By C. Nelson
In the USA, or any other advanced economy, it’s now easier to get food than it’s ever been. Most of us, especially in cities, can buy food pretty much around the clock – or we can store it at home in the freezer. But what happens if this suddenly becomes impossible?
It doesn’t take much to disrupt our food supply chain. A terrorist incident, earthquake or even a bad storm can do it – anything that closes retailers, restricts your mobility or puts the power out. If that happens our modern society suddenly has a problem with food. You can’t buy anything, the ready meals in the freezer will soon start to deteriorate as they thaw and you don’t have power to cook them. How well placed are you to survive in this situation?
To be prepared, it’s important that you have an emergency food supply that will keep you going for at least three days. As long as you have water you can actually survive three days without food very easily, but you’ll soon start to run out of energy. In a potentially life-threatening situation that’s extremely bad news, so if you want to maximize your chances a stockpile of emergency rations is essential.
Plenty of people are ready to sell you a pre-packed emergency food supply, but don’t order one just yet. A lot of them aren’t all that suitable for an actual emergency. For example, many of the most popular ones rely on dehydrated meals. These need a lot of water to prepare – and if you don’t have the ability to heat the water the result can be a pretty unappetising cold, lumpy sludge. It’ll keep you going, but it isn’t going to do much for your morale.
Instead you should concentrate on foods that need minimal preparation and can be eaten cold if necessary. That’s especially important if you live in an urban area. In the country you’ll pretty much always be able to light a fire to hear water, but a major disaster in a city is a different story. For example, San Francisco is one city that advises all residents to stockpile three days of emergency food. The most likely emergency there is an earthquake, and that’s going to leave a lot of people surrounded by broken gas mains in a city that’s mostly made of wood. In those circumstances, lighting a fire probably isn’t the smartest idea.
What about military-style rations, for example MREs? These have some good points. They have a long shelf life. They’re sealed in tough packaging, and they’re not too heavy. Everything in them can be eaten cold, with no preparation. They also pack in a lot of calories – around 1,200 per meal. On the other hand they’re not much use if you have food intolerances. MREs are designed for military use, and military catering doesn’t care if you’re gluten-free or have a nut allergy. Another downside is the cost. You can get MREs on ebay for as little as $2 each, but these tend to be scavenged from military dumpsters and are usually near the end of their shelf life. A single meal with five years’ life left costs upwards of $10 – and you’ll need three of them per day for each person. Finally they’re quite bulky. Some foreign military rations come in 24-hour packs, instead of the MRE’s single-meal format, but these are usually best avoided – the menus can be quite weird. An exception is the British 24-hour GS ration, which many American soldiers prefer to the MRE.
Military rations can be a good choice if you can find a supply of new ones with a few years’ shelf life remaining, but for most people the best option is to put together their own supply. This method has its own advantages that more than balance out the plus points of MREs:
- You can allow for any food intolerances or allergies you have.
- It’s possible to tailor your supply to suit your own tastes – and having food you like is very good for morale.
- It’s a lot cheaper – and you can spread the cost. Instead of buying a case of MREs or an expensive bucket of dehydrated meals you can just pick up one or two items every time you go grocery shopping.
Look for foods that have a good nutritional balance. High calorie content is valuable; it gives you the energy to cope with emergency situations, and in really extreme circumstances surplus calories let you stretch your supply further. Don’t overlook other factors though. Fiber will help avoid digestive problems, and protein helps you stay in good condition. Vitamins are less of a problem over a three-day period, but you’re better off with them than without them. Here’s a few suggestions:
- Granola bars
- Dried fruit bars
- Clif bars
- Pop Tarts (Ignore the best before date – those things last a decade or more)
- Long life crackers (Saltines or Sailor Boy pilot bread)
- Peanut butter
- Canned tuna
- Processed cheese
- Canned corned beef
- Vienna sausages
- Canned stew or chilli
- Canned chicken
- Canned corn – This can be turned into a salad with some Miracle Whip
- Canned beans – Rinse and use in a salad
- International bread – Tortillas, naan and chapattis can last for months or years if they come in a sealed package
- Canned fruit (snack size)
- Canned custard – Goes great with canned fruit, and can be eaten cold
Drinks and Snacks
- Slim Jims
- Beef jerky
- Dried fruit
- Seasoned or sweet crackers
- Iced tea mix
- Kool-Aid, Crystal Light or Tang
- Powdered milk
If you’re likely to be able to boil water, there are lots of long-life carbs that can be added to your supplies. These are filling and energy-rich. They let you stretch meat and vegetables a lot further, too. If you have three days of canned food, you can extend that to a week or more with dried goods:
- Egg or ramen noodles
- Manual can opener
- Paper towels or tissues
- Toilet paper
- Trash bags
The absolute minimum you should allow is one gallon per person per day. It’s best to have a five-gallon container for each person as part of your three-day supply. That allows some surplus for washing, and gives you a safety margin in hot weather. Military-grade black plastic jerry cans are ideal – they’re very tough, and they don’t let light through. That can inhibit the growth of microorganisms. Fill containers as full as possible to minimize the amount of air in them – but don’t leave them anywhere they might freeze. Empty containers every month, rinse with a sterilizing solution (sterilizing tablets from a home brew shop work well) then refill.
Related: H2O Dynamo – The Awesome Device That Turns Air Into Fresh Water! (video)
Once you’ve built up your food supply don’t just stick it in the back of the cupboard and forget about it. Check use-by dates regularly and replace anything that’s getting close (except Pop Tarts). If you regularly buy items that are also on your emergency supply, rotate them; put the new one into storage, take out the oldest one and add it to your everyday supplies.
Store your food in a cool, dry – and ideally dark – place that doesn’t freeze. Check it regularly to make sure no cans or packets are leaking, swelling or doing anything else that looks like bad news. If anything is, get rid of it and replace it as soon as possible.
Putting your own emergency food supply together doesn’t cost much, and it’s an effective, flexible solution. There’s no risk of being stuck with expensive survival foods you don’t like much, and you can easily rotate items without making a big difference to your grocery bill. Keeping three days’ worth of convenient, high-energy food makes a lot of sense, and with our food supply chain as fragile as it is now, can you really afford not to?
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