This question is a bit like asking ‘How high is up?’. Clearly, the more food you store, the better you will be able to withstand a Level 1 or 2 event (Level 3 events assume, more or less by definition, that the problem will last longer than any stores you might have amassed).
There probably is an upper limit to how much food you could/should store, but few of us are going to reach that. In case you wonder, there are two situations where you might end up with ‘too much’ food. The first is if you have so much food that you can’t eat it all (or give it away or trade/sell/exchange it) before such time as it passes both its official and its real expiry dates. The second would be having such a lot that you find yourself with food to last much longer than you have energy or water or other essentials.
In all cases, you need to balance your prepping. Until you can – in all respects – survive a one week event, there is no point adding a second week of food. Who needs food when you no longer have water? When your heat has gone, and it is midwinter and you’re dying of exposure, food is again probably the least of your worries. And so on.
So it is important to keep your prepping balanced. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the same with prepping. When you run out of any essential item, your survival is threatened, no matter how much of other things you still have on hand.
But having said that, it is relatively straightforward to get a retreat that will provide shelter for an extended many year period, to get a well that will provide you with all the water you’ll ever need, and to get perhaps a solar cell array to provide you with at least some ongoing power. At that point, food becomes a key consideration because you’re in the happy point of having open-ended indefinite solutions to your need for water, shelter and energy.
Of course, you need a lot more than the most minimalist amounts of food, water, shelter and energy, but you truly do need these big four categories of preps. Other things you might be able to improvise or make do without, but you can’t make do without these four major categories.
So, assuming you have resolved everything to do with water, shelter and energy, how much food should you store? You might say ‘Oh, I’ll store a year’s worth’, – this seems to be a commonly cited quantity to aspire to. However, that answer in turn begs some other questions – just how many cans and bags and other forms of food is a year’s worth?
To answer these questions, you need to consider five factors, and to ignore one distractor.
The distractor is the claim you’ll often see made in prepackaged collections of long life foods – ‘Contains a three-month supply’ or maybe ‘contains 240 entrees’ or something else. You need to see exactly how many calories the supplier is basing these claims on, and contrast it with your expected calorie need (point 2, below); and dollars to donuts, you’ll almost surely find that their ‘three month supply’ is more like a two month supply, their 240 entrees are more like 240 appetizers, and so on!
So let’s now look at the five factors to consider.
1. How Many People Will You Feed?
This question has some overtones that you should consider. You probably already know how many people you’re planning to have in your retreat. But might you have some unexpected extra people join you?
Maybe someone gets married and brings their new spouse. Maybe a couple has a new child. Maybe a friend or two come along and ask to be accepted into your community. Maybe you meet someone after moving to your retreat who has an excellent set of skills and you want to have them join you, too.
In addition, you should also consider how you will handle people who come begging for food. Will you send them away with nothing, or will you give them a token small amount of food?
However you answer these questions, you’ll probably end up realizing that it is likely you’ll have more mouths to feed than you originally plan for.
2. How Much Daily Food Will Each Person Need?
You may already be familiar with the US Recommended Daily Allowances that specify how much of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and other elements a person should consume each day. Here’s a link to them if you’re not.
Perhaps the most relevant issue though is not how much of each vitamin and mineral is in your diet (in theory, most ‘healthy’ diets contain plenty of all of these, in practice you’ll probably augment your stored food with a multi-vitamin supplement), but instead how many calories of energy you are getting from the food you eat each day. This number isn’t an official standard because it varies depending on your gender, age, height/weight, and your level of activity.
So when you see labels on foods talking about ‘based on a daily allowance of xxxx calories’ they are not saying ‘this is the scientifically calculated exact number of calories you need’; they are simply basing their percentages on a somewhat arbitrary number.
The harder you work, the more you need to eat. A daily intake of 2,000 calories a day may be enough for someone who does little or nothing every day, but if you’re going to be working in the fields, then you can expect to see your needs increase to maybe 3,000 or more calories a day. Here’s a helpful table.
So you should adjust the quantities of food people will consume upwards to reflect the probability that people will be working harder than formerly, and so will eat more, too.
3. Non-Essential Foods Actually Are Essential
We’ve written before about the surprisingly serious potential problem of appetite fatigue. What this means, in part, is that you can’t optimize your food storage and serve the same food item, the same way, every day for a year, even if it is the cheapest and easiest product to store and prepare.
You need variety and so you’ll need to add some non-essential items into your food store too.
Good food can be a morale booster, and bad food a morale drainer. In difficult times, good food can help people remain positive, and for sure, you are prepping for what will be difficult times. So you will want to also supplement your food supplies with non-essential comfort and luxury food items. At the end of a long hard day with everything going wrong, it will be a wonderful thing to then break out something like maybe a retort pouched piece of shelf-stable long-life smoked salmon and treat everyone to a ‘feel-good’ delicacy.
4. Allowing for Wastage and Spoilage
We know you’re planning on not wasting a single ounce of everything. Everything you have will be cooked, and everything you cook will be eaten.
But we also know that the real world isn’t quite as perfect as you might hope for. For example, what happens if a water pipe bursts and water floods onto and into your dry stores? What happens if you have a problem with rats or mice? At a smaller level, what happens when something goes wrong with a meal?
Depending on your degree of vulnerability to such unexpected things, we’d probably add another 5% or more to adjust for these imperfections.
5. Food as a Trading Good Too
We suggest you add further food to your minimum calculations to give you some ‘currency’ that can be used to trade for other things in the future.
We’ve written several pieces about how current US currency will lose its value in a Level 2 or 3 situation, and until such time as a new currency replaces it, all manner of different things will be used as trade goods. When time allows, please visit our complete subsection on the site about the future economy and how it will evolve. Understanding these issues is important.
In particular, it goes without saying that food will be greatly in demand, and would be almost universally accepted in payment for just about any other thing you might wish to exchange or trade. You might want to have a mix of staples and also higher value items (herbs and spices and flavorings in particular) for future trading purposes.
6. How Many Months/Years of Food to Store
Now for the big question. You know, from answering the previous five points, how much food a day or week or month you should set aside. But now – how long a supply do you need?
We suggest that you must have at least one year of food, and ideally closer to two years. Indeed, if you can go to three years, better still.
Think about a worst case scenario. TEOTWAWKI occurs after the planting season one year, meaning you’ll not be able to get any measurable amount of food from your own gardening until the harvest season next year – maybe 15 months later. (Is this the point where we extol the great sense of having a greenhouse? 🙂 )
Let’s also say that things go very wrong with your first year of gardening, and you only get six months worth of food from your efforts. So add another 6 months to the stockpile you need, and you’re now at 21 months.
Now let’s say the next year has a flood, or spring frosts, or a drought, or something. Let’s say you only get six months worth of food that year, too. Now you need 27 months of stored food.
Furthermore, you really need to always keep at least 6 – 12 months of stored food in reserve, because it is an unavoidable truism in agriculture that some years are good and some are terrible. So add another 6 months to your stored supply and now you’re at 33 months.
Make your own decisions as to how you’ll plan and project your food needs, but be pessimistic rather than optimistic, and we expect you’ll end up agreeing with us that you must have one year, should have two, and ideally would love to have three year’s worth of food in your store.
Avoiding Stored Food Expiration
You don’t want to have to regularly junk your stored food and replace it with a fresh set of unexpired food, and neither do you want to go into an emergency situation with your food nearing its expiration dates.
There’s an easy answer to this concern. Eat what you store, and store what you eat. That way, you are steadily eating your stored food as part of your normal everyday diet. It means you are turning over your stores regularly, and hopefully eat everything before it expires.
It also means there is less disruption WTSHTF. You keep eating much of the same food you’ve been eating prior to then. That can be a bit of a comfort in itself, reassuring you that not all has been lost and destroyed in your world.
It also imposes a bit of a discipline on you when choosing food supplies. If you’re like us, you probably have some 25-year-shelf-life pails of long life shelf stable freeze-dried foods – perhaps you bought them on special, and perhaps you thought ‘This stuff is barely better than prison grub, but in an emergency, I can’t expect to enjoy good food’.
But what is the point of buying food you don’t like and wouldn’t normally eat? To save money? Think about that – you’re happy spending, shall we say, $10 on a meal today, but you’re not willing to spend a comparable amount to set aside a meal for the future. That’s a bit contradictory, surely!
So, as much as you can, considering shelf life issues, buy and stock up with the types of food you like to eat, not the types that are cheapest or which have the longest lives. As long as you are able to eat what you have stored before it expires and keep regularly replenishing it, shelf life isn’t such an issue.
Shelf life only matters when you’re storing food you won’t eat, not when you’re storing food you will eat!
You’ll eat more food than you expect in a Level 2 or 3 situation; and you’ll probably have more mouths to feed as well. Add to that a greater need for food variety, and allow some extra to use as trading goods, and you’ll soon realize that there’s no such thing as ‘too much food’ in your stockpile.
When you plan for some worst case scenarios, you’ll quickly realize that a one year supply is probably insufficient, a two-year supply barely enough, and a three-year supply a much more comfortable level to keep.