Friday, 5 April 2013

Part 3: Food Storage

This post continues the investigation into how a target of 90% carbon emission reduction can be achieved in the UK and compares our situation with that of Sharon Astyk, author of ‘Depletion and Abundance’, ( ) based in the USA. After looking at food production, it seemed worth a short piece on food storage and also touching on our diets and the food choices we make. Are these likely to be barriers to the UK becoming more self-sufficient in food?

The average dwelling in England has a floor area of 80m2 (860 ft2) ( The average US dwelling is over 2.5 times larger at 214m2 (2,300 ft2). I like this diagram from BBC News at, which gives you an idea of the difference in space, between European countries, Australia and the USA.

Our 4 bed-roomed 1980’s detached house is fairly roomy at about 120 m2 (1,290ft2), but like many nowadays, it was built without any storage spaces. There is a loft, which is not tall enough to stand up straight in, but certainly no cellar (basement) or pantry. The single garage is our only storage area really, but it is already full of bikes, tools, camping gear, archived documents, business equipment, sledges and leftovers from DIY projects. (It was a very tight fit for a car anyway!)

We are a family of 6, 4 adults and 2 growing kids, although my oldest daughter is now at University for 30 weeks of the year, which means that everyone gets their own bedroom whilst she is away, but we still have to store her stuff while she is gone. We also run 2 businesses from home, so the traditional dining room is our office, and the kitchen table becomes a product preparation area.

I can’t store beans under the bed, because there is already spare bedding and clothes under there. The kitchen cupboards are full to bursting with at best 2 weeks worth of food for the family, a months supply of rice and 3 months supply of dog food. (Ok maybe I have got my priorities a little mixed up there :-) ) There is no utility area and every cupboard, drawer and shelf is full. There are many older properties in the UK which have cellars and traditional pantries though (A traditional pantry was built on an outside wall, with a small window or vent. It was common to have a low shelf, which was built of solid brick/ concrete and tiled so that it stayed cool for longer and was used to keep butter or cheese fresh before we had fridges.) Maybe building a lean-to against the house, that is pest-proof, would be a solution for us.

Does anyone store food in the UK? It seems to me that shopping for that evening and the next day is now quite common. Sharon Astyk talks about storing 2 years of supplies!

I suspect part of Sharon’s reserves are based on a ‘survivalist’ tactic. They appear to live in a more remote area, whereas my region isn’t normally prone to getting cut off by snow, or floods and doesn’t experience hurricanes. Groups going on Strike seem to present the most likely risk to supplies, and have done in my lifetime. Strikes can result in loss of power, so shops and food production facilities may be forced to close, or fuel (gasoline) restrictions preventing deliveries, or blockades such as at the French ports, restricting imports. Two years supply seems rather extreme to me, whereas one season’s worth seems more achievable and realistic. That way there is space to store any produce, from the previous season, and it gives some leeway if there is a poor harvest. It could also provide a safety net to help you survive a loss of income. It is certainly somewhere to start and aim for.

There is a significant upfront cost to storing a large quantity of food, unless it is your own produce. Sharon Astyk suggests spending an extra $10 on supplies every time you shop. Bulk purchases of some items can reduce the cost (which is why I have dog food and rice ;-) ) Encouraging local bulk buying schemes, could help reduce the price and may also encourage more people to have food stored locally increasing the resilience of the neighbourhood.

I can’t say I eat much out of a tin and not much that is pickled either. Virtually all our meat, fruit and veg is eaten fresh. When I have a glut of rhubarb or raspberries I would freeze them to preserve them for later, and when cooked there is very little difference compared to fresh produce. However my freezer is quite small, so there is a limit. In the book ‘Low Cost Living’ John Harrison describes how he saves lots of money bulk buying discounted fresh products from supermarkets at the end of the day and then just freezes them until required. Lots of the produce he grew was also harvested and frozen. The downside is that he described having 5 freezers! Many were old second hand ones he picked up, and I just cringe at what his electricity bill must be. Adding more electrical appliances is not an option if I want to reduce my emissions from electricity by 90%.
The alternative is to start including more preserved food into my family’s diet. This includes pickles, chutneys, jams, dried fruit, dried beans, smoked and preserved meats, tinned meats, tinned fruits and tinned vegetables (not just baked beans and tinned tomatoes!). The thought of tinned vegetables is the worst for me, because the process degrades the taste and texture, but I’m sure it won’t be so bad cooked with other things. Changing people’s taste and food habits is a tough one. Just experimenting with cooking with these ingredients more is somewhat daunting, but definitely worth a try. It might even lead to discovering new delicious dishes!

Eating more preserved foods, will also help us to eat more locally. The fresh food we eat in winter is clearly shipped in from warmer climates, and comes with a heavy carbon burden. If we can preserve our own produce or even locally grown produce and make it last longer, it will help to reduce the carbon burden of the food we eat. This isn’t to say that we should give up the bananas completely, but the more we can find locally grown, tasty alternatives the better prepared we will be for a future of expensive transport costs.

Food storage does need a bit of thought and planning, and the solution will mean that the bulk of produce may not be conveniently at hand in the kitchen. This is still more convenient than having to nip to the shops, and it builds personal resilience to food supply disruptions. It is a chance to rediscover more traditional foods and cooking / preserving techniques. Best of all it is about not letting any of your produce go to waste.


  1. Eating preserved foods is not good, especially tinned and smoked meats,(think of all that extra salt and nitrates) although oily fish is not so bad.
    I suggest you buy a large A rated chest freezer as we have done and keep it somewhere cool. The nutritional value of frozen food, if frozen as soon as it has been harvested is not much different to fresh food.

  2. Thanks June. Yes I hadn't thought about the health side, though I was only planning small changes to start with, as a taste challenge.


  3. This year I have been experimenting with drying our summer harvest. I have jars of dried apple and pear slices, and have an experimental jar of dried zucchini slices to see if they are nice in stews.
    I do agree that our modern houses are not designed with food storage in mind. We live in a 1930's house that had a kitchen with walk-in pantry in the coolest, darkest corner of the house, with exactly the type of cupboard you described above. Still, it was a miserable place to work most of the year, however good for food storage, so we moved it to the sunny side of the house, and now have a bedroom with walk-in closet where our old kitchen was. I sometimes regret that choice, but my new kitchen is so cheerful, and central to our living space. Dilemma...
    I am thinking of clearing out some laundry cupboard space to store preserves, and bulk food. I think the world would have to be in a very dire state to need two years' worth of food stored. I think we would have a few weeks' worth, but I am also working on making our garden super productive. If there was a food crisis I would pop out and buy several sacks of flour from the local mill, and live on pancakes, apples and spinach!

  4. Jo, perhaps you could store food in the walk in closet? It is conventient for us to have food close to hand but no sin to have it under the bed, in the garage or where ever there is room.

    And there is always room. The same people who say they don't have time to do things often have time to watch a whole series of something or other over the weekend. Those that "don't have space" might have a boxful of videos that can leave home, a cupboard full of clothes which could be reduced by half leaving free space, a shelf of old maps that really are not going to be used again (I'm speaking to myself here). My home has four bedrooms and, when it just had 2 and a lean to kitchen (before 1970) still had 7 children being born and raised here. I think our imagination may need to come into play again.

    If there was a food crisis don't you think everyone else would be after those same sacks of flour? What Sharon recommends is keeping enough food so we don't need to run out and get more in an emergency.

    It's a toss up about getting a freezer. When the **** hits the fan we may just end up with a load of defrosted and quickly becoming inedible food. I think it might be time to learn to preserve food in a low energy way, drying or pickling maybe. A tool for our imagination is to think how our grandparents managed. Did they have a freezer (or even a fridge)? Perhaps it's not as necessary as we think.

  5. I'm guilty of making excuses! 'My garden is too small to grow much' is the one I am trying to dispel at the moment :-). You sound very resourceful Margaret, thanks for your input.

  6. When I was a child we often ate bloaters. These were herring which had been dried, not smoked liked kippers so had a much milder taste. There ought to be a safe way of drying meat and fish at home, my friend has bought a small container to smoke the trout which her husband catches.
    Dried food takes up less space than most other foods and uses less energy to produce. Maybe you should try drying some fruits and vegetables. Your eggs can be preserved in isinglass, or try pickling hard boiled ones, I have a recipe for this.

  7. Have just bought a food dehydrator from Amazon, reduced from £99 to £35, so that this year I will be able to dry some of my excess fruit and veg.

  8. I think you might mean waterglass. Isinglass is for brewing. My husband wonders what they used before isinglass in brewing for them to go to the effort of discovering that isinglass was a good idea!

  9. Yes, you're right. My father always maintained that his grandparents preserved the excess eggs with isinglass, but have just checked and he must have meant waterglass.