Economic Collapse 101: Comparing Costs of Emergency Food Supply Options

Sometimes it’s not easy being an ant. Especially when you’re living among a bunch of grasshoppers.

There’s a well-known Aesop fable about an oblivious grasshopper who spent his summer days living the high life and mocking an industrious ant, who was busy building a shelter and storing food for the coming winter.

Of course, we all know how that worked out for the grasshopper. After winter arrived, the well-prepared ant found himself well-fed and toasty. As for the improvident grasshopper — he was simply toast.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was in my front yard preparing and cleaning dozens of specialized stackable water containers known as WaterBricks — enough to hold more than 150 gallons — when a neighbor good-naturedly mentioned that I must be storing up all that water for the zombie apocalypse.

Ha ha ha ha!

Oh yeah, we both had a good laugh over that one.

Heh.

Then again, I wonder what my neighbor would have said if he had seen my emergency food store, because I’ve been steadily building that for awhile now. How big is it? Well, I currently have enough calories stored up to keep my family of four fed for about 93 days, although my ultimate goal is to increase that total to 180 days.

I know. When it comes to being prepared food-wise, that makes me a rank amateur — at least compared to most of the folks you’ll see on Doomsday Preppers.

Lord knows I’ve got a long way to go before I earn my Boy Scout merit badge for being prepared — but I’m determined to get there. More than ever.

Bounding the Problem

When I began my quest to begin building my emergency food stores, the first two questions I had to answer were:

  1. How long did I want the food supply to last?
  2. How much food would it take to meet that goal for a family of four?

So, naturally, I fired up my trusty spreadsheet and began entering data — and the results were stunning.

It turns out that a family of four eating 2000 calories daily requires 1.46 million calories over a 180-day period. That’s equivalent to 650 pounds of rice and 650 pounds of beans.

True, that’s also equal to 9733 Twinkees — or 1431 cans of Spam — but I strongly suspect a monotonous diet of either of those, um, delicacies would quickly lead to much bigger problems.


When it comes to long-term food storage, there are more than a few options. In addition to white rice and dry beans, other popular choices include canned and freeze-dried (or dehydrated) food, and MREs (“meals, ready to eat’), which are enriched military rations. Each option has its own pros and cons.

Freeze-Dried/Dehydrated

It’s hard to beat freeze-dried and dehydrated foods because they can last for as long as 30 years if stored in a cool, dry place. And although they’re typically not enriched, they will maintain most of their nutritional value over that time. Freeze dried foods are also lightweight and take up relatively little storage space because they’ve had almost all of the water removed from them. However, that can be a significant drawback if you’re ever in a situation where water is unavailable. Because the food has to be re-hydrated, freeze-dried food also requires more preparation than canned foods and MREs.

Bonus Tip: Freeze dried food is typically expensive, but places like Costco, Sam’s Club and Overstock.com do sell plastic buckets and cartons with 30 days of freeze-dried food (based upon a diet of roughly 2000 calories per day) for under $100. That’s quite a value.

Canned

Although most all canned foods have an official shelf life of two to three years, the food inside them will often remain edible long after the expiration date. Of course, canned foods tend to be bulky and take up a lot of storage space, but most of them can be eaten straight out of the can with little or no preparation. Some canned foods are better bargains than others. For example, for just $18.69, Costco offers an 8-pack of Low-Sodium Spam that’s loaded with 8,640 calories. That’s a lot of, um, nutrition for the money. On the other hand, Costco also offers a case of canned pineapple for $9.79. Unfortunately, it’s also 15 times more expensive than Spam on a price per calorie basis.

Bonus Tip: When it comes to canned fruit, peaches and pears are much better bargains on a cost/calorie basis for long-term food storage.

MREs

The big advantage of MREs is that they are enriched, high calorie foods that require virtually no preparation. Unfortunately, MREs are relatively expensive. They’re also bulky. Then again, MREs were never intended for long-term storage; their practical life span is only about five years. As such, MREs are more appropriate for riding out temporary disruptions caused by occasional natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

Bonus Tip: Be careful; MREs are high in sodium and low in fiber, which is why they’re NOT intended to be eaten over very long stretches of time. For most people, it doesn’t take long before MREs begin wreaking havoc on their gastrointestinal system.

White Rice and Beans

Perhaps the biggest advantage of white rice is its low price. You can get 25 pounds of rice — 41,400 calories in all — from Costco for under $10. That makes white rice by far the most economical long-term storage option on a cost-per-calorie basis. Best of all, when properly stored in an oxygen-free environment, white rice will remain edible for at least a decade, if not much longer. Dry beans also are one of the cheapest foods you can buy for your long-term storage needs. The biggest drawback of white rice and beans is that they’re bulky. I found I can fit about 35 pounds of white rice or 35 pounds of pinto beans in a single five-gallon bucket. Dry beans and rice also require water to prepare. For example, a 25 pound bag of rice requires between 10 and 15 gallons of H2O.

Bonus Tip: Unlike white rice, brown rice is not recommended for long-term storage because of its fat content.

To provide you with a little more insight, here is a more-detailed cost breakdown based upon a price survey I conducted over the past month:


I’m diversifying my family’s emergency food supply with a combination of dry, freeze-dried and canned foods. So far I’ve spent about $1000 building it.

Yes, that’s a lot of money, but I look at my emergency food store as a prudent investment.

Will I ever need to use it? I sure hope not.

But as the tale of the grasshopper and the ant taught us, it’s never unwise to worry about tomorrow today.

Photo Credit: James Niland



Comments

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      In short: Catastrophic, but temporary (I pray), market disruptions that will adversely affect commerce due to a collapse of the US dollar.

      (That being said, it’ll also be good insurance in case a 9.0 earthquake ever strikes the southern end of the San Andreas fault.)

  1. 3

    Spedie says

    With the cost of food going up all the time due to various factors I think it is wise to store food not only for short term emergencies such as earthquakes, but for times of job loss. I canned a bunch of beans in 1998 at the LDS storehouse (100′s of cans). I can attest that the price per bag I paid has doubled for most of the beans in the last 15 years. Beans will last 30 yrs in #10 sealed cans with the water absorber in them and placed in a suitable place, such as a basement.

    I plan to stock up years before retirement. Perhaps I can delay eating Alpo as the government fastly eats up my retirement savings and social security goes bankrupt.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Good points, Spedie. There are too many good reasons not to have an emergency food store. Even if it is for a couple of weeks. Yes, it’s gonna raise your grocery bill a bit. But the key is to not let yourself get overwhelmed by thinking you have to get it all in one fell swoop.

      I said it in the article, but I can’t stress this enough, folks: don’t fret too much on the cost! Spending money on emergency essentials should always be looked at as a long-term investment. Just make sure you comparison shop — as you can see from my second graphic, there are wide variations in prices from one vendor to the next. If you aren’t careful — you’ll get burned.

  2. 5

    says

    Len, you get more and more interesting every day. I hope you never need the food but at least you can eat it even if there isn’t a disaster.

    That said, I do need to get at least a couple weeks of food for a hurricane kit. Living on the gulf coast is a threat by itself!

  3. 7

    Mindimoo says

    I’m fascinated by the whole idea of prepping. It seems to be a big thing in the US, not so much where I live. Is it economic collapse that Americans fear most? ‘Cause I know a lot of natural disasters would likely wipe out your house as well as your food stores.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      Well, Mindimoo, in Southern California the two biggest disaster threats to most homes are earthquakes and wildfire. Some folks might find it ironic that I fear the latter the much more than the former. However, as an engineer, I am well aware that wood frame homes on slab foundations hold up extremely well in even the largest earthquakes. That’s not to say my home won’t sustain light to moderate damage in a major temblor, but the odds are excellent that it will still be habitable.

  4. 9

    says

    Hmm. Sorry to be a party pooper but presumably you also have your stock of guns and ammunition! Most of your neighbours, charming when fed, will last a week and then start prowling the area! I think we could last about a month with our store cupboard but 6 months?

    I am not sure it is worth while spending such a lot of money against the rainy year that may nor occur. And you need to ciculate your store anyway so that food in it is continually refreshed!

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      I have all my stores logged by item on a spreadsheet, John. The canned items will be rotated into our everyday menus as they reach their use-by dates (even though they should remain completely fine for at least several years beyond that, if not more.) So the food is not going to be wasted. In fact, with inflation, I guarantee you those cans of food are actually going to earn a much better return on my investment than the stock market will.

      • 11

        says

        OMG Len. That is really OCD! But I guess essential if you are storing so much food or you will get a visit from the health inspector as you will have more food than your local shop.

        We have a store cupboard (actually a set of shelves) and try to keep the older stuff to the front but would never have your patience. It must be worthy of a fly-on-the-wall documentary (although I am sure there are no flies in your store!).

  5. 12

    Carla says

    We’ve decided that calories needed is related to the disaster we’re expecting. If we think we’re going to be stuck at home for a week or two, we’ll use fewer calories than if we expect to be doing lots of labor or bugging out. Since we’re of the opinion that, given our location, we’ll be doing a lot of waiting (or getting out without being able to carry a lot), we really don’t need a TON of calories each.

    • 13

      Len Penzo says

      Good point, Carla. As I see it, it depends on the disaster. I can see scenarios where my teenage son and I will be required to actually burn more calories than we normally do because we will have to perform more physically demanding activities than I usually do sitting behind a computer screen all day. (Okay, at least I may have to burn more calories than I normally do. My son burns ‘em up pretty fast right now as it is.) ;-)

  6. 14

    says

    Hey Len,

    I sell emergency supplies here in Alberta, Canada. One thing to consider, (from what I have seen,) is the fact that in most emergencies you need to flee. Whatever is left behind is destroyed, or left for others to scavenge.
    I have for example, placed my focus on food bars. They are easy to carry, non-temperture dependent and most importantly, they don’t require extra water to digest. It is a multi-faceted problem. Not every situation or person is the same.

    Cheers! Remember one never got hurt from being prepared, financially or otherwise.

  7. 16

    Allyn says

    Len, I also have my eye on preparedness, but I focus less on prepackaged food and more on basics for self-sufficiency. Ideally, I want enough food to last until I can harvest my own. Along with your rice and beans, consider laying in a store of wheat berries and/or other grain berries. Wheat berries will last indefinitely if stored in a container (spelt berries found in Egyptian tombs are as viable today as they were when the tomb was sealed). Add a manual flour mill to your emergency stores; a decent one can be had for about $80. You’ll have the ability to grind the wheat berries into flour as needed. You can also grind rice and beans into flour which can then be made into food items with much less water than is needed to cook the rice or beans themselves. For example, a simple soda bread that will provide eight servings can be made with just a cup of water. I’m also big on dehydrated food. Just about everything can be dehydrated. A decent dehydrator costs less than $100.

  8. 17

    says

    What’s the shelf life on stores of oil? I know olive oil goes rancid at around the 24 month mark, but if you want to store the most calories in the least space… fat is 9 calories per gram. I know medium chain triglycerides have a “very long” (if not indefinite) shelf life. If you don’t want to buy MCTs, coconut oild is 60-70% MCT, so it should have a similarly long shelf life.

  9. 19

    says

    I like the food bar ideas. Also-I’d like to see a post on what emergency supplies you are packing besides food. Do you have a back-up generator? My parents do, which was helpful when they were without power for four weeks after the tornados last year.

    I don’t have an emergency store, as a young single female I expect to rely solely on the kindness of strangers. Ha. I kid, I kid.

    • 20

      Len Penzo says

      Hi Lauren. I don’t have a back-up generator. I figure since the typical portable generator will use up on the order of 10 – 15 gallons of fuel per day, it makes little sense (for me). I promise I’ll be posting at least a few more articles in the coming weeks and months on other emergency preparations I’ve been making.

  10. 23

    says

    I built my own food storage a few years ago and ever since then I have begun to store dried foods and foods in cans. They do not perish and they work really well.

  11. 24

    Josh says

    Good basic prepping article Len. You left out one of the biggest reasons preppers store rice and beans. Humans need complete proteins to live. The main source of them is meat. In any SHTF scenario meat will probably not be readily available. There are few sources of complete protein in the plant world. Neither rice or beans is a complete protein. But when you mix rice and beans you have the components of a complete protein. Rice and beans really is the perfect prepper/long term storage food.

    Another thing to point out is that people who have experimented on diets of only dehydrated foods like Mountain House found them inedible after just a few weeks. If someone plans on living solely off their “1 year supply” package that they bought, they will be in trouble.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      Good point, Josh. I did know about the protein issue.

      I’m interested to learn more about the 1-year limit on dehydrated foods. Can you provide a link to some of the stories?

      • 26

        Josh says

        Sorry. I think my comment was not clear. Freeze dried food stores for decades as advertised.
        Preppers have experimented with living off of a diet of freeze dried foods. While the food did not go bad. The people found them disgusting after eating them for just a few weeks.
        Many people order a package deal of a “1 year supply” of freeze dried food and think they are all set. If the grocery store shelves go empty for months they will find themselves not able to eat their own storage. Food fatigue sets in and the salty freeze dried food is inedible to them. (not to mention the calorie count is way short of a “1 year supply”)Food fatigue is something people should be aware of if they plan on storing food.

        By using freeze dried foods as an addition to other food storage is where their value lies.

        • 27

          Len Penzo says

          Gotcha! I understand that food fatigue is a very real problem, which is why it’s so important to diversify your food stores.

          Thanks for the additional insight, Josh.

        • 28

          Joe Wazzzz says

          To your point Josh, you are right that you shouldn’t plan on just using FD food for your diet. That is why you need to start a garden, even a small one, to experiment with what grows well in your area. I live in north central Florida and in my yard, cabbage, lettuce, sweet potatoes and irish potatoes, brochlii, tomatoes grow very well and without much attention. Peppers and squash are more problematic. I don’t know why but it is good to know. You need a garden to suppliment your FD food. A one year supply of food will probably only last about three months after you barter away much of it. So a garden will be of increaing importance over time. Start learning permaculture.

  12. 29

    Joe Wazzzz says

    Len, I just found your blog. Good job! I am looking forward to reading the rest and have subscribed. My two cents. People who store food need to remember that they will be having family, parents, grandchildren, etc (yes, those same people that called you a crack pot and good luck turning them away) banging at the door. In actuality you need to have enough food to feed all the people your home can accomidate before you can reasonably start turning family away. You will need them to help you guard your stash and your garden. Figure on being able to feed them for three months suplimented by your garden for fresh greens. Buy bulk for this and expect to cook the food.

    Buy canned food for use as money. People know the value of food relative to other items and it stands to be the obvious candidate for short term money. MRE’s are a waste unless you expect to have to leave your residence but then all bets are off on your chances of survival.

    Finally, start warning your neighbors as tactifully and diplomatically as you can about possible food shortages. The collapse of the dollar and the ecomony is hands down the major looming crisis and the results are not calculable but could easily be catastrophic. Never underestimate people’s ability to delude themselves. The road to peace is a full stomach. Best Wishes!

    • 30

      Len Penzo says

      Great points, Joe. Thanks. Yes, most of my relatives think I am a crack pot after they see my store of supplies; at least you and I understand that being prepared is an important tenet of personal responsibility.

      I too, came to the same conclusions for MREs. Not only were they expensive on a per-meal basis, they are not designed to sustain someone over long periods — I read a lot of reports of people getting terribly constipated after eating MREs over an extended length of time.

      • 31

        Jake says

        Len,

        Love the information, as a fellow engineer I too have spreadsheets, I have a sign at my desk that reads, “in god we trust, all others bring data” I currently have around 150 lbs of rice and 100lbs of beans vacuum sealed in mylar bags. I also dehydrate and vacuum store in jars and bags. on the subject of MRE’s and constipation, I spent 8 years as a navy corpsman attached to Uncle Sams Misguided Children (USMC). the term MRE for civilians means Meal Ready to Eat, for those of us who have lived on them in the field it means Meal Refused to Evacuate. there is a reason they only give you a tiny serving of toilet paper. Keep up the good work, and don’t forget about protection. society and civility are a veneer that is as thin as the crust on a creme brule and just as easily broken.

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