I just went shopping in our basement, bringing up several items that were missing in our upstairs cupboards: catsup and ibuprofen (both from Costco), a jar of homemade jam, a can of chicken soup. It always tickles me to see how much we’ve got stored down there, from the kale we grew and dried to bedpillow-sized sacks of dried beans.
Since I live in a really seismic state, the stockpile also makes me feel safe and prepared. Well, as prepared as one can ever be for another Good Friday Earthquake. (And yes, I’ve thought about what might happen if the house collapsed into the basement: Anger, panic and finally rueful laughter.) That’s probably why an Everyday Cheapskate post called “Don’t be scared, be prepared” resonated so much and got me thinking, once again, about food preparedness. The post’s author, Mary Hunt (who also runs the Debt-Proof Living site and writes lots of books), noted that “as a nation we have little to no warehousing backup in the event of a supply shortage.” That’s because our stores tend to get daily shipments vs. having large stockpiles in the famous “back room.” Hunt talked with a Costco exec who figures that even in that emporium of excess the shelves would be emptied “within three to five days” in the event of a disruption in the food distribution system. Is such a disruption possible? You bet. Is it likely? Who knows? What if….? We think about these things in places like Alaska or Hawaii, where the majority of food gets flown or barged in. The difference between the 49th and 50th states, though, is that Hawaiians can raise quite a bit of grub (and livestock) in their own back yards. Alaskans really have to work at it, and there are some things we just can’t grow without serious greenhouse use.
Last year I attended a press open house at the National Weather Service, during which a representative for the National Tsunami Warning Center opined that another well-placed, high-Richter earthquake could put a world of hurt on Alaskan pantries. That’s because it might spawn monster waves that would wipe out the shipping areas in Washington and California – from which come most of the barges that supply Alaskan stores. So yep, I’ve been thinking along those lines. So has my boyfriend, who actually experienced the Good Friday Earthquake and who also spent his formative years in villages where the Bureau of Indian Affairs shipped food to teachers once a year. The upside of that: His parents, both educators, saved a lot of money because there was simply nowhere to spend it. The downside: You got food only once a year and filled in with seal, moose, fish or whatever else you could get your hands on. Is it any wonder that we buy flour by the 50-pound bag? Or that we have probably 40 pounds of dried beans and 30 pounds of rice stashed downstairs? Or jugs of vinegar and olive oil and loads of canned fruit, tomatoes and vegetables? We’ve even bought chickens on sale and pressure-canned them in jars, in order to have a shelf-stable protein that doesn’t require cooking. When someone gave us salmon that went into jars, too. Prudent or paranoid?
My former MSN Money colleague Liz Weston has long been a proponent of a well-stocked larder, calling it “the emergency fund you can eat.” I always had a fairly deep pantry even in my one-bedroom Seattle apartment, all of it bought on sale and/or with coupons. We also make our own yogurt, wine and beer, and preserve such vegetables and fruits as we can grow or glean. Maybe you, like me, consider this prudent rather than paranoid. If so, here are a few tips for low-maintenance food preparedness: Bulk buys. Not everyone can (or wants to) belong to Costco. But some grocery stores have bulk-bin items that can be noticeably cheaper than the stuff in the regular aisles. Even here in Anchorage I can buy oatmeal for $1.09 per pound vs. $5.99 for the 42-ounce box of Quaker over in the cereal aisle; the price dropped to 99 cents in January so I bought about 20 pounds, storing it in gallon-sized glass jars in the basement. When un-degermed cornmeal went on sale for about 59 cents a pound, I bought a year’s worth and stored it in the freezer; currently I’m working my way through the last bag and keeping an eye out for sales. Manager’s specials. I routinely check the scratch-and-dent bin at the back of the store and have gotten some decent prices on slightly marred cans or boxes/bags of food that have had corners torn or crushed. A fair amount of the yogurt I enjoy is made from close-dated milk that’s bought at 50 percent off; I freeze it if I can’t use it quickly enough. Then there’s the “used meat” section, as my boyfriend inelegantly calls it; these sell-it-now cuts are often tremendously discounted. Just use them right away or freeze them. More how-tos Loss leaders. If something you eat a lot of is advertised cheaply, get as many as you’re allowed. Simple enough. Learn to preserve food. We can’t all be Martha Stewart, but how hard is it to freeze produce that you’ve grown or gotten at rock-bottom prices during the height of summer?
The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a tremendous resource that will walk you throw the canning, drying, freezing, jamming and jerkying of flora and fauna. We canned fish that someone gave us, chickens we bought on sale, carrots we grew, jam made from home-grown or gleaned fruit, and jars of pickled red cabbage so tasty that we’re doubling our output this summer. Hit the bakery outlet. A few extra discounted loaves or some cheap tortillas in the freezer can go a long way toward padding emergency foods like peanut butter, canned soup and refried beans. Preserve commercially grown food. Once blueberries hit $2 a pound at Costco, we bought and froze them. When I found mandarin oranges for an unbelievable $3.88 per bag, you bet I wanted to preserve that price – you just don’t see citrus that cheap very often up here. Those of you who live near farms may be able to score good deals if you’re willing to buy more than a couple of pounds at a time. At times you may find low prices on local green beans or tomatoes even at the supermarket. Shop around. Watch for coupon specials. Last fall the Fred Meyer chain offered 20 percent off the total bill if you purchased $50, $100 or $150 in a single trip. We bought things like house-brand teabags, on-sale canned tomatoes, crackers (a frequent menu item at Café Awesome) and a few Christmas gifts (but not from the “gift” aisle, aka “the marked-up stuff aisle”). We’re still using up those groceries. Don’t just hoard it Speaking of which: This stuff won’t do you any good if it sticks around indefinitely. Write use-by dates on the fronts of cans and boxes (not on the tops!) with a black marker, and make it a point to use these items regularly. You can refill as you find sales and specials. A great deal of peace of mind comes with knowing you’re stocked up, especially if you’ve done it frugally. To paraphrase Thoreau, the food saves you money twice: once in the inexpensive outlay and again when you don’t find yourself running to the supermarket for a can of tomatoes (because do you ever really get out of the store with just that one item?) or, worse, ordering out because there’s nothing to eat. If the big one hits in our lifetime, one of the things we won’t have to worry about is how we’ll eat. Relatives who live nearby will also be taken care of if necessary; they’re welcome to bring sleeping bags and camp out here. There’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that we’d all have enough to eat. And while we’re not as prepared as the Mormons or the preppers, we probably won’t have to buy teabags for at least another six months.
This article originally appeared at DonnaFreedman.com
Donna Freedman won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career, and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. She now writes the Frugal Nation website for MSN Money, blogs at DonnaFreedman.com, and freelances for national magazines.
Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.