Due to Y2K-related disruptions in the retail, shipping and processing
industries, there may be problems with food processing and distribution
in January 2000. There's no lack of raw food products in the country,
but the processing, transportation, and marketing of groceries is
vulnerable to Y2k disruptions. Each bite of your dinner travels an
average of 1500 miles to get to your table. Most grocery stores stock
less than a week's worth of food; without daily deliveries, their
shelves will empty fast. The entire food processing system has only 60
days of product in it. There is not an expected shortage of food; but
the ability to process and deliver it to consumers may be problematic if
there are Y2K disruptions.
There is little or no independent, verifiable, visible assurance about
Y2k compliance in the food processing and distributing industries. The
United States Senate met with "significant resistance...from both
industry trade organizations/associations as well as major corporations
within the retail and manufacturing sides of the food industry" as it
tried to gather evidence regarding Y2K issues in the food distribution
system. Investigating the Impact of the Year 2000 Problem, U.S. Senate
Report, February 1999, page 130.
There's a lot of loose talk in the media disparaging the household
management practice of keeping 2 or 3 months' supply of food on hand.
When I hear this, I know that the commentator has never been poor and
has probably led a relatively sheltered and comfortable life. Having
such a life is not a bad thing of course, but it should be tempered with
humility. Typically, the only flexible item in a poor family's budget is
the grocery money, and if there is an emergency, that is where they go
for money for the doctor, car repairs, or whatever. If the family has
extra food, they can do this and still put dinner on the table. If they
have no extra food, they are out of luck and out of food. The less
economic security a family has, the more important it is that they keep
savings in food.
There's other reasons to stock a full pantry. Buying large containers
usually results in a lower price per unit. Every time you go to the
store for just 1 thing, you often end up with "just 10 things", so one
secret of saving money is staying out of grocery stores as much as
possible. It is easier to do this if you have a well-stocked pantry.You
also save quite time as you don't have to go to the grocery store so
often, you have what you need at home, ready to go. A well stocked
pantry is a good idea what-ever happens in January 2000.
Do the people disparaging this household management practice as hoarding
think about these issues? Not likely, that's why they're preaching
against frugality, prudence and food security. Grocers and food
processing corporations don't like such thrifty habits. They make extra
money when we go to the store 7 days a week, without planning menus or
making a list, and buying whatever "looks good."
Is there a connection between the full court press from politicians and
news media against this traditional and frugal practice -- and food
industry advertising revenues and political contributions? I don't know
the answer to this, but would it surprise any of us if it turns out to
be true? Unfortunately, this isn't a question that will be asked by
today's mass media.
Mergers over the past decade have brought most of the wholesale food
processing and distribution systems under the control of a half dozen
major transnational corporations. Today our food distribution resembles
an hour glass -- a lot of producers, a diverse retail system,
constricted in the middle by a handful of big players. Due to
competitive demands to minimize expenses, production capabilities have
been streamlined. There are fewer processing facilities. A lot of small
operators have gone out of business or merged with one of the big
players. Since there are fewer food factories, the processed food must
travel longer distances to reach the customers, and at each stage of
those transportation systems there are Y2K vulnerabilities.
This year prices of pork to producers plunged to all-time lows because
the over-supply of pigs coming to market could not be handled by the
processing industry. Across the wheat belt, grain may be piled on the
ground because of lack of storage facilities, but the corporations who
control the processing of the grain may not be able to process enough to
meet increased demand. Have corporate consolidations and mergers in the
food processing industry placed our food supply at risk for the sake of
extra profits for stockholders? From the way food industry executives
are publicly discouraging stocking up for Y2k, it would appear this is
so. But we're not supposed to notice that the Emperor is naked.
This has implications also for food safety, as well as Y2K. With fewer,
but larger, food processing plants, and contamination in one plant can
cause an international recall of tainted foods. Such recalls are rapidly
increasing. In a similar way, Y2K disruptions in even one plant can
cause trans-continental problems.
Since the existing players seem to have worked their way into a box,
increased demand for processed food due to Y2K concerns may mean
opportunities for direct marketing relationships between farmers and
consumers. Corporate concerns about the possibility of competition may
be the real reason behind industry statements discouraging people from
buying extra food.
Historically and in the present context, food storage is a prudent
response to valid concerns about the brittleness and lack of resiliency
of the food production and distribution systems. Putting food by for
storage when it is plentiful is not hoarding, it is a traditional
household management practice. When it comes to food, we've always
hedged our bets and limited our risks in the face of uncertainty,
especially when hard times were on the horizon. Increasing your food
purchases sends important market signals to the food processing industry
to move more products into the stores. Buying stimulates the food
production and distribution supply line and create opportunities for
small businesses (such as farmers and local processors) to compete on a
more equitable basis with the big players.. As basic products move
through the system from farmers to processors to retailers to consumers,
everybody benefits by the increased economic activity. If you hear
people in the food industry discouraging people from buying food, their
motives are more mixed than they would like for us to believe.
Buying directly from farmers and local processors and urban agriculture
greatly contribute to community food security. Throughout all of China's
tumultuous history this century, one social policy has remained constant
under both Nationalist and Communist governments: cities should get
their food from the vicinity of the city. Chinese governments discourage
shipping foods long distances (although some of it happens, of course).
Shanghai, for example, is self-sufficient in vegetables, and gets most
the rest of its food from within a 100 kilometer radius circle around
the city. Calcutta produces 1/3 of the fish and vegetables consumed
within the city. Around the world, many of the urban poor report that
they would starve if it wasn't for food that they were able to grow
within the city.
People who are very hungry may refuse to eat food that is unfamiliar to
them. Calories count for nothing if we don't recognize them as food. So
if you can avoid it, don't try a new diet in the midst of a stressful
emergency. The best advice is to store what you eat and eat what you
One: Determine how much of what foods your family eats in a month. Do
this by totaling up your grocery lists, or saving your receipts, or
examining your menus.
Two: Decide how well those products will store over a period of months.
If you are using a lot of foods that need refrigeration, think about
substituting alternatives that don't require refrigeration such as
canned or dried, pickled or salted.
Three: Make your list, check it twice, buy and store the food. It's not
rocket science, it's home economics. You are unlikely to need a special
Store a variety of foods. You need dried whole foods like beans and
grains and you need canned goods like tuna and chili and soups. If you
expect that fuel for cooking will be a big issue, store more canned
goods (which require less cooking), and less dried beans and rice (which
require more cooking), or build a solar oven. Cream soups are
particularly useful; they make excellent instant sauces that can be
combined with pasta and rice and are a key ingredient in many
Store some comfort and specialty foods. Hard candies, chocolate, coffee,
herbal teas, favorite snacks and meals, all these are important not only
for nutrition, but also for morale.
Stock your spice rack liberally, and don't forget condiments, baking
powder and soda, cooking oil or shortening, bouillon, and yeast. Beans,
rice, flour, and etc. can be a bland diet without spices to liven things
up a bit.