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What Can We Learn from History About Food When SHTF?

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Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest  from Calamity Janet. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win cool prizes, enter today.


I’m always surprised, and often more than a little disturbed, when I hear folks say that when SHTF occurs, they’ll just go hunting, or they’ll trade for the food they need, or they’ve got a few boxes of MRE’s, so they’ll be fine. Such attitudes show a dismal lack of familiarity with history and what really happened in previous collapses. By learning about what happened, and knowing that history repeats, we can prepare better and avoid making the same mistakes when SHTF again.

I. Confiscation

Many countries around the world already have laws in place banning citizens from storing food in their homes. Fortunately, we have no such laws currently in the United States. However, we do have plenty of executive orders allowing FEMA to confiscate food for emergencies (and, of course, they get to define “emergency”). And we have historical precedent for the federal government to outlaw food “hoarding” and arrest individuals found in violation (see “Navy Man Indicted for Food Hoarding“). This man was betrayed by the grocer, but anyone from whom he purchased large quantities could have betrayed him, as well as anyone who could have observed the foodstuffs being carried into the home.

Lesson: Don’t discuss how much food you have with anyone. Don’t do all your shopping in one location. When you unload your groceries, do so in the garage with the door shut so that inquisitive eyes can be avoided.

II. Rationing

Whether in the name of fairness—making sure the poor are able to eat as well as the rich, making sure food gets to the troops, or merely controlling who gets the food—governments will ration food in times of crisis. During World War II, sugar was the first item to be rationed. Before ration books were received, individuals had to declare how much sugar they already had at home, and coupons in the books were adjusted accordingly. The allotment was one-half pound of sugar per person per week, so 26 pounds per year.

Rationing is frequently seen in times of shortage, regardless of cause.

Households preserving fruits by canning were allowed a special allotment of 25 pounds of sugar per person per year. This was about half the normal annual consumption at that time. Currently, Americans consume an average of 120 pounds of sugar per year. The next foods added to the rationed items were coffee (though there was an abundant harvest in South America, all shipping was being diverted for the war effort); meat, excluding chicken (for the troops); cooking oils (most oils at that time came from lands occupied by the Japanese, and lard was used by the Navy to grease their guns); processed foods (due to a tin shortage); and, canned milk (to ensure babies and children had enough).

Lesson: Build a generous food storage supply, and especially include those items are entirely or largely imported, including sugar, cocoa, coffee, and oils.

III. Gardening

As food becomes scarce, the need to grow one’s own becomes readily apparent. Fresh produce wasn’t rationed during any of the recent wars, but at times it was just unavailable. So everybody had gardens. One debate currently raging in the prepper world is whether to plant heirloom seeds or hybrid seeds. In reality, there should be no debate. Both kinds should be stored. Heirloom seeds should be used because they breed true generation after generation. Hybrid seeds should be planted as well because they tolerate a greater range of adverse conditions and have higher yields.

Victory gardens will sprout up everywhere during food shortages.

Victory gardens will sprout up everywhere during food shortages.

In addition, the most fortunate families already had several fruit trees producing on their property. While we may not need to worry about government confiscating home-grown produce, that doesn’t mean that our gardens are necessarily safe. Unfortunately, even today, before we have yet collapsed, we hear reports of gardens being raided. Invading armies in ancient times took whatever they easily could and frequently destroyed crops in the field that they couldn’t carry with them. But they generally avoided the so-called peasant foods—root crops such as potatoes, turnips, carrots, and beets. They were too much work.

Lessons: Grow your own food to the extent possible. Plant some fruit trees. If possible, harvest root crops only as they are needed.

IV. Hunting

People who say they’ll just hunt when food gets scarce must either believe that no one else will be hunting or that all the game will reproduce and grow to harvest size overnight. It just doesn’t happen that way! In times of turmoil, wildlife becomes scarce quite rapidly. In fact, game in many areas were hunted to the point of near extinction during the Great Depression. Furthermore, as animal populations decrease, the time required to hunt increases. Hunting may well become a luxury. Setting snares may prove to be a much better way to go.

Lesson: Don’t plan to feast on local wildlife when SHTF. At best it will be supplemental dog food.

V. Cooking

Particularly disturbing is the number of people who really do not know the basics of cooking and baking, not to mention having no familiarity with how to use camp stoves or Dutch ovens to prepare a simple meal. Most people, even preppers, eat from cans or packages that they pop in the microwave. Increasing numbers of people cannot make a simple loaf of bread. While it wasn’t a time of war or political or economic turmoil, a rather alarming percentage of the 49ers in the United States’ California gold rush died of disease because they were malnourished. Ninety percent of the 49ers were men; very few had brought their wives with them. Men wrote home to their families, apologizing for not recognizing the work they did in preparing food, and pleading with their wives and mothers to teach them how to cook rice and make biscuits.

Lessons: Learn how to cook and have hard copies of recipes.

VI. Trading

I’m always puzzled by the staggering number of people who proclaim that when SHTF they will simply barter for the food they need. Why not just store what you want so that you know you have it? Those that have food available for trading will be in the driver’s seat and setting the terms. Farmers prospered to an unbelievable degree in WWII Germany. Very early on they had all the hired help they could use—people who worked solely for meals and a place to sleep. As the war dragged on and even the wealthy were struggling to obtain food, the farmers began accepting Turkish rugs and handcrafted furniture in trade for a little food. Their wives had rings on every finger. The farmers needed nothing and could command the highest “prices” imaginable.

Bartering

Towards the end of the war, one man’s unrelenting begging finally persuaded the farmer to accept as payment an $8,000 family heirloom pocket watch as payment for a twenty-five pound bag of beans. That bag of beans sells for less than twenty dollars today. Just sayin’. But a person didn’t need to be a large-scale farmer to do well. I had an acquaintance whose friend in the Depression raised chickens. He bartered the chickens for items he wanted, but didn’t necessarily need. He would usually propose a trade that he knew would initially be rejected, but eventually the other guy would come around within a week or so. In one case he traded three chickens for a motorcycle the family could no longer use because gas was unavailable.

This gentleman built wealth for his family by offering goods that were in demand. Because we have drifted so far from our agrarian roots, many city and suburban dwellers will be easily fooled. Two families in Germany pooled their valuables to trade for a goat to produce milk for their children. Unfortunately, the city dwellers lacked some critical life skills. They ended up having to give the butcher half of the Billy goat as payment for butchering.

Lessons: Be able to raise your own food. Raise chickens or rabbits for barter. Learn some life skills. FFA and 4-H are good programs for children (and parents!) to learn to raise small and large livestock.

During World War II ration books enabled governments to control the food. The move toward a cashless society where every purchase is recorded on cards will make controlling food—and tracking who has it—much easier. Gather your food now. You can never really have too much. Learn principles of food storage—how and what to store, where to store it, how to cook it, how much you need. Pay with cash—no store rewards card, no Costco or Sam’s cards. Don’t lead the government to your door. Certainly don’t shop where you are known—don’t lead acquaintances to your door. In closing, remember what Henry Kissinger said in 1970: “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.”

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  • Nailbanger

    Good article,,,
    People seem to lack basic thought process and common sense

    • Huples

      I teach at a university and manage about 2000 people at night (all highly educated). Most people are really, really dumb and cannot cope with anything outside of the norm. This is getting a lot worse.

  • hillbilly girl

    The ‘I deserve it’ group will not barter. They will demand it and take it by force if you refuse. They also get enraged if what you have is not what they want. They don’t want beans and rice, they want steak, etc. No ‘cheap’ food for them!

    • calamity janet

      100% correct, I believe. Barter isn’t for the first few days or weeks after a crisis begins. But it will become very useful for the long haul. And by then the “I deserve it” group members will hopefully have gotten what they truly deserve.

  • EgbertThrockmorton1

    Being invisible is the best way to go. Prepare well before any “event”.
    Have the means for defending what you have and the will TO defend it.
    I refuse to wait in lines like a refugee, I have no intention of ever being a refugee.
    The government cannot keep track of its’ parolees, how on Earth, cannot it “manage” food and water distribution effectively?
    It hasn’t done that yet.

  • Huples

    Great article. I’m thinking foraging is a really important skill to develop now as it collecting manual tools or all types.

    Confiscation: Bury supplies various places. Have old and likely garbage store under your stairs for confiscation. Buy food as stated but use cash only and do not use loyalty cards or supply e mail or phone number. Join and sign up for any local food service offered in SHTF. Attend and collect any offered foods. Look hungry and cut down your calorie intake. Consider not cooking for the first month or so. Have a plan to burn or hide trash from food.

    Rationing: Have the cash to actually buy any rationed goods. Avoid the black market and do not sell on it at all. Stock up as stated but really stock up on salt and spices.

    Gardening: Perhaps do not do this until after the first Winter. Why bother if you do not have 24/7 armed patrols to secure it until after most have starved to death? Look up sprouting and have lots of seeds to do this. Indoors, secure, and really tasty.

    Hunting: Get rat traps and set them in areas most will not go (sewers and deep forests). “Dog food”? Dogs, cats, hamsters will all be food. I love my two dogs but they have zero use in SHTF and once their wet food is gone then they will have to as well. I won’t trade them but I will gently send them over the rainbow bridge and if things are real bad I will happily eat them.

    Cooking: Really? It is 2016. If any man states they are a prepper and cannot cook then they are fooling themselves. More importantly learn basic nutrition. How much tinned tuna/beef do you really need to add to white rice and beans? It is far less than you might think. Meat is a condiment. Again, do not cook with hungry and desperate people with nose range. You have cast iron pots and pans I hope!

    Trading: Risky but when most are dead and you know and trust your neighbours go for it. Trying to amass goods by hard bargaining and letting everyone know you have food might be a bad idea in many SHTF scenarios.

  • RAIDER

    Dont have to look to history to see the effects of food shortages just put the TV news on from Venezuela, North Korea or Syria, or in a “lite” form in Greece where pensioners who have paid taxes all their lives cannot get enough money for food, or medicines, people abandoning children is orphanages cos they cannot feed them.

  • MoCo

    What happened to Capt. Nash as a result of the indictment?

    • calamity janet

      He was fined $1,000, even though 80% of the food was purchased before going to war and the other 20% was purchased prior to passage of the Food Conservation Act.

      http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1918-06-15/ed-1/seq-1/

      • MoCo

        I didn’t realize that this was WWI

        • calamity janet

          Does it matter? (That’s not supposed to sound snarky; I’m very sincere.)

          • MoCo

            It would have meant more to me if it were a lot less than 100 years ago.

            • calamity janet

              And I look at it thinking that if the government did this 100 years ago, they’ll do a whole lot more and worse now.

  • ohneclue@yahoo.com

    Excellent article. I’m 76 so I grew up during WWII and we had a garden. I also learned to make cookers out of 2# coffee cans and a tuna can filled with a wick, wax and curled up cardboard so I could cook my food on top of the coffee can using the wax filled tuna can as the heat. I also have NO problem eating foods right out of the can without “cooking” them because they already are cooked. You can add your own spices to the can and stir them up, leave them in direct sunlight to heat up if you have to have them warm. I don’t. We have 2.39 acres so we grow both foods and spices/herbs. I keep/horde tuna because that is an excellent source of niacin for heart health and we like it. I can also eat that right out of a can as well as add veggies for a salad. I’m not one of the young kids that won’t eat XYZ unless it is a cookie, cake, sugar-coated or other garbage. Again, congratulations on one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject.

  • wmnoffaith1

    I’m not trying to be obtuse or snarky, but I’ve wondered. Considering you raised the concern of government seizing of food and preps (I have read the legislation giving the government the ability to seize food, water, fuel, garden produce) do you have any concern about joining prep per organizations online? It seems to me the government would have lists of the IP addresses of all those who are preppers and they will be the first hit during confiscation. It’ll be like one stop shopping for the government. I fear the known preppers on the Internet will be cleaned out early on, and may end up with less that those who only have a few weeks of food. We know how involved the CIA is with Facebook for instance, what makes any of the other US websites any different? Thoughts?

    • calamity janet

      While I read what I can online, I don’t join anything. Unfortunately, it does limit some access to info. Because I am concerned about being tracked I don’t participate in any Facebook prepping groups, which is unfortunate because I think I have some insights and experience to offer. I also fear the government will be able to do all their “shopping” easily. My husband is an IT guy, so he has our internet connection set up somehow so that we aren’t tracked (I have no idea how this works–IT and computers are definitely not my thing). The thing about preppers is the huge range in how they prep. What is “a lot” of food or ammo? For some, they feel as if they’re set for life if they have a one month supply of MREs. Others may have years of basics. How’s the government really going to know who has what if details haven’t been posted online? Or what if food got eaten? Or if vermin got it? Or if it was given away? Or if it is cached somewhere else?

      It’s a really important question. Study history, pray, ponder, and do what you feel guided to do for your family. It’s all any of us can do.