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Meals for the millennium

A consumer's guide for Y2K food storage

Issue: "Surviving the Y2K panic," April 3, 1999

[Editor's note: By publishing this article, WORLD magazine is not taking the position that stockpiling in anticipation of major Y2K disruptions is something every family should do. We do not know-in fact, nobody knows-whether the cumulative effect of Y2K will be a "bump in the road" or something far more serious. We are not endorsing the companies mentioned in the story. Nor are we intentionally discriminating against the many new companies that have entered the food-storage business in the past 12-18 months. We present this article merely in an effort to serve those families among our readership who are seriously considering a food storage plan.] Steve Portela's business is setting new sales records literally every month and has been on this steep upward trajectory for about two years now. In fact, he's so busy that, when customers call to place a big order, he can't even tell them when it will go out. He has some backorders as old as a year and his typical delivery time at the moment is 6-7 months-yet the orders keep pouring in. Mr. Portela sells directly to the public and is also a large wholesaler, selling private label brands to a variety of other companies in his industry. He figures a lot of the people who don't want to wait 6-7 months for their order end up calling one of his wholesale customers, "so I guess we're getting [the customers] one way or the other," he chuckles. What kind of business is this? Some high-flying software or Internet company? A red-hot multilevel marketing scheme? No, Mr. Portela is the manager of Walton Feed, Inc., and he's in the food storage business in Montpelier, Idaho, which is quite a ways from Silicon Valley or Wall Street. Also generating huge revenue increases are entrepreneurs such as "Captain Dave" (he prefers not to give his real name), a self-described "survivalist." By day he works for a Fortune 500 company in Pittsburgh in its corporate communications department; by night he runs "Captain Dave's Survival Center," taking orders for dehydrated and freeze-dried food, grain mills, first-aid kits, and a variety of survival products. These men-and scores of other men and women like them-are reporting increases of 200 percent to 400 percent in their food storage businesses in the past year and a half to two years. There's a good reason, spelled Y-2-K. If you're concerned about Y2K, food storage is (right after water) at the top of the list of things you're going to need to address. Sources ranging from U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on the Y2K Technology Problem, to the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are suggesting that people make sure to have an adequate supply of food on hand in the event the Y2K computer bug is more than just a hiccup. How much food is "adequate"? That depends on how bad people think Y2K disruptions are going to be. The pessimistic are socking away enough food for every member of their family for a year-or more. On the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that, at worst, Y2K-related glitches will cause minor inconveniences for a few days or weeks. In that case, food storage is not even an issue-they're just putting away a few extra cans of soup or beef stew, if that. Then there is the huge group in the middle: cautious, concerned, not wanting to go overboard but worried that the problem might potentially last more than a few days. For that group, the whole issue of possibly storing food is confusing and bewildering. How much can they afford? What kind of food is best? How long will it take to get it? Where should they store it? How do they make sure they're not ripped off? This "consumer's guide for Y2K food storage" can help beginners sort through the basic questions and answers. What is food storage?
Food for storage is merely food bought for the express purpose of storing (as opposed to immediate consumption). The industry has long been a sleepy and quiet one, run primarily by and for Mormons, whose doctrine expressly advocates that Latter Day Saints members should have a year's supply of food put away at all times. The LDS church operates its own canneries around the country for church members, but these canneries have also typically been open to the handful of non-LDS members who were interested in do-it-yourself food storage at bargain-basement prices. (The word is that, due to Y2K-related demand, the Mormons have now closed their facilities to non-church members until further notice.) Only one company in the food storage industry would previously have been considered substantial by today's business standards: Vacu-Dry Corporation, which manufactures the Perma-Pak dehydrated food line and is a publicly traded (NYSE) company with $26 million in annual sales (although that is still considered a "small" business by the U.S. Commerce Department). The other so-called big names in the industry-Walton Feed, Ready Reserve Foods, Oregon Freeze Dry, Inc. (manufacturer of the Mountain House brand), Safe-Trek-would up to now have been considered basically mom-and-pop operations. But these companies have had to "grow up" in a hurry. The food storage industry has literally exploded in the face of Y2K-related demand. The most common estimate of the increase in the amount of business is 400 percent over the past 18 months-and it's expected to continue to escalate every month at least until the fall of 1999. Is there a shortage of food?
Emphatically, the answer is no. Rumors to the contrary, our country has plenty of food to go around, according to every one of the food processing companies contacted for this article. As Walton Feed says on its Web site, "There is a surplus of food right now..." (emphasis added). There are shortages of food-related items, such as electric and hand-operated grain grinders, but food itself is not a problem. What kinds of food should be considered for storage?
There are three basic types of food for long-term storage: dehydrated, freeze-dried, and MREs (meal-ready-to-eat). (This does not include, of course, food you might grow or buy and put away on your own.) MREs are expensive and often not particularly tasty-but, as the name implies, you can literally open the sealed pouch and eat them, even cold (although cold MRE ravioli doesn't sound very appetizing). You can put the pouch in direct sunlight and use the God-provided warmth of the sun to heat up your MRE or, as long as you have power, you can heat 'em and eat 'em. Experts advise adding condiments, spices, or sauces to MREs before serving. Freeze-dried food is also expensive, but it is the closest thing to a food storage "treat" or delicacy that you're going to find. Add a little boiling water and, presto, you have chicken divan or beef teriyaki. Just remember that your food storage budget will not go nearly as far, because this stuff isn't cheap. Dehydrated food is quite economical and you can store enough food for a family of 4-6 people for 3-6 months in a corner of your basement. The "problem" with dehydrated food is that it needs to be re-hydrated, which means you have to have lots of water. This type of food also requires the most preparation (of the three types of food listed here). Is there a "basic" list of food to start with?
Any basic food storage program normally includes: wheat, several kinds of beans, rice, potato flakes, oats, pasta, corn, powdered milk, sugar, flour, salt, cooking oil, spices, soups, tomato powder, cheese powder, butter powder, powdered eggs, peanut butter, jelly, honey, coffee, tea, canned fruits and vegetables, powdered or canned juices, crackers, and cookies. Once you have the basics covered, you can add more "exotic" items such as chicken or beef or bacon-flavored TVP (textured vegetable protein), canned stews, and freeze-dried dishes. What is the most important thing to know about food storage?
This is the only product we can think of (other than insurance) that you're going to buy now but may not use for months or years-hence, you may not know for a long time if you actually got what you paid for. The last thing you want to do is open a can 12 or 18 months from now (or even years from now) and find that the food is rotten or spoiled because of improper processing or sealing. There are a lot of new food storage companies popping up to take advantage of the Y2K boom, and you should be careful to find out how they do what they do. The food storage companies that have been around for a long time will still be in business after Y2K is a memory-the newcomers may not be. The main thing to find out from any food storage company (or dealer) is: How do they process and seal the food so it is safe for long-term storage? Oxygen is enemy No. 1 in the food storage business. The best way to get rid of it is literally to suck all of the oxygen out, then add nitrogen, then add an oxygen absorber to take care of the last couple of percentage points. If a company gets its oxygen content down to 1 or 2 percent of volume, you won't have any problems. Such food can and does last for 10 to15 years-or even longer. How much will this cost?
Comparison shopping among food storage companies is a mind-boggling task. One could spend many hours comparing the company-by-company price for a case of #10 cans of powdered milk or 6-gallon pails of pinto beans. One good way to comparison shop is to look at each company's one-year-supply-for-one-adult deal (just about every company has this). However, caveat emptor! One company's version of a one-year supply for one adult is definitely not another's. In fact, they may vary by hundreds of pounds of food-and hundreds of dollars in price, too. Walton Feed's standard one-year supply is $947, while Ready Reserve's is $1,178 and Grover's is $1,499. There can't be this kind of massive disparity without there also being a disparity in the contents-indeed, there is a vast difference between what is in each of those so-called "one-year's supply." Ultimately, the supplier you select will come down to a balancing act between projected delivery time, cost, and the particular tastes of your household. If you are trying to put away enough food for a family of four for a year, you could easily spend $3,000 to $4,000. How much food is enough?
That's like asking, "How much insurance should I have?" It's different for everyone. Some people with 2-6 children are ordering a one-year supply of food for two adults from their supplier of choice, figuring that would last their family of 2 adults and 4-6 children about 3-6 months. Another approach is to make a basic order of staples like beans, rice, pasta, and wheat, then add "a la carte" cases of favorite fruits and vegetables, and perhaps a few cases of freeze-dried delicacies to crack open when your family rebels against another meal of rice or pasta or pinto beans. Christians particularly want to be able to help others, whether they are neighbors, fellow church members, family, or friends. And if you order a little more than you think you'll need yourself, you'll be in an excellent position-if problems do persist-to live out Christ's admonition that we consider the interests of others ahead of our own. When/how will I pay for this?
Some companies require 100 percent payment at the time of order, even if they do not expect to ship for 2-3 months. Others require a deposit of anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. Still others will not charge until they are getting ready to ship the order. If you object to paying for something weeks or months before you see the product, say so. Some companies will compromise on their "standard" practice if your order is substantial enough and if you are firm enough. How long will I have to wait?
As Steve Portela of Walton Feed candidly admits, "[The industry] was not at all ready for this [the Y2K boom]." The infrastructure of these companies was simply not able to accommodate their sales volume quadrupling more or less overnight. Their computer systems, their staffing levels, even their warehouses were all inadequate. Consequently, there have been delays, mistakes on orders, and other such growth-related problems, the worst of which seemed to occur in October and November of last year. Now the processors are all operating 24 hours a days, 6 or 7 days a week. In terms of backlog, Walton Feed is the most behind, with 6-7 months "average" time from order to delivery; Ready Reserve's president reported an 8-10 week backlog; at times, Grover's and Preparedness Resources (the two Perma-Pak master distributors) have been backlogged 4-6 weeks or longer. Unless you are willing to pay for expedited freight, you'll be waiting awhile for your order. What can I do myself?
You can pick up a lot of good deals at local membership clubs such as Sam's, BJ's, and Price Club. Most store-bought canned goods have a shelf life of at least 2-3 years, and non-acidic canned vegetables and fruits can last even longer. Almost all food manufacturers now have Y2K update recordings that are reachable through their regular toll-free numbers. Local health-food stores are a good source of information on local buying co-ops. For national distributors, jump onto the Internet and look around. Many Web sites have links to others, and once you start looking at groups connected with food storage, you'll find numerous ads. Ask hard questions and act as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviets: Even when you trust, don't forget to verify.
-Hendrix Niemann is a Maryland-based writer for business publications.

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