Doom and the Working Poor – Food and Water for the Long Haul

October 2, 2010

Last week I talked mostly about gardening, which is food for the long haul if we are entering a long emergency.  There’s just no way around that.  And I would love to see every neighborhood park in the country replace some of their decorative trees with nut and fruit trees and tuck tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and onions into those fancy little flower beds and have neighborhood “picking” days. That probably won’t happen, at least until things really start falling apart and then, I suspect, the rush will be on.  I did get the gardening section up and running, so check out the links I’ve posted, so far.  I hope you’ll find them helpful.  I will keep adding to it.  All said, though, I did give pretty short shrift to things like long-term food storage and I skipped water for the long run entirely.  So, this week, I’ll try to address some of those things before we go on to shelter and warmth, next week.

Once you begin to get the hang of gardening – indoors and out – what do you do with the food you grow?  You’ll eat a lot of it as your garden produces; you may give some to neighbors who don’t garden, or take some to the local food bank, but you’ll want to store some of it for later use, too.  There are three basic ways you can do this.  You can blanch and freeze it; you might can it; you can dry it.  If you get into the habit of doing regular, meal sized batches as you pick your vegetables, whichever method you choose, it will become routine.  You can also pickle vegetables or store some types in root cellars.  I’ll try to post articles on these methods in the gardening section, but won’t address them further here.

Of the three methods above, assuming you have a freezer – freestanding or as part of your refrigerator – freezing your extra produce is probably the easiest.  I eat most of the early stuff, until the various plants really get going.  Then, I pick a batch to eat and a batch or two to freeze.  Since I cook mostly for myself, I freeze my food in small, meal-or-two sized freezer bags and then put those into gallon-sized bags as they accumulate, so I don’t have to defrost a big bag or dig through a hundred little bags to find what I want. You’ll figure out what works for you and your family.  Do remember to label and date the bags (or plastic freezer containers) before you put your food in them. (I’ll put links to articles on all three storage methods in the gardening information section.)

To freeze your vegetables and fruit, pick off the stems and bits of leaves, cut out any bad spots, cut them into the sized pieces you want, wash them well under running water and drain them.  Put them into boiling water (a gallon of water for each pound of food) for two to three minutes.  Drain them and immediately put them into a bowl of cold water (ice water, if you have ice) to stop the cooking process. If you don’t have ice, you may have to replace the water as it heats up. Once the vegetables are cool, drain them, lay them out on a clean towel and pat them dry.  Put them in the freezer bag or container and into the coldest part of your freezer.  You don’t need to blanch some vegetables – like tomatoes, peppers and onions – before freezing them.

Of the three methods, drying is the most ancient.  Drying removes the moisture from your vegetables or fruit from the inside out, so bacteria and mold can’t feed on them and cause them to spoil. Drying requires two things – low heat (140 degrees F. is optimal) to drive the moisture out and low-humidity air to circulate the moisture away from the food.  The lower the temperature and higher the humidity, the longer it will take to dry them; heat higher than 140 may cook the food on the outside, so that they don’t dry properly on the inside and the food will get moldy when stored.

You can buy small food dehydrators inexpensively.  I like the square ones that blow the air across from side to side; you get more even drying.  If you decide to buy one, follow the directions that come with the dehydrator for preparing and drying the different fruits and vegetables.

You can also dry foods in your oven if you can set it low enough.  Don’t dry foods in a microwave.  They are too small and closed to get proper air circulation.  To dry fruits and vegetables in your oven, set the temperature for 120-140degrees.  You can use your oven rack if you stretch a piece of muslin or cheesecloth tight across it and pin it with toothpicks or long stitches.  Choose tender vegetables and firm, ripe fruit.  Clean and remove bad spots as you would for freezing.  Blanch vegetables and fruit as you would for freezing.  Then, slice (about a quarter inch thick).  Make the slices even in size so they dry evenly.  Put the slices on the rack.  Leave an area of one or two inches around the sides, front and back of the rack to make sure air can circulate well and make sure the racks are three to four inches apart in the oven.  It’s a good idea to alternate the racks occasionally during drying to ensure even drying.  Leave the oven door open 2-4 inches to let moisture escape.  (This can be DANGEROUS with small children or toddlers around.)  Your food may take up to 20 hours to dry, depending on the food and the size of the slices.  To test for dryness, take a piece from the middle of the rack and let it cool to room temperature.  Once cooled, vegetables should be brittle; fruits should be leathery, but pliable.

You can dry foods using the sun, too. Take an old window screen or screen door that is still tight (or stretch and tack a piece of screen to a frame made of 1×2 inch strips), clean it with soap and water, rinse and let it dry well.  Prepare your vegetables as you would for drying in the oven.  The tray must be kept up off the ground.  If you have a table in your yard, you can set the tray on it.  Put four bricks or blocks of wood on the table to set the tray on, so air will circulate under the tray, too.  Pick a hot, dry day with a little breeze blowing.  Cover the tray with muslin or cheesecloth to keep insects out and tuck it between the tray and bricks to hold it.  (You might want to set the table legs in containers of water to keep ants from crawling up the legs, too.)  It may take two or three days to dry the food, so you’ll need to be prepared to bring the trays in at night or if it rains during the day.  Test the food for dryness the same way you would for oven drying.

Once the food is thoroughly dry and cooled, put it in clean containers with air-tight lids right away and label and date them.  Glass jars are best, so you can check them every couple of days for a week or two, to make sure moisture isn’t collecting on the inside of the jars. Pack a meal’s worth of vegetables or fruit per jar, so you don’t have to open the jar several times.  Moisture from the air can enter the jar each time you open it.  If you see moisture on the inside of a jar, take the food out.  If it is not moldy or spoiled, dry it some more in your oven again at 120-140 degrees.  Let it cool well and put it in a clean jar.  Store containers, as you would canned goods, in a cool, dark, dry place.  To use the food, rehydrate it by putting it in warm water (1 cup water per 1 cup of dried vegetables) for 20 minutes to two hours.  Or, you can drop handfuls of dried vegetables directly into soups and stews or into boiling water to cook them.

I haven’t canned in thirty years, but a dear friend gifted me with a pressure canner a few weeks ago, so I am going to spend some time this winter relearning to can.  If you already know how to can and have the equipment, it’s a good way to store food for the winter.  A good pressure canner and the jars, lids and equipment are a fairly expensive investment.  If you have never canned, but think you would like to try it, it’s a good idea to find a friend at work or church who cans and will let you spend a day or two watching and learning as she cans before you invest the money for canning equipment.  Since it’s been thirty years, I’m not going to offer you any more advice than that, but I will post some articles on canning in the gardening information section.

Now that we’ve looked at ways to preserve your garden vegetables over the long term, let’s take a look at making sure you have water for a long emergency.  At home, we use water for four basic functions – drinking, kitchen use, hygiene (including toothbrushing, bathing and laundry) and flushing the toilet.  I’ll look at water for drinking and kitchen use here and the others under shelter and warmth, next week.

Around the world, millions of children die each year from diarrhea and dehydration due to lack of clean, safe drinking water.  We who live in developed countries are fortunate that we can simply turn on the tap, but our infrastructure is ageing and in poor repair in many parts of the country.  As oil becomes more scare and expensive, the cost of repairing our infrastructure will increase.  As utility costs rise, some of us may be priced out of the running and you simply can’t store a lifetime of water for you and your family in soda bottles in the basement.  Therefore, it would be wise to look around and at least plan for what you would do if your city water supply were disrupted for the long term.

Most emergency plans recommend that you plan for at least a gallon of water per person per day, minimum.  Where would it come from if the tap runs dry?  Well, if you’ve stocked water for a shorter-term emergency, that would buy you some time to set a long-term plan in motion.  If you have a bathtub (or two) and warnings ahead of time, you might invest in a water bladder to keep handy near your tub.  It will hold 50-60 gallons of water, which would provide a family of four with the minimum gallon of clean water per person per day for around two weeks and buy you even more time.  In the long run, unless you have your own well, you will need access to a more permanent source of water such as rainwater. This means you need to know what your local rain patterns are, have a way to collect the water and a means to purify the water once you have collected it.  (If you live in most towns of any size in this country, there is a risk of chemical pollution of rivers and creeks.  I wouldn’t recommend planning to use water from them unless you know with certainty this is not the case.)  With careful planning, making sure you have the needed components (you can pick up some of these at dollar stores, flea markets and yard sales over several months) and understanding how to put them together into a workable system, none of this should be beyond the ability or finances of a working poor family.

Most household rainwater catchment systems work by capturing the water from your roof that comes from the gutters through your downspouts and funneling it into some type of storage container (or a series of containers linked together).  The containers can be an above-ground tank type container or an underground cistern.  They need to be covered to keep children, small animals and insects out and you may want to add a “first flush” type diverter to divert the initial water- which may contain dirt, bird droppings and other contaminants from the roof.  There are many factors, such as how much rain and over what time periods your area receives rain, that would affect what sized containers and how many you use, where your downspouts are located, where you have room to put containers.   I won’t go into details here, but I’ll put information for some different types of systems and ways to put a system together and keep the water clean as you collect it in the gardening section.

Before using the water for drinking, food preparation, dishwashing and hygiene, it will need to be purified in some way.  If it has a lot of sediment in it, you will want to filter and then purify it.  You can make a five-gallon filtering system with a couple of five-gallon plastic buckets or a couple of wastebaskets, some activated charcoal (the kind you use in fish tanks), polyester quilt batting and a length of tubing.  You can, then, purify the water with 8-10 drops of bleach per gallon of water.  In a collapse situation, bleach may not be readily available. You can also pasteurize water using the sun. I’ve started a page in the gardening section with information and links on different types of water catchment, filtering and purifying, which you can find here

Knowing how to do something using several different methods is the best way to build layers of resilience, which is why I’m trying to provide you with several different methods for each area of need.  The most important thing is to think through and plan ahead, making sure you have what you need for a project and either set up a particular system ahead of time or know how to do it when it’s needed.  By doing that, you can add those needed layers of resiliency and insure safe food and drinking water for your family.

Next week, I really will start looking at shelter and warmth. Really.  I promise.

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2 Responses to Doom and the Working Poor – Food and Water for the Long Haul

  1. Tony says:

    Thank you for a very informative post. Now that you have put it in simple ways of doing each process I might be able to do it myself as I tend to start something and not finish the entire project as I end up coming to a road block, I think you have solved this problem for me . I shall endevour to follow your process to the letter.
    Cheers Tony

    • theozarker says:

      I’m glad it helped, Tony. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but having some guidelines to follow can often give you a different way to look at things. Good luck.

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