Without a doubt, 2020 has been the year no one expected. A novel virus leading to a pandemic of panic that has resulted in lockdowns, quarantines, food shortages and a thousand other unexpected things. Because of all the uncertainty and the disruptions to food and other systems, I have been inundated with questions from people wanting to know how they can best position themselves and prepare for what the rest of this year (and the next) may bring.
Preparedness is a big topic, and an important one for people who rely on real foods to keep them well in good times and bad. In this article, I want to touch on how those of us committed to a Wise Traditions diet and lifestyle can best prepare in ways that align with our principles.
LOCAL FOOD IS THE BEST FOOD
Having a solid network of local suppliers for food has always been important. Over the past six or so years, however, as large chains enticed shoppers into grocery stores with more organic items and more consumers moved to online shopping, the mainstream media began reporting that local food sales and farmers markets were losing momentum1,2 and that consumer interest was plateauing.3 Then, this year, the unthinkable happened—many of us saw empty grocery store shelves, and interest in local food exploded! As circumstances forced large-scale producers to compost or euthanize hundreds of millions of pounds of vegetables and meat, grocery stores began removing meat cases or setting strict purchasing limits. Many stores could not get a wide array of items in stock. The combination of empty shelves plus all sorts of onerous rules made people begin to rethink the convenience and low cost of the big-box grocery stores.
At the moment, most of the disruption appears to have settled down (although the higher prices have not), but the uncertainties have left an indelible mark on many Americans. All of a sudden, keeping only a few days of food handy does not seem so prudent after all.
GROW YOUR OWN
There are two aspects to ensuring a local food supply: your own production and your patronage of local suppliers. If at all possible, it makes sense to grow some food yourself. Anyone and everyone can do it, and there is nothing fresher than what you can get from your own backyard. Moreover, there are many ways beyond vegetable gardening to make your landscaping edible.4
If you lack outdoor space, don’t despair. I have taught people in apartments to grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, herbs and lettuces on their balconies, in their windows or on a raised deck.5 I also have a friend who built a setup in his garage to grow food year-round.
If you want to extend your growing season, check out my previous Wise Traditions article discussing ways to grow food almost year-round.6 Contrary to popular belief, this is possible in much of the U.S.
BRING BACK ROOT CELLARS
As a kid, I remember going into my grandparents’ or parents’ basement root cellar to snag apples, potatoes and numerous other vegetables. Items stored in the root cellar also included canned or otherwise preserved foods like sauerkraut. At the time, it seemed like almost every house in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania had a root cellar. Now, unfortunately, most houses have incredibly expensive finished basements with lavish entertainment or exercise setups—but no place for food storage.
Root cellars make more sense than ever and are worth the space they take up. For one thing, you can usually grow far more than you can quickly eat. A root cellar gives you a place to store the bounty for use when those items go out of season and are no longer locally available. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, carrots and apples are some of the vegetables and fruits that root-cellar well, and there are many others. As an added bonus, root cellaring preserves far more nutritional value than food preservation methods such as canning. In our experience, root cellars also involve considerably less work than canning. Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel is a great book to have if you want to learn the skills needed to store more food without expensive modern equipment.7
Traditional cultures mainly used dehydration, fermentation or curing to preserve foods. These methods generally kept—or sometimes improved—the food’s nutritional value but also had some significant drawbacks. For instance, dehydration (before vacuum sealing) meant that foods had to be rendered very, very dry. Curing often used so much salt that meat needed repeated washings before cooking to remove the excess salt. And even with these methods, the historical literature is replete with discussions of food loss and stories about how bad years or failed storage led to significant problems or even catastrophes for communities, regions or countries.
Modern preservation techniques generally reduce the nutritional value of foods (or certain nutrients) but are more foolproof in terms of success and long-term shelf stability. Canned foods, for example, can keep for years—but at the cost of lost nutrition. Freezing makes you grid-dependent and also causes the loss of key nutrients in certain food groups (such as folate in vegetables). Canning and vacuum sealing expose our food (and therefore us) to plastics and the chemicals used in their production. You will have to decide on the balance that you wish to strike between preparedness, nutrition and the stability and accessibility of your food supply when choosing among the various ways to preserve and put up food.
CONNECT WITH LOCAL FOOD SUPPLIERS
Few of us can grow all our own food, but all of us can obtain more of our food from local and regional suppliers outside the mainstream food system. As a silver lining to this year’s events, the options for supporting local and regional foods are increasing, at least in some areas.
Some options include farmers markets, food buying clubs and other cooperative efforts. In addition, changes in technology now allow local farmers to sell directly to communities in ways that were impossible or cost-prohibitive just a decade ago. As a result, we are witnessing a surge in local farmers doing drops and deliveries, offering choices such as meat and vegetable CSAs and weekly, bimonthly or monthly deliveries. Remember, though, that farmers need consumers not only to make the switch but to commit to these options on a long-term basis.
USE A GRAIN MILL
Modern store-bought bread is usually a bane to one’s health, but for home bakers who rely on flour and yeast, current shortages have made baking harder to undertake. However, while flour remains hard to come by in some stores and through some distributors, at no time during the past three months have whole grains been hard to get. Now is a good time, therefore, to consider the many advantages of using a grain mill to grind your own grain into flour. Having a grain mill will separate you from the 95 percent (or more) of the population who know how to bake with only already-processed flour.
Grinding your own grain saves you money (whole grains are generally 30 to 70 percent cheaper than flour), provides more nutrition (and less rancidity) and also makes preparedness far easier. For example, two five-gallon buckets—one of oat groats and one of spelt berries—combined with a grain mill would let you produce one to two servings of food per person per day for five people for three months! If you cannot eat grains that are in the wheat family, a grain mill can still be quite useful for handling buckwheat groats and other non-gluten options.
I also recommend learning how to make sourdough, which requires only salt and no yeast. For sourdough, fermentation and other purposes, it is wise to keep about twenty to twenty-five pounds of salt on hand, particularly since salt is easy to store.
DON’T FORGET WATER
Food is the backbone of preparedness, but it isn’t the only thing a prepared family should have on hand. It is also important to give some thought to having a backup supply of water. Last summer, we lost our well—our primary water source—for almost ten days.
Modern water filters are amazing in their ability to take substandard water sources and turn them into something worth drinking,8 but the vast majority rely on the modern grid—pressurized water and/or electricity—to work. Berkeys and a few other brands do not, so we have a Berkey tucked away for emergencies along with other backup water options. Space permitting, I suggest storing at least ten to twenty gallons of potable water in five-gallon jugs. (You can also get glass storage jugs.) Note that this will need to be rotated and replaced every six months—yes, water has a shelf life!
BASIC MEDICAL SUPPLIES
Right now is not a fun time to have to go to the emergency room (and really, it never has been!). Part of preparedness means having the skills and supplies that allow you to take care of minor medical mishaps at home and also prevent them from becoming something more serious. Next to nourishing foods and clean water, our at-home medical supplies are one of the most useful things that has helped us raise five antibiotic-free kids who have tallied up fifty years of life on this earth.
We have multiple medical supply kits; one goes in each of our vehicles with an extra backup in the house. (The full list of what our kits contain is available on my website.9) By always having a range of basic first aid and medical supplies on hand, we have been able to handle an assortment of issues quickly. Of the wide range of supplies our kits contain, the ones we have used most often are sterile gauze and bandages, bandaids, Steri-Strips and iodine. (If this gives you the idea that the vast majority of injuries in our family have been cuts, scrapes and wounds, you would be correct!) To go along with the kits, we keep a range of additional items in our house: activated charcoal capsules, colloidal silver, our beloved elderberry syrup and other elderberry preparations.
Along with growing food, we also “grow medicines” such as echinacea, yarrow, plantain and other plants helpful for bruises, stings, scrapes and a host of other injuries and issues. An added advantage of these plants is that they help our main plants by attracting beneficial insects. They are often easy to grow indoors or in spaces around other plants as well as in locations that typical garden plants dislike.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
Five kids and a farm mean that we have often been awakened at night to deal with problems befalling both two- and four-legged creatures. As a result, of the many tools and gadgets we have around, our LED headlamps and lanterns have seen far more use than I ever expected! Importantly, both have red-light modes. Things go wrong at all times of the year and at all times of day and night, so we have not infrequently found ourselves needing to take action in conditions of little to no light. Red-light modes let you work without ruining your night vision and with less disruption to your body’s ability to go back to sleep. Headlamps also keep your hands free, which for almost every task is why we prefer them over flashlights. (We still have a few flashlights but use them infrequently.)
To power these gadgets, we use rechargeable batteries; these represent a substantial financial and environmental savings compared to standard batteries. The brand we currently use is Eneloop, which has performed very well for over five years.
NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
I have told my children that they will never forget the first six months of 2020—similar to what 9/11 represented for my generation. With the economic outlook remaining highly uncertain, many Americans are now treating food production and preparedness as high priorities. Tens (hundreds?) of thousands are turning to gardening, and some, turning to local producers, are finding that their local farmers have wait lists. Many more—seeing that Covid-19 appears to be especially dangerous for individuals who were unhealthy to begin with—are renewing their efforts to improve their health and nutrition.
For our family, events have been somewhat surreal. What we have taught and practiced for years meant that when toilet paper was in short supply and stores were swamped by hordes seeking out basic necessities, we were able to stay self-sufficient on our homestead for weeks, with little need to resupply or get mired in all the madness. We also were able to help friends and neighbors put in their first gardens. In addition, we have expanded our on-homestead classes to help people more quickly learn a wide range of skills—sourdough baking, gardening, food preservation and more—while also sharing strategies for avoiding costly mistakes and setbacks. The array of people who have attended these classes has amazed us. Their serious desire to grow—literally and skill-wise—has been a constant source of encouragement in an otherwise challenging year.
If 2020 hasn’t convinced you of the need to prioritize preparedness, I can’t think of anything else that would! I can promise you this: if you do it wisely and in keeping with Wise Traditions principles, preparing is something you won’t regret, regardless of what the rest of 2020 and beyond brings.
CHEST FREEZERS: AN EASY WAY TO STORE MORE FOOD
For meat and similar items, there is no better option than a chest freezer, given the trade-offs between cost, nutrition and other factors. We prefer chest freezers to upright freezers for two reasons. First, they are far less expensive to run, clocking in at about one-third to one-half of the expense of an upright freezer per month. Second, if the door is left slightly ajar, it is almost always just an inconvenience rather than a catastrophe—a big consideration if you have many kids getting things from them! Also, if the power goes out, chest freezers stay colder far longer than uprights, so when things go wrong, they cause far less stress.
NUTRIENT-DENSE AND EASY-TO-STORE EMERGENCY FOODS
FATS: Ghee; coconut oil; lard; olive oil.
PROTEINS: Jerky; pemmican; home-canned soups and stews (or high-quality artisanal soups and stews).
CARBS: Lentils; beans; grains; crackers (we make our own spelt sourdough crackers).
CHEESE: If you have a root cellar, cheese is an exceptional “stored food,” especially three to five-pound rounds with the rind still on.
NUTS AND DRIED FRUIT: Crispy nuts (soaked and dehydrated), fruits and trail mixes (be sure to store in airtight containers or packaging).
FREEZE-DRIED FOODS: While expensive, freeze-dried foods can be quite useful and have the benefit of preserving far more nutrition than other, more common food preservation methods.
A NEGLECTED BUT USEFUL PREPAREDNESS ITEM: PAPER PLATES
Over the years, we have lost power and water numerous times; once, we even had our septic system freeze because of a record cold spell. Under such circumstances, good-quality, compostable paper bowls and plates are a “must-have.” They have consistently been one of the most useful preparedness items in almost every type of stressful or emergency situation, ranging from sickness to thunderstorms to snowstorms that knocked out the power and thus water. Not having to do dishes in an already tense situation is something no one is going to complain about! Paper plates make it possible to conserve water and consume food with far less fuss, saving one’s energy for other tasks such as food preparation. They also create another input for the compost pile instead of a mound of dishes.
- Runyon L. Are farmers market sales peaking? That might be good for farmers. NPR, February 5, 2015.
- Helmer J. Why are so many farmers markets failing? Because the market is saturated. NPR, March 17, 2019.
- Forman-Cook W. Growth of local food markets may be slowing, USDA report shows. Agri-Pulse, June 4, 2015.
- Moody J. Eat your yard out! Wise Traditions, Winter 2019;20(4):49-51.
- Moody J. How to grow a massive sweet potato harvest with DIY containers. https://www.gardeningchannel.com/how-to-grow-a-massive-sweet-potato-harvest-with-diy-containers/.
- Moody J. Year-round vegetable growing: more doable than ever. Wise Traditions, Summer 2019;20(2):56-59.
- Bubel M, Bubel N. Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables. Storey Books, 1991.
- Moody J. Options for drinking water filtration. Wise Traditions, Spring 2019;20(1):62-67.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2020