Musing About Food Security as the Snow Swirls Outside

Posted by on Jan 27, 2015

The sun trying to peek out at Leonard Farm after a blustery, snowy night. Photo: Alex Wilson

The sun trying to peek out at Leonard Farm after a blustery, snowy night. Photo: Alex Wilson

As I write this, the snow is falling in what the news media was trumpeting yesterday as Snowmageddon. Schools have been closed throughout New England, four states ordered all highways closed last night, I caught something on the news about one town outside Boston actually cutting power intentionally before the storm took it down. And the TV showed shoppers in a frenzy buying water, food, and batteries. One hundred percent of the Boston TV news coverage last night was about the storm.

This makes me think about food security.

While concerns about food security in the U.S. pale next to those concerns in many Third World countries, we have our own vulnerabilities that most of us rarely consider. In fact, our just-in-time mentality in some ways makes us more vulnerable to interruptions when they occur. This is America; we are supposed to have whatever we need whenever we need it.

This article examines why food security should be on our radar screen, speculates about why it isn’t, and it outlines a few measures that we can take to achieve greater food security.

Periodic drought puts agricultural production at risk

The significant drought that has blanketed much of California over the past four years (and still continues in much of the state) has had a significant impact on agricultural output—from a state that produces a quarter of the nation’s food. The output of certain California crops was down as much as 25% in 2014.

During 2012 the drought was more widespread, affecting 80% of U.S. farmland, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. That year, the Midwest was hardest hit, and corn, soybeans, and wheat production all suffered.

California snowpack—which is a significant determinant of how much water flows into reservoirs and is available for agriculture. Source: California Dept. of Water Resources

California snowpack—which is a significant determinant of how much water flows into reservoirs and is available for agriculture. Source: California Dept. of Water Resources

There’s a big difference between Californian and Midwestern agriculture—namely irrigation. Irrigated farmland doesn’t feel the effects of drought as quickly as farmland that depends on rainfall. Irrigation water that is drawn from reservoirs or pumped from underground aquifers can continue long after the inflows into those reservoirs and aquifers diminish. That’s why aquifers in many areas, like California’s Central Valley, are dropping and why many reservoirs have been at historic lows.

Drought has a far more immediate effect on the Midwest where the Grain Belt is largely dependent on rainfall and sequestered soil moisture. During droughts, non-irrigated land that has deep, organic soils do far better than soils that are low in organic matter—a point that is made very well in the book, The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson.

The bottom line is that during times of drought, agriculture is at risk—more quickly with non-irrigated cropland than with irrigated cropland, but both can be at risk in the long term.

Nearly empty food shelves resulting from panic buying. Photo: Future Shock

Nearly empty food shelves resulting from panic buying. Photo: Future Shock

Natural and anthropogenic disasters can block the distribution of food

While the above concerns about drought affect long-term food security, there are also short-term concerns. We are reminded, from time to time, just how quickly store shelves can be depleted. It is often said that big cities, such as New York, have at any given time about a three-day supply of food on hand. When there’s an event like Superstorm Sandy in 2012 that cuts off shipments into a city or this week’s over-hyped snowstorm, food and critical supplies disappear quickly amid panic-buying.

A shortage of food or key supplies, like flashlight batteries and toilet paper, tends to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. While there may not have been a sound underlying cause for a shortage (even during an emergency), panic buying by consumers can quickly turn it into a real shortage. Such is human nature.

In addition, during power outages, stores—like homeowners—lose the ability to store perishable food. During Sandy millions of pounds of refrigerated food spoiled in New York City, contributing to the emptying of store shelves.

A fascinating October 2013 article in CityLab, “New York’s Looming Food Disaster,” explored this issue in detail, explaining how food security has become a more significant concern in the past several decades as food warehousing has been moved out of gentrifying parts of the City (like the Meat Packing District) to locations up to 100 miles away and brought into the City for just-in-time delivery—as long as the tunnels and bridges and highways are passable.

The 6-acre Kingsbury Farm in Warren, Vermont. Photo: Alex Wilson

The 6-acre Kingsbury Farm in Warren, Vermont. Photo: Alex Wilson

Achieving food security

Achieving greater food security can be approached on two levels: on a practical level at home and through policies that affect regional agriculture. Let’s look at these in turn.

Storing non-perishable foods at home

Nearly all of us do this on some level. We stock up on cans of soup and tuna, boxes of pasta, rolls of toilet paper. But borrowing a page from the Mormon Church, we can take this planning a bit further and store food in a more organized, systematic fashion.

RDI recommends keeping at least a six-week supply of non-perishable foods in your larder—but doing so in a way that avoids waste. Develop a system for rotating food stock. For example, keep two large containers of rice. When one is empty, fill it and store that container behind the one being used. Use containers that are airtight, insect-proof, and rodent-proof. Glass is perfect with tight-fitting lids.

As for how long foods can be stored, the Mormon Church has a food storage checklist that shows how long different foods can be stored: ranging from 1.5 to 30 years.

Specialized sources of storage foods are multiplying with the growing “prepper” community, and there is no shortage of online sources, such as The Ready Store and Emergency Essentials, LLC. But non-perishable foods can be bought at any grocery store, many of which offer bulk buying of products like dry beans, dehydrated fruits, and flour. Food co-ops and natural foods stores are particularly good sources of bulk foods.

Homeowners who grow and store (through canning or dehydration) their own fruits and vegetables are ahead of the game, as they will already have a system in place for storing significant quantities of these foods.

A nice benefit of buying food in bulk and storing it is the potential to save money. By purchasing larger quantities and avoiding a lot of packaging and processing through bulk buying, costs are generally lower.

But be aware that any savings through bulk buying will quickly disappear if food stays on the shelf too long and spoils. Figure out a simple, easy system for rotating these food supplies so that the oldest are always used first, as described above.

Promoting local food production

Addressing longer-term threats to food security, such as drought and loss of farmland, is more challenging. It requires engaging on a policy level—advocating for measures to protect farmland from development, removing impediments to farming (such as bans on raising chickens in cities), incentivizing local agriculture, and creating a culture that celebrates and supports farming.

With more food produced locally, less needs to be imported from far away—including places that are more susceptible to droughts. That food may be sold directly to consumers through CSAs (community supported agriculture), farmers’ markets, farm stands, or produced in home gardens directly by the consumers. Even produce that is sold wholesale is more likely to stay in regional markets, assuming the producers are smaller than the mega-farms found in California.

Very significantly, local food production also results in the creation of infrastructure for food storage. Re-establishing regional food storage can be as important as regional food production.

Looking out at Black Mountain from Leonard Farm. Not much solar electricity today! Photo: Alex Wilson

Looking out at Black Mountain from Leonard Farm. Not much solar electricity today! Photo: Alex Wilson

Why are we resistant to addressing food security?

It seems that most of us have a resistance to planning ahead. Not so with our grandparents. Those who lived through the Great Depression, had the need for self-reliance ingrained into them by necessity. Most of us today are far enough removed from such hardship that we’ve become not only complacent, but also emotionally resistant to planning ahead. We can buy anything we want any time—even watermelon in December.

Outside of the fringe prepper/survivalist community, most of us actively resist this level of planning and preparation. Perhaps it’s an emotional resistance to confronting our vulnerabilities. Maybe deciding to store six weeks’ of food and setting up a system to rotate that food to avoid spoilage would make us feel that we’ve given in to the idea that the world is falling apart.

For me, this sort of preparation doesn’t feel like a cop-out. Rather, it’s a form of security—so I don’t have to worry about those what-ifs. I can be cozy in our superinsulated house, with a wood stove to keep us warm if we lose power, knowing that we could get along just fine for weeks on our own if we had to. So I can watch the snow swirling by the windows outside, snowed in by the storm, and enjoy it rather than being stressed by it.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.

5 Comments

  1. One of the problems I have with this is how it conflicts with other advice I read and espouse. I just renovated my house to subdivide it and live in far less space, insulate it so that I need far less to heat it and will stay warm when the power goes out, live in a walkable community so that I can shop on foot, but have almost no storage space and certainly couldn’t store six weeks of food. And I wonder if we should bother about six weeks; I understand and could deal with a week, but if we get into a six week situation than the whole continent has gone to hell. The implications of such a long breakdown of all of our societal systems are immense.

  2. Lloyd, good points. When I think about a supply of emergency food, I tend to focus on non-perishable staples, like rice, beans, cornmeal, and flour. It does take extra storage space, though, and in a very compact house or apartment the space needed for those extra bins of dry goods may simply not be available. I really think you want more than one week, though. How ’bout three weeks for those in walkable communities?

  3. A quick look in my pantry tells me that I could probably survive for 6 weeks if necessary – it wouldn’t be an exciting diet in the world but we’d have something to eat. I agree that just in time deliveries put communities at more risk of empty shelves.

    Some years ago deliveries of bread in my area were disrupted not long before Christmas – plenty of customers milled around the bread shelves hoping to get lucky – I snuck off to the aisle with the flour and yeast. In circumstances where people are panic buying I suspect it is possible to stock up raw ingredients before the shelves empty where folks buy what they are used to, prepared food.

    If you don’t have room to store things it might help to at least have a shopping list in mind and know where to find the items in your local supermarket. Be inventive with storage – You can line up tins of food behind your books on the bookcase or as a single layer at the bottom of your wardrobe. Living on baked beans and tinned soup for a few weeks would be a little boring but its better than starving!

    • Great input, Jackiew. Thanks much. Great point on ingredients vs. finished goods.

  4. Lloyd Alter ran a great follow-up poll on TreeHugger asking how much food we should store. The poll results are fascinating (3 weeks is the top vote-getter so far), and the discussion that ensued is great:
    http://www.treehugger.com/green-food/how-long-would-your-homes-food-supply-last-if-you-had-rely-it.html

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  1. It’s Snowing Again in Boston…and Time to Focus on Resilience | Resilient Design Institute - […] as I discussed in an article a couple weeks ago, an important aspect of resilience is food. We keep…
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