(First published via Medium on 4th March 2020)
Recent events have already resulted in widespread disruption, illness, fear and supermarket panic buying. You, like me, may have already created an emergency food stockpile. Many people have created an emergency food stockpile without any sensible consideration of what they really need, how they will manage those supplies and how to avoid waste. On the plus side, there is an endless list of reasons why an emergency food supply is prudent, and many more people will now have a supply who may never have had one. Whether it be natural disasters, civil unrest, pandemic or supply chain shortages, having at least a two week supply ensures you can be self-sufficient during those periods and avoid a drain on emergency food aid that can often take days or weeks to reach affected areas(1a). Such preparations can be considered a civic duty that ‘flattens the curve’(1b).
Here are five tips for a system to maintain and manage an emergency food supply that can bring wider benefits to your community.
1. Have you got the right stuff?
Before you created your emergency food supply, did you plan and create a list of exactly what you needed? Did you consider how and where it would be stored? Did you consider what supplies would be used for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks? Did you consider how it would be cooked? Do you have a plan for avoiding dumping food that will eventually expire? Do you have one or more can openers? Do your supplies rely on refrigeration and/or freezing?
If you’ve not considered all of the above factors (and many more), then you may need to review and replan your emergency supplies. Refer to this link on helpful considerations for planning, preparing and obtaining your supplies(2).
When selecting items to buy, also consider ‘best before’ vs ‘expiry’ use-by dates and price comparison. Often the cheaper items and ‘specials’ are items that are past or close to their best before or expiry date. Even similar products can have highly variable dates. Take beans as an example. There might be ten different brands on the shelf. Check them all and see what the range of expiry dates are. Even the same product on the shelf might have a variety of dates due to older stock being at the front and newer stock at the rear.
Knowing the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘expiry’ use-by dates is really critical. Best before dates typically mean that the product is still edible past the best before date. If the product has an expiry date, then you face significant food poisoning risks eating it after that date (3). Some items don’t have an end of life date. Check local food regulatory services for advice. Some canned goods have such a long shelf life, they are not required to have an end date. Some imported items (particularly illegal imports) may not have dates when they should. Cheap and illegal imported items are potentially dangerous.
Another important consideration is product packaging. Don’t by items where the product packaging has been damaged or punctured in a way that compromises its safety and longevity. Consider the amount of packaging waste and recyclability between products.
And of course storage! All your items should be stored in an area and within containers to prevent pests, rodents and weather from destroying these precious supplies.
2. Rotate, rotate, rotate!
Now that you have the right stuff, it’s important to rotate through those supplies over coming months and years. Following are some suggestions for keeping your stocks within use-by dates and uncontaminated.
We keep a spreadsheet listing all of the items and their use-by date. On a regular basis, we then check which items are coming up for use within the next month or two.
Many of the items in the emergency supply are also everyday items we stock in the pantry. So before restocking the pantry from the supermarket, restock from your emergency stocks and then replenish the emergency supplies from your next supermarket shop. This avoids waste from foods going out of date and replenishment with fresher items. Even if a canned good item might last 20 years untouched, over time, the food can lose taste, nutritional value and deteriorating packaging.
Going camping? Use items from your food stocks first before buying additional items and then replenish on your return.
A large portion of our community does not have the luxury of maintaining an emergency food supply. For some families, every day is an “emergency” as they struggle to feed their families. A great option for using items before their use-by date is to gift items to local food donation groups or directly to individuals and families in need. Make it a regular practice to perhaps ‘buy two, gift one’ when you replenish your stocks. Check-in with neighbors and identify those locally in need.
3. Get planting!
If you are not already cultivating your own fresh foods, now is a great time to start. Even a limited range of greens and herbs will be a great compliment to emergency food supplies. Herbs and greens can be easily grown in small spaces, transportable and often year-round producing (4)(5)(6). It is also feasible to create your own mobile worm tube (7).
4. Get eating
Eating your emergency food supplies might seem like an odd thing to do. It is essential! What if you and those sharing the supplies absolutely can’t stomach it? What if you don’t have the right equipment to cook on a camp stove in the dark? What if you are missing some key ingredients that shift a meal from yuck to wow!? What if your can opener breaks?
A good emergency food supply is edible. That’s why just randomly grabbing supplies of random canned goods, rice, pasta and anything else you think of in the moment is inadequate.
The best way to test run your food supply and preparedness are to test its preparation and cooking from scratch. Even better, consider the worst-case conditions: no electricity, no lights, no refrigeration. Do you have a camp stove? Do you have gas for the stove, BBQ or cooker? Do you have adequate rechargeable lights suitable for safe cooking? Can you do this for 14 days or longer?
Involve the only family and friends in the process. What if you fall sick? Can your kids' cook (if they are old enough)? Can the worst chef in your group manage if everyone else was incapable of cooking?
Consider holding regular “Thankfulness Dinners”. Get friends, family and neighbors to share together one of your emergency food supply meals. It won't necessarily be the best meal you’ve ever had, but it is an opportunity to share a meal, experience the fun and challenges of preparation and cooking in the dark and be thankful for every day that you don’t have to experience such an emergency situation.
And you might be surprised about the low cost of emergency supply based meals. A typical meal can cost around $1–3 person. What does each meal you typically make, buy or share cost each time? It is reasonable to assume that for many of you reading this you are spending way more than $1–$3 per person.
5. What is the world you want to live in?
Having an emergency food supply raises worthwhile questions. What is the world you want to live in? Is needing a personal emergency food supply really the world you want to live in? Are there better ways we can care for ourselves, loved ones and neighbors without requiring such drastic measures? Were the suggestions around “buy two, gift one” challenging? What is the harmony between civic responsibility, radical self-reliance and gifting?
Creating an emergency food supply suggests a lack of trust in community, government and institutions. Is this indicative of the underlying lack of trust that permeates every day but is revealed when real and present dangers exist? And this lack of trust has a substantial basis with many examples of delayed humanitarian aid after natural disasters (8).
The fragility of supply chains and panic buying highlights how reliant we have become on supermarkets. There are many alternatives and options for becoming more self-sufficient and encourage more make/grow it yourself culture. Join a local food cooperative, support genuine growers markets and neighborhood food share groups. Through all of this we need to continue a focus on working towards regenerative lifestyles and protect our air, water and food quality.
Panic buying is unnecessary. Here’s why…
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