Did you know that the average urban household only keeps three days’ worth of food on hand at any given time? When we can swing by the supermarket or neighborhood convenience store whenever we want, grab some takeout or order home delivery, it’s difficult to comprehend the fragility of our food supply.
If you’re a regular reader of our Science of Skill articles, you’re probably not going to be shocked by what you’re about to read. And if you are surprised, you’re not alone; most of your neighbors are completely unaware of how easily your city’s food security can be compromised.
The “Just-In-Time” System
Not too many years ago, your local grocery store or mega-mart had a retail floor in front and an expansive stocking area in the back. Now, in order to remain financially viable while maintaining competitive prices, food retailers have switched to a new strategy to reduce overhead and manage risk. This strategy is called the “Just-in-Time” inventory system.
In short, using the JIT approach, grocery stores keep on hand as much perishable and shelf-stable inventory as they can sell within three days. As checkout terminal software counts down the number of canned peaches the store has on hand, replenished stock is loaded onto trucks for the next shipment.
Imagine what would happen if that supply was cut off? Here are just a few realistic scenarios:
- Transportation strikes: If truck operators go on strike, how many days will it take to organize picket-line crossers to cover all the routes to all the different retailers?
- Self-imposed isolation: In the face of a health epidemic or credible terrorist threat, most truckers (not to mention food packers and retailers) would likely stay home with their families.
- Infrastructure breakdown: If a local, regional, or national disaster strikes, your city could be cut off while roads are repaired and power is restored.
How can you insulate yourself against food insecurity created by the Just-in-Time system? You can take out an insurance plan in the form of food storage. If you follow these three basic rules and add a little extra to your pantry each time you shop, you’ll be able to stockpile enough food to get you and your family through two weeks, three months, or even a year.
The First Rule of Food Storage: Store What You Eat
Unless you live off fast food or fine dining, you’re going to want to stock up on the types of foods you and your family are used to eating. First, during stressful situations, sudden changes in diet can wreak havoc on digestive systems. Second, familiar and favorite dishes boost morale and provide continuity. Third, you’re only buying what you’d normally eat, anyway. And fourth, if anyone in your family has food allergies or specific dietary needs, you’re prepared to accommodate their needs.
Of course, you have only so much freezer space, and it doesn’t make sense to buy six months of perishable produce, but if you make adjustments to substitute canned or even freeze-dried foods (which are becoming more common and affordable) for what you normally have on your grocery list, you’ll be in great shape.
The Second Rule of Food Storage: Develop a Tiered System
Once you’ve stocked up on your regular menu items, you’ll want to layer your food storage so you’re ready for any scenario: Hunkering down, bugging out, or patrolling the ‘hood.
Compact, Single-Serving, Grab n’ Go Meals
You’ve likely heard of Meals Ready to Eat, also known as “MREs”. At a dozen meals to a case, you can stash a few boxes in your garage, but it’s unlikely you’ll want to depend on them as your primary food supply. MREs and backpack-style freeze dried meals are best reserved for “go bags”, vehicle emergency kits, or food caches, and they’re essential items for your daypack if you’re volunteering to assist your community or heading out to do some scavenging.
If storage is at a premium in your home, you might have a problem keeping dozens of five-gallon buckets full of sugar, white rice, lentils, and whole grains in every available corner. At the least, try to keep five gallons of lentils or split peas, and five to ten gallons of white rice (brown rice spoils easily due to its high moisture content) in your home. Incorporate these into your regular meals, and replenish your supply as needed.
If you do have room for more bulk items, you’ll want to learn about advanced food storage techniques using mylar bags, oxygen absorbers, and nitrogen packing, and you might want to shop for an efficient wheat grinder. For white rice and dried legumes, however, you’re usually in the clear if you simply throw in some bay leaves to repel moths and weevils, so these items are a great place to start.
You can pick up large #10-size cans of breakfast cereal, dehydrated or freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, and powdered milk at just about any big-box grocery outlet at prices that make sense for you to incorporate them into your daily meals.
30-Day Emergency Buckets
You’ve seen these at membership wholesale stores— six-gallon buckets marketed as emergency food supplies designed to keep small families fed for a month. They’re compact and great to have on hand in a pinch, but if you’ve never actually prepared and eaten one of the packaged meals, you’re probably in for an unpleasant, sodium-laden surprise. They require a great deal of water and cooking fuel, too.
On the other hand, they’re a good back-up, they’re storage-ready, and one or two buckets are easy to throw in the back of your vehicle if you have to evacuate on little notice. If you want to help an unprepared neighbor or family member, these buckets or their individual packaged meals make great donations or barter items.
The Third Rule of Food Storage: Rotate, Rotate, Rotate!
With the exception of food that’s packaged for a multi-decade shelf-life, you’ll want to adopt a “first in, first eaten” approach to using your food stores. Keep those MREs and food pouches stashed away with a few cans of your favorite freeze-dried ingredients, but use and replenish those bulk staples and canned goods to keep them fresh. Canned foods lose their nutrient value the longer they sit, and you want to make sure your primary food storage items are a part of your regular menu.
Final Thoughts on Food Security
Once you’re on your way to family food security, you’ll want to experiment with various food preparation methods and equipment. It’s also a good idea to identify backup locations for storing food, either within your neighborhood, at rendezvous spots, or at bug-out destinations.
Beyond that, you’ll need a method for replenishing your food stores, which is why it’s always a good idea to learn basic urban gardening and foraging skills.
But for now, once you’ve put in some extra groceries, you’ve got a buffer to keep you and your loved ones fed when everyone else is experiencing the sobering consequences of our society’s as-needed food supply.