first. . . . A person can survive for 3 weeks without food but for only three days without water. . . .”

–John “Lofty” Wiseman, SAS Survival Handbook

The book, “Be Alert, Be Aware, Have a Plan,” by Neal Rawls, devotes just one partial page to food storage and the advice is similarly vague:

“Emergency food should consist of items that store easily and have a long shelf life. Better yet, consider foods you have around the house all the time and consume and replace regularly. I’ve never stashed away canned meats or other strange items I don’t ordinarily eat. I figure if a disaster strikes, why force myself to eat lousy food?”

–Neal Rawls, Be Alert, Be Aware, Have a Plan

The book, “Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” by Irwin Redlener, does not discuss food storage at all! The number one item on his “Eight Principles of Citizen Preparedness” is:

1. Stay healthy and fit. I cannot emphasize this enough. In a serious emergency, people need a good reserve of physical and mental strength to cope. Boarding up windows or moving belongings to a safe place in a short period of time may be physically demanding. Escaping from a dangerous situation may be physically and mentally taxing.

–Irwin Redlener, Americans at Risk

Mr. Redlener does reference the National Center for Disaster Preparedness which advises in its “Model for Disaster Preparedness” that the most important food storage tip is to make sure you are storing plenty of drinkable water. As for food:

“[M]ost adults can survive without food for weeks . . . . There is no accepted standard of how much food to stockpile, or what type to have. You must decide.”

Model for Disaster Prepareness, National Center for Disaster Preparedness

Growing up in my home state of Utah, I would be remiss if I did not also include a reference to the emergency food storage practices developed by the LDS (Mormon) church. The Mormons have long advised their members to store food. It appears the current guideline is 1 year(!) of food storage. lds.about.com provides a food storage calculator here where you plug in the number of adults and children you are storing for and it spits out a list of staples needed for 1 year of food storage.  The LDS food storage guidelines, however, seem best suited for someone who is not concerned about portability of food. If you have to evacuate, hauling around sheaves of wheat or large sacks of sugar will probably not be possible.

From my experience this month eating my fridge and pantry stores, I realize that it does not take much extra food to develop a stockpile. I had at least 15 days worth of food for our family without even purchasing anything additional! (By the way, we are still going strong but the supplies are dwindling. We have a ton of pancake mix to get through though. Flapjacks or waffles, anyone?)

Based on the disaster preparedness recommendations above, I think it is reasonable for our family to start storing approximately one month’s worth of portable food. Any more than that and I worry about the burden of monitoring the food supply and preventing it from going bad. In a true survival situation, we could probably stretch out this supply for at least three months if we didn’t eat every day or just ate one meal a day. If we also store a survival book with our food supply, we could learn how to hunt animals and birds or forage for plants to get us by a little longer.

So, what to store? My only experience in a disaster/survival situation was during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. During that hurricane, we lost power for about three days, which meant that we also lost water for three days since we are on an electric well system. Fortunately, the natural gas supply lines were not cut so we could still cook on our gas stove. We ate spaghetti at least once. Since the power was out, the fridge and freezer could be opened only rarely to maximize the cooling capabilities for the items inside. Most of that food went bad and had to be tossed. Several very large trees came down in our neighborhood blocking roads so the advice about being physically fit is appropriate. It takes a lot of strength to operate a chainsaw and haul even small parts of large tree branches. Even if a road was cleared, there was not much point in driving since all of the stores and restaurants were closed due to lack of power. Also, you had to conserve your gas since the gas stations were also without power and there was no gasoline to be had. After a day and a half sitting in the dark at home, fetching water from the stores in the bathtub and hot water heater, we got in the car and headed to Ruth’s house who, fortunately, had not been affected by the storm. Not much of a “survival” story but it was a good taste of the modern life concerns you have to cope with in an emergency.

Ruly’s emergency food supply list will be based on some basic meal ideas (cereal or oatmeal for breakfast, spaghetti, tuna fish sandwiches, etc.) for one month and the non-perishable (but routinely edible) supplies needed. I will post the list here at beruly.com later in the month if you want to use it as a guide for your own planning.

Although it was disappointing to learn that even the experts are not any better at food storage than the average person, it is also comforting to know that if you feel disorganized about your food storage methods, so does everyone else! Here’s hoping we can inject a little Ruly-ness to address this problem.

Have a disaster story to share? A survival tip? Comments are welcome.