Experts predict that our current habits regarding food and dining would create an extremely dire – and almost instant – problem during a large-scale disaster scenario. The reason is simple. Our modern society has trained us to operate on a day-to-day basis. We tend to buy only what we need, relying on quick stops at the grocery store (or the drive-thru) to provide us with just enough food to get us by until the next day. Doing so is a matter of convenience, so most of us are perfectly content with this arrangement. Then again, most of us never consider the risks that are involved.
What happens when all of the restaurants close and the grocery store shelves are empty? Thanks to the widely-adopted Kanpan methodology of stocking our stores, neither is an unreasonable possibility. Kanpan originated in Japan and revolves around stocking just enough goods to get by until the next delivery – so when deliveries stop, there's very little to go around.
The solution and means of mitigating that risk is simple, but it's something that each of us must tackle on our own. We must each stock our own food supplies in preparation for emergencies, and we must adhere to the best-practices that will ensure that our food cache stays safe and nutritious for as long as possible.
Five considerations for long-term food storage
Storing food properly is largely a matter of environment. While many survival foods are packaged in ways that are meant to combat the following five threats against shelf life, it's a good idea to store your foods in a place where these elements are minimized:
You're probably familiar with MREs, the prepackaged foodstuffs widely used by our armed forces. While it might seem like the vacuum-sealed bags are the key to an MREs long life, there are two other design aspects that give them so much longevity.
The first is the opaque, brown outer packaging which fights the ravages of light. (This is the same reason why milk began appearing in yellow jugs.) Light (UV radiation) breaks down foods, slowly reducing their nutritional value over time. Food, even if edible, isn't much good if it doesn't provide life-sustaining nutrients!
First and foremost, store your foods in a dark place. Then take a page from the MRE design manual and keep your foods in opaque containers.
The second triumph of MRE design involves the reflective Mylar layers of their packaging. This material is meant to shield the contents against heat, another enemy of food quality.
Heat is going to have the most detrimental effect on your stored food, so take measures to reduce your cache's exposure to direct sunlight and radiated heat from appliances. Finding cool locations to store your food can be tricky in warm environments, so your best option will be to rotate through your food stores more frequently.
Temperature stability is also a factor, as frequently changing temperatures can introduce moisture and/or cause foods to spoil.
Oxygen is one of your food storage enemies, which is why so many survival foods are packaged in vacuum-sealed containers. Oxygen feeds microscopic organisms that will deteriorate the nutritional value of your food and cause it to spoil. (Oxygen is also needed by insects such as weevils, which will destroy your food stores in a very visible and invasive way.)
Sealing your food in airtight containers is a good start, but you can go the extra mile by adding oxygen absorbers to your storage plans. These absorbers are typically bags or packets of powdered iron. When you seal these packets in the same airtight container as your food, they slowly absorb moisture and begin to rust. Rusting involves a chemical process called oxidation, which actually uses up whatever oxygen is in the container, replacing it with safe and stable nitrogen.
Moisture absorption is actually an important step in itself, which is why so many goods that are prepared for long-term storage or shipment will include some manner of desiccant (moisture absorbing) packet.
Moisture leads to rusting (possibly a good thing, if you're using those oxygen absorbing bags that we mentioned), mold, and insect infestation. You can combat this problem by storing your food in areas of low humidity, as well as by using vacuum-sealed containers such as mason jars. Remember that you need to use actual vacuum sealing equipment to remove the air from the jar. It's a good idea to purchase equipment that also allows you to seal plastic bags so that you can properly seal dry goods like spices, beans, and rice.
Vacuum sealing your foodstuffs also helps to prevent the absorption of odors and dust. This is a major problem with grains and dry goods, as they will quickly absorb whatever is in the air around them. This means that if vacuum sealing is not an option, you should store dry goods away from fumes and sources of odors. The garage might be sufficient for storing canned goods, but should definitely be avoided when storing foods like rice and sugar.
John Todor is a keen follower of food recipes and food storage. He often provides help and advices on the field and help people find the best vacuum products on his Chamber Vacuum Sealer Reviews blog.