The people who most need a food reserve are the people who struggle the most to get it. As food and energy costs inflate, and the safety net for the poor begins to break apart, the lower your income, the more urgent it is for you to take advantage of economies of scale, to buy food at lower prices, the more necessary it is that you have some reserve to tide you over in hard times. But that’s incredibly tough if hard times are already here.

And often, the people who have the least ability to take advantage of these resources are the ones who need them the most. Millions of really poor Americans are homeless, or effectively so, living in subsidized motels or other housing that has no cooking facilities. Millions of American working families combine two, three or four jobs and leave the cooking to younger children – or simply have no time to cook or shop at all. Millions of Americans have budgets that already don’t reach the month, and can no longer put together an extra $50 to buy beans and rice in bulk or pay for a CSA share upfront than they can fly to the moon. And these are precisely the people most likely to lose a job, have their kids go hungry, and find that their barely-making-it budget is a no-longer making it budget.

Now much of the time when I’m speaking of food, I advocate ethical practices. Because most of my readers – not all by any means, but most – are comparatively well educated (whether autodidactically or otherwse), and most of them have some ability to pick and choose their foods, either because they are middle class already or because they have carefully and consciously managed to leave some reserve in a small budget by the choices they’ve made. I want to be clear – for those with enough money to do this, ethical food is still the priority – the dollars we spend now on food are investments in future food systems – the systems we will need to feed us in difficult times. We can’t afford to throw that money away on systems that won’t be there, if there’s another choice.

But for those without a range of choices, just having some food stored is essential. At present, the safety nets are fraying – the food pantries are struggling, food stamps and other social welfare programs are heavily burdened, and a food stamp budget no longer enables people to make it to the end of the month. Those programs are likely to struggle further as energy and food prices rise. And because there are no large government stockpiles remaining, because costs are rising so rapidly and because jobs are so unstable, it is essential that lower income families have a reserve of food – no matter how they have to buy it.

So here are some suggestions on how to build storage cheaply.

  1. Emphasize foods that haven’t had huge price rises – potatoes, for example, peanuts and peanut butter, and oats all have gone up, but not nearly as much as corn, wheat and soy. Consider a storage program that emphasizes these lower cost foods – but make sure you are focusing on things with high nutritional value.

    The more you can adapt your diet, the better off you will be. So do some research on what foods are reasonably priced and find recipes and practice with them if you can.

  2. If you have minimal or no cooking facilities, or if the household cooking is being done by children, you need foods that can be heated up easily, using sterno or hot plates. The best really cheap ways to get a lot of instant and pre-processed foods are to dumpster dive and frequent odd lots stores. Because stores discard cans with damaged labels, or anything dinged or damaged, processed foods are often discarded when they are still safe to eat (do not eat anything from a can that appears to be leaking or has odd bulges on it). Do this carefully – wear gloves if possible and watch out for sharp objects. Websites on “freegans” will have a lot more information than I can include. I will note that dumpster diving is on the rise, and you may find more competition than in the past. The other advantage of dumpster diving is that it may cut your food budget enough to allow you to make additional bulk purchases, even if you don’t need pre-processed food. And don’t forget drugstores for slightly-past-expiration vitamins to supplement your diet.

    Odd lots stores buy stuff up that other stores can’t sell – you get weird brands, sometimes cans with no labels, but often quite good prices. And sometimes you get good stuff cheap – the one near my Mother offers tons of gluten free foods from Bobs Red Mill at very low prices – tough things to find for low income people who need special diets. They aren’t as cheap as dumpster diving, but I’ve seen canned goods listed at 10 for a dollar there.

  3. Glean – in many places, there are gleaning programs. Most commercial harvesting programs leave a lot of fruit on the tree and a lot of vegetables in the field. So Gleaning Programs (our farm is actually named Gleanings Farm, because in Judaism, we are prohibited from harvesting too fully, because a share belongs to the poor by right – we do our own gleaning, though, and give it to the food banks). In some places you split your gleanings with the local food bank, in others you keep everything. But that food can be stored and preserved for offseasons.
  4. Minimize waste. Create a “soup jar” and make soup out of leftovers. Do a daily check of your fridge – what needs eating? Don’t think that just because it isn’t a meal’s worth, you can’t eat it. Fruits and vegetables are especially expensive on a low budget – so make full use of them – peel and eat the broccoli stems, grate the orange zest and dry it for flavoring baked goods if you can. Make fried rice out of bits of leftovers and cold grains (you can make fried rice equivalents out of barley, bulghur, etc…).
  5. If you can cook at all, beans, rice, lentils, and cabbage are probably your best friends in the world. They are cheap, bulky, nutritious and can be made to taste good. It is hard to get used to a limited diet of these foods – it is also worth noting that a limited diet in a norm in most of the world – it is not at all unusual to eat beans and rice 2xs a day, or bread and lentils the same. Americans put enormous emphasis on diversity in their diet – and our nutritional information puts that emphasis on it to. But war era diets are often more nutritious than more diverse diets – what you need are a reasonable quantity of several fruits and vegetables, and staple foods. The rest is really not so very big a deal.

    The cheapest places to buy these are from coops, buying clubs and warehouse stores – although you should check that the warehouse membership will pay for itself. Or maybe go along with a friend who has a membership or take advantage of free 1 month trials. Buying in bulk can be tough – but if you can find the money anywhere, you’ll pay so much less than you will at the store. Remember, if you can’t afford veggies, most grains can be sprouted, and offer the benefits of fruits and vegetables this way.

  6. Animal products are expensive – think the parts that most people don’t use. We all know meat isn’t necessary, but some of us like it for flavor, and if you are eating a lot of low-protein, processed food, some meat probably will improve your nutrition. Soup bones, chicken feet (they make great stock and are a texture delicacy in parts of Asia), chicken livers, etc… make good gravy to flavor bread and beans, good soup stock to fill with cheap vegetables, and generally provide some nutritional benefits.
  7. Farmer’s markets at the end of the day. This can be tough (all of this can be tough) if you work long hours, but consider pushing your lunch break late on Farmer’s Market day, and arriving at the end of the market – many farmers won’t want to haul home produce that has sat all day in the hot sun – it isn’t worth it. Buy it cheap in quantity, take it home and dehydrate it in your car or can it or whatever.
  8. Some food pantries have trouble getting rid of bulk foods like wheat berries, dried beans, etc… They receive these items, but comparatively few people know how to use them. Ask if they ever have extras of these to give away, and explain that you are trying to build a food reserve – the worst anyone can say is “no.”
  9. Give the gift of food – if someone wants to buy you a present, consider asking for a gift certificate to Walmart or Sam’s Club or Amazon or some other place that sells food and other goods – that way you don’t have to admit that you need the food badly – but you can use the gift for what you need most.
  10. Don’t expect to do it all at once. All of us need to scale up gradually, unless we’re Bill Gates. If your budget is tight, and you are new to food storage, at a difficult time, it will take time to build a reserve. An extra can here, a few lbs of beans there – it doesn’t seem like much. Remember that it is – small things count. They add up. If you can find $10 in your budget to cut out of something – get rid of an appliance, turn down the power, etc…, it will count and it will build up. I know you may have already cut all the fat you’ve got to cut, or it may be a struggle to find a little more. But this is worth it – this is a measure of hope and security for your family.