What Can We Learn from History About Food When SHTF?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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