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The 13th Factor — General Ignorance of Food
01/01/2009 - Previous | Next | Issues Home
Mark Jeantheau -- Part III, the final article in a food-crisis series, discusses how to improve your food security, save money, and improve nutritional intake.

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It may seem strange to say that most of us are generally ignorant of food—after all, we eat food several times every day. Bear with us as we explain.

The US consumer, and Western consumers in general, have an huge number of food choices, most of them being offered to us by an amazing array of restaurants, food stores, and food corporations.

The downside of this "easy-food paradise" is that we have lost most of our understanding of where food comes from—how it is grown, stored, traded, processed, transported, marketed, and priced. When it comes to growing, storing, and cooking food for ourselves, few us have knowledge beyond the basics. And very few have a detailed understanding of the nutritional content of food and how smart food choices are critical to good nutrition and health. (We shouldn't feel bad—most Western doctors also appear to lack this understanding!)

Most people's gardening skills, if any, are usually limited to planting flowers, shrubs, and a dozen or fewer standard backyard vegetable crops. These efforts are usually dependent on external supplies like fertilizer and pesticides and "grid-based utilities" like gasoline for rototillers and water to keep plants from wilting in the summer heat. Few gardeners are able to grow a wide variety of food crops, including protein sources, and do so organically with most inputs coming from local sources.

The news on the food preparation front is not much better. Most of us today do not know how to cook more than a few simple things, at least not without lots of boxes and cans of processed food. Very few know how to start from basic unprocessed ingredients like wheat berries, oat groats, or dried beans -- let alone a fresh kill -- to produce a meal. Still fewer of us have knowledge of how to properly preserve food for storage over months or years.

Past generations -- our grandparents usually and our great-grandparents definitely -- knew much more about growing, preparing, and storing food than we do. The loss of knowledge in the current era is understandable -- our Easy-Food Paradise, combined with a number of other factors, convinced us we had better things to do with our time than worry about our food.

-- Relatively high personal incomes, the "cheap food policies" championed by most Western governments, and the ubiquity of grocery stores and supermarkets have made acquiring food by shopping far easier than acquiring food by growing and preserving it yourself or by making a special trip to the farmers' market. As globalization heated up, grocery stores offered the additional advantage of exotic imported foods and high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables all year round -- something that was unheard of 100 years ago. The addition of dry goods and toiletries have made supermarkets an easy, time-saving, one-stop-shopping experience, thus locking almost all consumers into a pattern of getting the vast majority of their food from stores.

-- Easy availability of refrigerators and freezers (and the widespread availability of cheap electricity to run them) made alternate food preservation methods unnecessary.

-- As our entertainment options continued to expand, free time became increasingly tight, and cooking became less interesting than the many available distractions. Into the breach stepped food corporations, offering canned, frozen, and other processed foods, all designed to enable consumers to prepare meals in less time and require them to invest less in understanding how to prepare food from scratch. Restaurants also expanded in quantity and variety, and the number of "eat out" meals grew substantially, further reducing our hands-on experience with preparing food.

On the surface, the main downside of the Easy-Food Paradise seems to be that it entices us to overindulge in forbidden fruits—or at least in trans-fat treats and sugar-filled foods. But dietary choices are largely within our personal control if we desire change, so what's the problem?

Here it is: When the centralized food supply chain starts to degrade for any of the twelve reasons we explored in our previous two articles, our lack of food know-how is going to be a big disadvantage.

The rest of this article will explain further and will provide suggestions on how you can start to reacquaint yourself with food, and how you can make sure that your food security measures are sufficient to meet any emerging problems in the centralized food system. We'll cover four main topic areas:

-- Buying local food
-- Growing your own food
-- Creating a cache of store-bought food
-- Getting more adept at preparing food from basic ingredients

To avoid turning this article into a tome, we have had to limit the amount of discussion in each subject area. For each topic, we go over the basics and then suggest additional resources, articles, or books to help you become more informed on the subject.

Food Security Action Category #1: Get into local food

Learning how to buy more locally grown food is probably the easiest action to take initially -- it's the activity that's most like grocery shopping. To pursue any of the ideas listed in this section, visit LocalHarvest to find out what's near you.

CSAs -- Consumer Supported Agriculture

When you join a CSA, you buy a "share" of a local farmer's annual output of fruits and vegetables (and sometimes eggs, herbs, and other things). Grinning Planet has an entire article on this subject: CSAs - Community Supported Agriculture.

On thing to note from a food security perspective is this: If you or your family can't use a full CSA share (because it would be too much food), consider getting the full share anyway and freezing or canning what you can't eat during the CSA season.

Farmers' markets

At a farmers' market, local growers set up stands and sell produce directly to the public. The produce is usually fresher and cheaper than the trucked- or flown-in fare offered by supermarkets (though we note that many grocery stores are taking the positive step of trying to offer more local, in-season produce).

Most CSA pickups are handled at a farmers' market location, which means you can supplement your CSA box with additional items from other vendors—all in one trip. Buying extra stuff to can and freeze works here too.

Beyond food security, supporting local farmers helps keep local farms from turning into subdivisions and strip malls. Having sources of locally grown food will be a must in the post-petroleum era.

Local meat

It may surprise you to know that many locales have sources of locally grown beef, pork, chicken, eggs, dairy, and other animal products. As with the above two categories, LocalHarvest is a good place to start. The Eat Well Guide is another good resource that is more specific to animal products.

You may find that the local offerings of meat products are sized in large quantities. Going in on, say, "half a hog" with a few friends or neighbors works well. (Even with the smaller split quantities, you may find yourself considering getting a new freezer! If so, you can research energy-efficient freezers at the EnergyStar Web site.)

Food Security Action Category #2: Grow Your Own -- Or Start Trying

Learn to garden

Gardening is a great way to improve your family's food security and nutritional intake, get some exercise, and save money too. Gardening is a huge topic, and we're not going to get into any "how to garden" specifics in this article, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

If you've never grown vegetables, start with the standards: tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cucumber, summer squash. If you're already handy at these, try adding additional crops, especially staple foods that overwinter well, like onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

Season extension techniques like row covers, cold frames, and greenhouses can add a couple of months onto both ends of the growing season, and in some climates can allow you to harvest certain crops (like greens) year-round.

It's also a good idea to learn organic gardening techniques. This will be more than a "health and environment" issue if pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are less available in the future and that's the only way you know how to garden. Better to learn how to garden without them now, while the pitfalls of the learning curve don't yet threaten your food supply.

While vegetable gardening is usually the core of home food production, planting fruit trees, berry bushes, and nut trees will add to your bounty and food security over the coming years. Nut and fruit trees and berry bushes/canes will require some additional self-education, but the delicious, ultra-fresh food you get from them will be worth it. Be sure to choose disease-resistant varieties that are appropriate for your climate.

If you're short on garden space...

-- explore the tenets of "compact gardening";
-- consider converting more of your lawn to garden;
-- explore the "edible yard" concept, wherein the landscaping around your house is reoriented to plants that produce food;
-- consider raised beds, which are another attractive way to grow vegetables in a tight yard;
-- use trellises to grow some plants, which saves space and can shade other plants that need it.
For those with impossibly limited space, check to see if there is a nearby community garden you can join.

Learn about soil health and composting

Gardeners blessed with "green thumbs" seem to be able to just plop a plant in the ground and have it do beautifully. For the rest of us, we can compensate for our lack of god-like growing powers by learning about soil chemistry and proper soil preparation. Remember, for plant roots to be able to extract nutrients from the soil and send them into your food, first the nutrients must be in the soil, and second, the conditions in the soil must foster nutrient uptake. Getting the pH, nitrogen levels, and other characteristics of your soil right is important. Soil requirements vary by species, so reading up first on what each plant prefers can save you the heartache of poor plant performance later.

Regularly adding compost is one the best ways to ensure your plants have top-notch soil to grown in. Compost can also help reduce soil-based plant diseases. But first you have to learn how to MAKE compost. The basic recipe is:

-- add kitchen scraps and yard waste (but easy on the grass clippings, please);
-- add copious amounts of shredded brown leaves;
-- keep the pile moist (but not wet);
-- turn the pile every week or two.
Most libraries will have a book on the topic for those who want to learn more.

If you want to advance to Level II of composting, try your hand at compost tea, which can be used to fertilize the soil and can be sprayed on plants' leaves to deter pests and diseases.

Finally, one of the most important lessons we learn from composting is the importance of the nutrient cycle. Nutrients in the soil are not inexhaustible -- as we harvest food from our garden, part of what we take away is the nutrient content given to the plant by the soil. Thus, soil nutrients must be constantly replenished. Adding compost is the #1 way to do that.

It's also good to learn about techniques like "double digging," "till once" and "no-till" for preparing garden beds. These are all goods ways to promote good long-term soil health.

Learn about heirlooms and seeds

We spent quite a bit of time in Part 2 of this series talking about the loss of genetic diversity in today's standard agriculture operations, the importance of heirloom varieties, and the need to save seed from those varieties.

Gardeners may still prefer to use hybrid varieties for some of their crops to take advantage of the disease-resistance and yield characteristics such varieties often provide. But because you can't save your own seeds from such plants, we strongly advise you to also add heirloom varieties to your gardening mix -- AND to learn how to save and store your own seeds.

Learn how to harvest rainwater

Collecting rainwater off your roof to use for your garden has numerous advantages:

-- It's free.
-- It's not (usually) subject to restrictions on use (which often occur during a drought, just when you need the water most).
-- Municipalities routinely use chlorine-based chemicals to kill the bacteria in the raw water before they send the potable water to you. But using chlorinated municipal water on your garden will kill good bacteria in your soil and will degrade your soil health. Rainwater has no chlorine, and plants greatly prefer it.

Rainbarrels and cisterns are the two main methods of harvesting and storing rainwater from roofs. (Grinning Planet will cover both topics in future articles. You can sign up for our free email list so you don't miss them.)

Become a food producer

Local food production is going to be more important in the future, which means that not only is growing a large quantity of food yourself important for your personal food security, it's also a business opportunity. If you already grow all the food you can use, consider expanding your operation and taking the excess to sell at a local farmer's market. Check with your local agriculture authorities for details.

Food Security Action Category #3: Get Busy In the Kitchen

Learn to preserve food

The harvest season lasts less than half the year in most places. Cold frames and row covers can extend that, at least for some crops. But even if you're a top-notch gardener and have learned how to maximize the length of the growing season, you'll still have gaps and you'll still find that an overabundance of food comes out of the garden in the prime harvest months. Learning how to preserve some of this bounty by canning, freezing, or drying (dehydrating) will save money on your food bills, increase your nutritional intake compared to using most store-bought products, and it will increase your food security. Your county's Agricultural Extension office may offer classes and/or have more information.

Learn to cook and bake

Almost everyone has some level of rudimentary cooking skills. But few know how to cook from basic ingredients -- i.e., "from scratch." That means things like...

-- using fresh, raw ingredients (or food you preserved during the harvest season);
-- baking bread, especially from flour you have milled from unprocessed grains (wheat berries, oat groats, etc);
-- using dried beans;
-- knowing how to use herbs and spices for good effect.
There are numerous books and DVDs available at Amazon.com and elsewhere, and taking a local cooking class may be worth your time too.

Grinning Planet does not strive to be a cooking site, but here are some helpful tips based on our own experiences in trying to get better at cooking and using basic ingredients:

-- Start by learning how to augment processed foods. For instance, take a can of basic store-bought soup or soup stock and add your own fresh vegetables and other ingredients. Or throw a store-bought burrito on a plate and microwave it, but add your own fresh avocado, onions, tomatoes and bell peppers on the side. Techniques like this are a great beginning, and adding fresh vegetables will greatly improve the nutritional quality of your meals.

-- You can help reduce the time burden of cooking by making triple-sized meals. Eat 1/3 the first night; have leftovers a night or two later; and put the last 1/3 in the freezer for a quick meal at sometime in the future. (Note: Put the "last third" in the freezer after dinner the first night to maximize freshness.)

-- When baking, it's more energy- and time-efficient to bake multiple things or double batches at the same time. Using freshly milled flour helps ensure the best bread possible. Bread does freeze well when it's double-wrapped; but it's best not to refrigerate just-baked bread.

-- Experiment with "no-electricity meals" using things like canned tuna, bread, peanut butter, canned ready-to-serve baked beans or other beans, raw vegetables, fresh fruits, or dried fruits.

-- If you have a wood stove and have never cooked on it, try doing so. It's a great resource for winter power interruptions. If you really adventurous, consider a solar cooker.

Experiment with new foods

Each of us tends to eat mostly the same things. Our food and meal choices are based on convenience, our level of cooking skill, taste preferences, budget, and habit. Once we figure out what works for us, we generally prefer to stick with it.

One's diet may or may not be as good as it should be nutritionally, but the point here is that if times get harder and some foods are not always available, being an omnivore will be an advantage. Having a long list of foods that are acceptable to your palate will mean that you can be flexible and adaptable in adverse food conditions.

A good idea is to start trying new types of food now, while you have time to explore and experiment in a pleasurable fashion. In particular, try out methods of fixing things prepared from foods that you can store in bulk for long periods—basics like wheat berries, oat groats, rice, dried or canned beans. Getting a cookbook that focuses on such things is helpful. During "farmers' market season" this year, figure out what locally grown foods are available and start trying to incorporate as many of them as possible into your menus.

The good news is, eating a wide variety of foods prepared from more basic (less processed) ingredients is not only a good preparatory exercise for food security, it is an excellent health strategy.

Food Security Action Category #4: Stock Up

What to buy

The core of a sensible long-term food security strategy should be growing and preserving your own food, as well as buying from local food sources. Your goal should be to greatly reduce your reliance on the globalized food system, which supplies most of what you currently get at the grocery store (even at natural-foods stores).

That said, "grid-supplied food" is still plentiful and, despite recent price hikes, is still relatively cheap. Therefore, a good first-level food-security strategy is to stock up on non-perishable goods like...

-- canned tuna and salmon;
-- canned beans, soups, and vegetables;
-- pure vegetable and fruit juices;
-- canned and dried fruit;
... i.e., anything that has good shelf life.

Glass is always a better choice for long-term storage than cans, but many foods are only available in cans. In a food crunch, what will matter most is that you have supplies, whatever the container material. (P.S. Do you own a non-electric can opener?)

Choose foods that you already eat—those with good shelf life, anyway -- so you don't spend a lot of money stocking up on things you may never get around to eating. Further, in a crisis, having plenty of your normal food fare will be helpful.

While you're building up your cache of store-bought goods, don't forget about non-food essentials like toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste. Vinegar and baking soda have many uses in food prep and canning, and can serve as natural cleaning agents.

Some people who bake their own bread use whole grains like wheat, rye, and oats in their original "berry" form, grinding them into fresh flour with a flour mill. This yields both a taste advantage in the bread and a cost advantage in the wallet. But there is one other very important advantage from a food security perspective—grains will last a very long time when stored properly. Same thing for dried beans and legumes like navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, and lentils. Having 25- or 50-pound sacks of such things in airtight food-grade containers stored in a cool, dry area should be a core part of a good long-term food cache.

You must, of course, spend some time learning how to use such foods if you don't already know how to do so. Not only can grains be ground into flour for bread and tortillas, they can also be sprouted or cooked (like you would rice). You would also need to learn how to soak and cook dried beans. They make great soups, chili, or rice-and-beans dishes.

Nuts, depending on the type, have excellent nutrient content. Like beans and legumes, when properly paired with other foods (especially grains), they can be a complete protein source for a meal. Because of their higher oil content, nuts will not store for as long as grains or dried beans. In-shell nuts will remain in top condition for a few months at room temperature but will last much longer in the refrigerator. When it comes to shelled nuts, store your current stash in the refrigerator and your long-term cache in the freezer.

Dried fruits like apricots, raisins, prunes, and currants store well if kept in sealed containers in the refrigerator. They also pack a nice load of phytonutrients that can keep your antioxidant intake at good levels during a food pinch.

You can also experiment with non-refrigerator storage of "winter vegetables" like potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and onions. You will need a cool dry place to put them. Similarly, during your local harvest season, buy extra apples and test various methods of storing them—in the fridge, in the garage, in plastic bags or not, etc. However, unless you already have some experience with long-term storage of fresh food, don't go overboard at first, lest you end up spending a lot of money on fresh food that eventually rots.

Overall, it's advisable to have your "storehouse" contain a few months worth of stuff. It may not be practical to have that much of everything you normally eat, but the point is to have a good store of something you could eat in a pinch. It will cost money to build up these supplies, but you can actually save money over the long-term by learning to buy smart:

-- Look for sales.
-- Buy in larger sizes.
-- Buy in bulk—sacks, cartons, cases -- if you can get a break in the unit price. Your natural foods store may be willing to sell full cases at a discount. Or you can see if there's a bulk-foods-buying co-op near you where you can participate in group purchases that gain you further discounts. Finally, you can also check out the large variety of case- and bulk-quantity items in Grinning Planet's Bulk Foods Store.

Store it ... where?

If you don't have an extra-large pantry, you may want to choose a closet to clean out, add shelves, and re-purpose as a food-storage center. Under-bed storage containers are another option, though less functional.

Shelves in a garage can work nicely as long as the garage does not freeze in winter or heat up in summer. An unfinished basement is usually an excellent place since the contact between the walls and earth outside helps keep the area cool all year. Beware, though, of damp basements that can cause cans to rust out and cause moisture to ruin bulk foods stored in containers that turn out not to be perfectly airtight.

More adventurous low-tech strategies can be tried too—for instance, you can create a sort of root cellar for over-winter storage of root vegetables by semi-burying a large cooler or old (dead) refrigerator in the ground.

One of the most important parts of your food storage strategy is avoiding spoilage and waste. So, before you implement your storage arrangement, plan a rotation strategy to ensure that you always use your oldest stock first.

Whatever stuff you choose to put in you new larder, and whatever method you choose, start now. Seeing how high-volume storage, rotation, and use of food works in practice, when there's no risk of failure, is smart—you can work the kinks out of your system before fate puts it to the test.

Keep the fridge and freezer running

Our refrigerators and freezers are among our most useful modern conveniences. They are front-line defenses for avoiding spoilage and wasted food, and they will continue to be in the future. But when the electricity goes out for more than a few hours, we risk losing food to spoilage.

In Part 1 of the series, we gave our rationale for thinking power from the electric grid might become less reliable in the future. Even now, occasional grid outages occur during storms or severe demand-load situations. There are several strategies for keeping the juice flowing—and your fridge and freezer humming -- even when the grid is down:

1. Gasoline- or diesel-powered generator: These can be installed in a shed or a basement and they provide reliable backup service—as long as you can still get fuel for them!

2. Battery backup: A battery-based backup power system (sometimes called an UPS—uninterruptible power supply) is another reliable method of backstopping the electric grid, though typically such systems have less staying power than a generator. But battery backups can work just fine for a few days as long as you manage your power use carefully.

3. Solar panels: Photovoltaic solar panels, combined with battery backup, provide a clean, reasonably robust backup power source (and they reduce your overall electric bill all year long). Related GP resources:

-- Article: Home Solar Energy
-- Books: Solar Energy Books

For any of these approaches, consult with a qualified local installer to develop a strategy for which system(s) will work best for you.

Food Security Action Category #5: Get Active

Find local allies

There is strength in numbers. Perhaps more importantly, there is wisdom in numbers -- it's always good to learn from locals. So find yourself a good local-foods group to become affiliated with.

Protect and promote local food

While we sleep with visions of sugar plums, fresh tomatoes, and bountiful baskets of local food dancing in our heads, the huge agribusiness corporations of the world are hard at work trying to ensure that every dollar you spend on food goes to or through them. They push politicians to enact laws favorable to the industrial, centralized food model, which is almost always contrary to the interests of locally grown food and, in the long run, food security.

Throughout the course of any given year, there are numerous opportunities for citizens to push back on local-food issues by contacting elected representatives and regulatory bodies. Your local food group will often have an email list that provides information on what's happening at the state and local level. Nationally, you can keep up with things by visiting Web sites or getting email newsletters from places like this:

-- LocalHarvest
-- FoodFirst
-- Rodale Institute/New Farm
-- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

Food Security...Wrap Up

In modern society, we've grown accustomed to the idea that what's normal today will still be the norm tomorrow -- or a year or three or ten from now. But short-term disruptions do happen and, less often, chaotic, long-term shifts occur. The steps we have outlined above will not only increase your food security; if done properly, they will also increase your health and save you money.

To be sure, your food security program will take a good deal of time and energy to get going. Even though your program will be less overwhelming once it reaches a "steady state," it would be a mistake to underestimate the level of effort required to begin and maintain such a program. But if you do take it on, you'll rest easier at night knowing that you're prepared. And the fact that you can be more prepared, save money, and eat healthier all at the same time in a nice win-win-win.

Mark is a writer, financial analyst, Web developer, environmentalist, and, as necessary, chef and janitor. Grinning Planet is an expression of Mark's enthusiasm for all things humorous and green, as well as a psychotic desire to work himself half-to-death. Hobbies include health foods, music, getting frustrated over politics, and occasionally lecturing the TV set on how uncreative it is. For jokes, cartoons, and more great environmental information, visit http://www.grinningplanet.com. If you're not already on it, you can sign up for our free mailing list so you don't miss anything. Also please forward this Food/Agriculture Crisis article on to those you know who might find it interesting.

© 2008 Mark Jeantheau

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