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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Keeping Track of Emergency Food Supplies

Sharon (of Casaubon's Book) was the first person I've really been able to show our emergency food storage without fear of being thought crazy or paranoid. In fact, she was a strong influence in our decision to build up a larder in the first place. You can read all of Sharon's posts on why and how to store food here.

The Center for Disease Control recommends everyone have a minimum of two weeks' food supplies on hand to weather any natural or human-caused disasters. The LDS Church, for a variety of reasons, urges its members to keep a one year supply of food on hand and they even have a handy calculator to help figure out how much is needed. With increasing food costs and job losses, building up your pantry gives you a safety net for hard times. How much food you decide to keep on hand is really up to you. Decide what would give you peace of mind, what you can afford, and what you can store. I think a three-month supply is a happy medium.

How do you build up your pantry? I've already talked about food security a number of times here and recommend you try some of the ideas I've thrown out such as buying in bulk, checking the sales and discontinued items, shopping for nutrition, gardening, and preserving food (see also canning). Of course, avoiding food waste is important too! Sharon has also discussed this (see link given above) and had a series of posts focused on building up your supplies one week at a time. Justice Desserts had the ticking time bomb version of emergency preparedness that will get you ramped up for food and everything else you need in just three weeks.

Once you have gathered up some food stocks, though, you don't just tuck them in the spare closet and forget about them. The food you've stored should be food that you are willing to eat regularly; otherwise there isn't much point in having it. If you choose to buy staples suggested by the LDS calculator - such as wheat, oats, and legumes as well as flour, sugar, and dried milk - you should make sure you know how to prepare them. If they are new foods to you, start incorporating them into your daily menus now.

Your extra food should be stored properly and rotated regularly to maintain the quality of the food. I collected food grade buckets from my local grocery store's bakery department and a restaurant. For rice, wheat, oats, and legumes, I wrapped a 4 oz chunk of dry ice in a paper towel and put it on the bottom of the bucket before pouring in the bulk food. I left the lid sitting loosely on top for half an hour to allow the dry ice to drive out the oxygen before tamping down the lid tightly. For a couple of hours, I kept checking the lids to make sure no more pressure built up from any remaining dry ice. If it did, a quick "burp" of the lid took care of it. Many people advise buying special oxygen removers and gamma lids but I have not spent the money on that yet. For small quantities, I used my vacuum sealer attachment for canning lids to tightly seal food in half gallon or smaller canning jars.

To make sure the food is rotated regularly, it's important to know when you got it. For foods that store well, such as dry grains, pasta, and legumes, I write the date I got the food on the container. These are then put in the storage area with the oldest items most accessible. For foods with printed expiration dates on them, such as condiments, I also organize them to use the oldest ones first. For commercially canned food, you can sometimes decipher the coding to determine date of manufacture. Canned food keeps well in the proper storage conditions although the nutrition of the food may diminish over time. Since store stock rotates regularly, you can write your purchase date on the lid of canned goods with a permanent marker as one way to help keep track of its freshness.

Storing emergency food supplies is not useful unless you know what you have on hand. Without some kind of inventory, you may end up with too much of one type of food and not nearly enough of another, and you will be less likely to remember to rotate the food. If, like me, you have fairly limited space in which to store your emergency food supplies, your tracking system can help save you time in finding out whether you still have a specific food in your stores and where to find it.

I use a notebook with printed sheets to keep track of my inventory. I keep it, with a pen attached, in the pantry. I can check it easily to see if I am running low on particular items. My inventory is broken down into types of food. I use these categories because it is how I mentally categorize the food and organizing the list makes it more manageable.

Below is a list of the categories that I use. For each one, I've listed the type of foods that I would include in it. This is not a recommendation to store all of these items, but simply an example of how I group foods. Use what works for you.

  • Asian food - foods specific to Asian cuisine, such as dried bracken, nori, shiitake mushrooms, and rice vinegar. Also includes condiments that are specifically Asian such as red curry paste, Sriracha sauce, soy sauce, and wasabi.

  • Baking supplies - includes baking yeast, arrowroot, baking powder, baking soda, egg replacer (powder), flax seeds, flour, & salt.

  • Beans - all beans & legumes. List specifies whether they are canned, dehydrated (precooked & dried), or dry.

  • Beverages - includes tea bags, coffee beans, nondairy milk mixes and aseptic packages, and drink mixes. If you brew your own wine or beer, include supplies such as yeast and hops here.

  • Condiments - includes any food item used as a condiment, but does not includes herbs, spices, or extracts. Examples: banana chutney, mustard, nutritional yeast, relish, salsa, and vinegar.

  • Dehydrated meals - includes backpacking food and dried soups.

  • Flavorings - includes all herbs, spices, and extracts. Savory flavorings are stored separately from sweet flavorings. (You don't want your cinnamon to smell like garlic powder.) Vacuum packing helps maintain their freshness and contain their odors.

  • Fruit - includes dehydrated and canned fruit as well as fruit-based jams, jellies, and syrups.

  • Grains - includes whole and partially processed grains such as wheat berries, cream of wheat cereal, popcorn kernels, etc. Flour is tallied with baking supplies.

  • Nuts & Oils - includes oil, oil spray, nut butters, sesame or sunflower seeds, and nuts.

  • Pasta - includes pasta as well as semolina flour for making pasta from scratch.

  • Rice - any kind of rice. Rice flour is tallied with Asian food or baking supplies.

  • Sugars - includes all sweeteners, such as sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, and even stevia.

  • Vegetables - includes any vegetable foods whether canned, dehydrated, or pickled. Seeds for sprouting are also listed here.
A spreadsheet is a really handy way to organize the food inventory. Each category has its own worksheet and the foods listed in each category are alphabetized so that I can scan the printed list quickly. If there are multiple forms of the same food, the food is listed first and the form second. (For example: "tomatoes, dried" and "tomatoes, diced with basil, canned".) I also have a column to note where the food is located since I've had to carve space out in several places throughout the house. The amount of each food item is noted in another column and some spreadsheets have these totaled at the bottom. It is useful, for instance, to know how many pounds of beans or grains are on hand. It is not really useful, however, to know how many total ounces of spices I have.

When I first put the notebook together, I printed out all the worksheets from the spreadsheet to put in my notebook. I subtract and add items as needed by hand on the hard copy in the notebook. I've only updated the spreadsheets on the computer once - when I added a number of new foods in multiple categories after several weeks of canning. Yes, the notebook gets messy, but it's still usable. If you are diligent about marking items off as you remove them from the pantry, or adding new items when you go shopping, it will stay pretty accurate. There should be no need to completely re-inventory your stock more often than once a year.

For those of you with multiple family members pulling items out of storage, be sure to explain whatever system you use to everyone so that your inventory stays up to date. If there are children or others that will not cooperate, consider putting the emergency food storage under lock and key.

The only aspect of tracking our emergency food stores that I have not incorporated into the notebook is tracking how quickly we eat the food. I've been pondering ways to do that and hope to put something in place when we move. To do this, I will probably have to include all of the food I have on my kitchen shelves as well as the emergency stored food. At this time, I don't include the kitchen food because it seems like it would get really onerous to mark things off every single time I make a meal.

Do you have a system for tracking your food supplies that works really well? How do you keep track of how quickly you go through various foods?


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