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Shopping for Shortage



Attention: Preparing for a food shortage could change our lives for the better.

I have been shopping to prepare for a food shortage as a result of that magical “three” thing again, three coincidences. The first was the mouse invasion. The second was an alert in a new book called What  Should We Be Worried About? The third was alarms in a food documentary, “Feeding Frenzy,” which I saw Wednesday evening.

This is admittedly not something everyone would do, but I took the little mice as messengers. Because of their tremendous adaptability and survival skills, their presence seemed to suggest that I think about that myself. I am very aware of how climate change may compromise the food supply, but I hadn’t done anything to prepare for that possibility.

Storm Clouds Gathering over Agriculture

Storm Clouds Gathering over Agriculture

Then a chapter in the “worry” book made the point that if the Internet fails for whatever reason, the systems that support grocery stores would fail, and they all have only about a three-day supply. This suggested doing something sooner than later. The book is a collection of brief essays by scientists, futurists, and writers grouped as “today’s leading thinkers.” If you want an exciting read, something even better than a cataclysmic, futuristic fantasy, this is it.

The first essay that caused me to gulp was titled “Safe Mode for the Internet” by George Dyson, a science historian. He thinks that a catastrophic breakdown of the Internet is inevitable. The odd thing is that we apparently have no backup system whatsoever, even one that could run in emergency mode on an ad hoc network. Too complicated for me, but it does seem remarkable that we are so vulnerable.

OK, so the Internet could fail, and it’s not like we haven’t already seen massive problems caused by hackers and overloads. A shutdown for a few days, maybe even months, seems feasible. At first notice, hundreds, even thousands, might head to the grocery store. Remember to take cash or checks, but the doors will be locked unless checkout has been fitted with the old adding machines.

Clearly, it would be wise to put a few things away now, just in case. But what to buy ?

The “Frenzy” movie made it very clear that the processed food in most grocery stores is precisely what we should avoid. With the exception of stores that are devoted to organic and local produce, most are stocked with foods the documentary termed “toxic” with additives. They are also overloaded with salt and sugar to trigger the “bliss point” that induces people to overeat and is turning obesity into a worldwide epidemic.

Sut Jhally, the executive producer, was present at the filming, and his field of expertise is media and marketing. Using television ads as examples, he has illustrated how the food conglomerates and the marketing industry are ruthlessly deluding consumers in order to make huge profits at the expense of human health. The profit margins are highest on processed food, which is the focus of sales.

So again, what do you buy to get you through even a brief disruption, if you’re focusing on good nutrition? You don’t want to stock up on all these prepared meals, because that will be extremely expensive as well as unhealthy.

So I went onto the Internet, which is blessedly still working, and looked up some of the sites that “the preppers” visit. These are the folks anticipating cataclysmic problems, and the information provided some major lessons in common sense. On one site, I was told that the 10 best survival foods are rice, dried beans, cornmeal, lard (for calories), canned fruits and vegetables, canned meat, sugar and or honey, pasta, and peanut butter.

So that’s pretty simple, isn’t it? Then the next question is how to make that enjoyable to eat, and that takes some thought. I was amazed at how many different kinds of dried beans there are, but to make them delicious requires seasoning.

Anyway, I’m sure  no one’s heart is beating with excitement about this potential need to do some imaginative cooking with some very simple ingredients, but that kind of takes us back to the good old days, doesn’t it? I remember what a great cook my grandmother was. The magic may have come in with her churned butter and the way she used salt and pepper on fresh fruits and vegetables, yard-raised chickens, and wild catfish.

(We’re having fights in one development in Santa Fe about whether chickens are permissible “pets.” Soon we may have to establish penalties for chicken theft, maybe being pilloried in the Plaza.)

I have started stocking up on some basics, including a large bag of dark chocolate chips. The need may never come up, but I feel better about having done this, and it’s not like throwing money away. Everything has a shelf life, and I can use and replace as I go.

The most important thing I got out of this exercise was getting in touch with how skillful the marketing industry has become in inducing us to buy so many of the wrong things. I am thinking of products with the really big names like those we see on packages in the cereal, snack, and candy aisles. These companies can afford the incessant stream of TV ads.

They are so appealing, so charming, showing children chortling over bowls of “natural” cereals loaded with sugar; parties where fatty foods are the life of the celebration; fun nibbles calling to us all during the day; and chocolate pouring into candy bars in sensual waves. Most seductive of all are the faces of  delighted women liberated from cooking. Noncooking is the new normal.

But at a cost. The grocery store has always been imagined as kind of a cozy, nurturing place. However, we really need to remember that they are first and foremost about making money. The ones not specifically focused on organic and health foods are largely stocked by big food conglomerates with a dark side.

The documentary reminded us that making money was behind the energy drinks laced with nicotine that stimulated a run to emergency rooms and actually killed a number of teenagers. The dark side also manifests in the way children are targeted with ads for unhealthy products, because their appetites stimulate some $700 billion in annual sales. And it would be delusional to think that corporate compassion will push prices down in a time of shortage.

Anyway, the very exercise of trying to figure out the best way to provide for ourselves in a state of emergency will make us begin to think about how we should provide for ourselves all the time. It may involve more cooking, but it will be infinitely cheaper, and we might become trimmer and healthier to boot. And as long as the Internet works, it will be a priceless source of helpful information.


4 Responses to “Shopping for Shortage”

  1. maggie

    Well never thought a potential Internet outage would trigger “prepping” but it obviously raises the grave concerns you identified. I’ve been prepping since 2009 as have many of my friends. We do not worry about how to enhance food or the caloric count but have focused on just surviving for long periods of time. And it was quite coincidental that a friend recently brought up the topic of grab & go bags which I too had been thinking about. Then just this week I learned that our power grid is more of a concern and vulnerable targets. There was an attack of the CA power grid at the Metcalf Transmission Station near San Jose just about one year ago. The terrorists cut the telephone lines (inside the station under a hardened man hole) and then sat outside the station firing over 100 rounds at the transformers, circuit breakers and equipment. Customers the next day were asked to cut back on power to prevent blackouts (as this station fed into Silicon Valley). Large transformers take 2 to 2.5 years to produce & we outsourced the manufacture to Germany & South Korea. These targets/vulnerabilities are more of a pressing concern than climate change.

  2. Ann Karlstrom

    And an outdoor grill, some charcoal, and matches might be a good idea, too. Though how long it takes to cook beans on a grill, I don’t know. Out here in earthquake land, that has come in handy (and we are without one right now. Note to self.). We do have wild onions that keep coming up in our back garden, so that will help with the beans. And here we have to remember to have bottled water stocked. Don’t know what people who live in small apartments do–not a lot of storage space. Maybe they hope for kind and generous friends and neighbors. During the 1989 earthquake, there was lots of kindness and generosity going on, but the difficulties of the aftermath did not last long. We should probably stock up on reserves of patience, optimism–and kindness and generosity.

  3. Kate Heath

    And remember that the “best by” dates are great for encoruaging us to thow out products that are still perfectly good. Until there is a bulge in the top of a canned product, it is still good to eat.