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The Pandemic Pantry 

Stocking up on staples, just in case

The worrisome virus that’s going around may be dubbed “swine flu,” but by now, most people know they won’t get it from a pork chop. That’s a bit of good news. The bad news is that, should this epidemic or the next one end up confining us to our homes for weeks on end, we’ll need to have something around to eat.

There are plenty of ways to prepare for the worst — just check out the offerings from Survival Outpost, an online biz with the slogan “balancing reason with readiness,” which sells mixed cases of military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) to campers and conspiracy theorists. In an average 12-pack ($68.99), which has a shelf life of up to five years, you may find a gut-plugging sloppy-Joe meal with buttered noodles, or Cajun rice with pork sausage and a pouch of chowder on the side. Even less appetizing are boxes of 3600-calorie “Emergency Food Bars.” If this is the kind of stuff the Dharma Initiative left for the folks on “Lost,” it’s a wonder they all look so damn, um, healthy.

We don’t want to be alarmist here. Stocking up on cans of “Kung Fu” chicken, freeze-dried celery, imitation blueberry nuggets and margarine powder is a drastic measure that should probably be reserved for the prospect of nuclear holocaust. But keeping a supply of more typical “just in case” food is old-fashioned common sense. At the very least, it can get you through the next ice storm.

With leafy greens, strawberries and fresh seafood accessible year-round, present-day Americans put less emphasis on keeping well-stocked larders than did previous generations. The Great Depression and wartime food rationing taught our grandparents and great-grandparents to maintain root cellars and keep shelves laden with pickles and jams. These days, busy workers are likely to stock nothing more than a few pounds of pasta, a couple of soup cans and those dusty-topped, exotic condiments that never seem to make it into a meal.

With the uncertain threat of swine flu, has that changed? Not quite. Government agencies are quietly striving to promote preparedness without sparking undue fear, and “medical” items such as masks and Purell are disappearing from supermarket shelves at a clip indicating a delicate edge of panic. All the same, our local research suggests that most Vermonters haven’t yet figured out what they’d eat under a lengthy self-imposed quarantine.

According to Mary Ellen Mendel of the local 211 emergency hotline, staffers have been answering queries about whether it’s kosher to eat pork or even chiles and corn products imported from Mexico, not about creating a backup food supply. “We have not had those calls, but if we did, we would suggest that they stock up to prepare for two weeks,” says Mendel.

Mark Bosma, public information officer for Vermont Emergency Management, agrees. He stresses that all Vermonters should have a “response kit” in case of pandemic flu or even bad weather, but doesn’t advise a panicked run on the bulk suppliers. His advice: “Every time you go out, you get one thing, and instead of putting it in the cupboard, you store it away somewhere.”

Bosma admits he himself doesn’t have a “full, comprehensive” supply stashed away, though he’s made a good start: “I have extra prescription medications on hand, and also make sure we have batteries and flashlights and plenty of canned goods.”

What about H2O? In the case of a flu pandemic, “There’s no reason why there wouldn’t be [utilities],” Bosma speculates. But, he continues, “Having extra water on hand is good just in case that isn’t the case … You can’t rule out two things happening at once.”

Nancy Erickson, communication director at the Vermont Department of Health, emphasizes that the H1N1 virus “hasn’t caused extreme illness in the United States.” But she notes that the DOH is currently partnering with area nonprofits, such as the Refugee Resettlement Program, to translate its food-storage recommendations into the languages spoken by new American residents.

Erickson also points out that the DOH has always had plans in place to continue key services, such as WIC food delivery, in the case of an emergency. Nonetheless, she hopes people consider the less fortunate as they line their own cupboards, saying, “I know a lot of people who can’t stock up. For those who can, it’s nice to think about others … And it’s important that one thinks about personal preparedness and takes steps to keep disease from spreading, and Vermonters are really good at that.”

Be that as it may, at Healthy Living in South Burlington, it’s business as usual. According to co-owner and general manager Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, “We’ve had people coming in asking for a lot of antibacterial soaps and stuff like that … But, we feel people haven’t yet begun stockpiling food.”

In his view, customers are “pretty calm about the whole thing.” And so is he. “We’re not going to contribute to whipping up fears … We’re trying to do what we do best: sell good food and handle our business.”

On May 1, the store began a three-month special on cases of food. Says Lesser-Goldsmith: “It has nothing to do with the flu pandemic; it was something we already had scheduled, but if we can help ease people’s fears … come on in and buy some cases of stuff!” He points out that the goal of the bulk section has always been to help folks stock up on “hundreds and hundreds” of shelf-stable items.

At City Market in downtown Burlington, General Manager Clem Nilan has been pondering pandemic preparedness for quite some time. In March, he and Food Education Coordinator Caroline Homan wrote an essay on the topic for the store’s monthly newsletter. Quoting Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss and Vermont Health Commissioner Wendy Davis, they note: “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but when.”

Accordingly, City Market has contingency preparations that will quickly click into place should the swine flu spread to Vermont. One part of the plan involves disseminating information to members, such as recipes and long-term storage suggestions. But the most crucial concerns are how the store will operate if numerous employees fall ill and how to keep housebound citizens fed. “One thing we’ll be doing is really ramping up our delivery program,” Nilan says. “This will be an essential service.” He says it’s possible the market will consider delivering for free in an “emergency situation.”

While deliveries could be a lifesaver for those with empty cupboards, authorities agree that the more people stock up in advance, the better. Have co-op members started stashing? Nilan says he can’t be sure: Bulk sales are certainly good, but at this point, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. “It’s kind of hard to tell. Ever since the recession [began],” he says, “the fastest-growing part of the store has been the bulk section.”

Perhaps that’s also why staffers at Costco are cautious when it comes to estimating the flu scare’s impact on sales. Last Friday, Assistant General Manager Cindy Carter called the store “crazy busy,” but said, “I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything … Our sales are up, but that could be because of the economy.”

Is the massive chain making preparations? Not yet. “Right now we’re just trying to keep with the status quo,” Carter says. “There’s really nothing we’re doing different.”

We were unable to reach a Price Chopper spokesperson authorized to comment on the chain’s plans or sales, but a customer-service rep at the Shelburne Road location was willing to gossip a bit. “We have run out of hand sanitizer this week. They put some more out on the shelf, and it was gone in, like, half an hour,” she exclaims. Whether at smaller local stores or big chains, an increase in disinfectant sales seems to be locals’ main concession to fear of flu.

Vermonters may be chill — so far — about the prospect of becoming ill, but some Americans are certainly considering their stocking options. A Northwestern dehydrated-foods business called Oregon Freeze Dry saw its sales increase dramatically following the swine flu announcement. Becky Boyer, assistant to the president, dishes that the company sold three times its normal weekly volume in just two days. The most popular items? Kits such as the $125 “Just in Case Seven Day Food Unit.” Boyer says that “Cans have been popular as well. Those have a 25-year shelf life. A lot of people look at that as insurance: If there’s no emergency, you can still eat the food; it’s still good.

“Our most popular items are chicken teriyaki, eggs and bacon, beef stew, beef stroganoff and lasagna with meat. My favorite is the turkey tetrazzini,” notes Boyer.

The current outbreak of swine flu may never make it to Vermont, or it may prove to be milder than originally thought. Nonetheless, it serves as a reminder that a pinch of preparedness goes a long way. Folks might do well to consider Bosma’s suggestion of buying a couple of extra items per shopping trip and tossing them in a cupboard. After all, even garden-variety influenza, with its concomitant gastrointestinal symptoms, can make a drive to the grocery store seem as lengthy as a trip to Mexico.

THE GROCERY LIST

As a participant in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Take the Lead” pandemic preparation program, the City of Burlington has created a set of worksheets to educate the public on what to do in case of a deadly virus.

One crucial segment is called the “Stock Up to Stay Home” guide. The suggested stash of emergency supplies and food items is meant to keep a family of four safe and fed for a fortnight. The recommended grocery list assumes a diet of 2000 calories per diem for each family member and is geared toward affordability, easy storage and a long shelf life.

But food is not mere fuel. The right diet strengthens the immune system, and when there’s a big, bad bug in town, eating nutritious, vitamin-rich fare is more important than ever. That’s true whether you’re trying to stave off a rampaging virus or already have one.

“I use food as medicine,” says naturopathic doctor Lorilee Schoenbeck, N.D. “[It’s] so important when somebody has a respiratory illness or viral illness. Whenever I’m suffering from [one], I make a healing soup with garlic, ginger, cayenne, any vegetables, some rice noodles and miso.” Eating warming foods, she explains, is particularly crucial because increasing body temperature helps kill viruses. “It denatures the proteins, like frying an egg.”

Schoenbeck also notes that certain foods have the power to kill germs. Garlic, for example, is antimicrobial, antiviraland antifungal, and, given how the body processes it, is particularly good for the lungs. Nonetheless, garlic, which stores well, is not mentioned on the “Stock Up” list.

How do the rest of the recommendations look from a nutritional perspective? While a few winners appear on the roster — whole-wheat flour, dried beans, canned salmon and olive oil — there are just as many losers. For example, 8505 of the calories allotted for the two-week period come from a 5-pound bag of sugar. Others are derived from potato flakes, white flour and canned ham. Super-sweet condensed milk and powdered cheese are included as recommended “extras.”

Given the lack of focus on home-canned or preserved foods and the utter absence of root vegetables, it’s no surprise to learn the list isn’t homegrown, either. According to Vermont Health Department Communication Director Nancy Erickson, it was adopted wholesale from another city taking part in the pandemic preparation exercise.

Seven Days thinks some alternative recommendations are in order. The following list incorporates our ideas, with additional suggestions from Clem Nilan of City Market and Schoenbeck.

Since the original list presupposes that utilities will be working — otherwise the recommended pasta, cornmeal and white rice wouldn’t do much good — we’re also assuming refrigerators and freezers will be in good order. Please note: While the foods mentioned here have reasonably long shelf lives, particularly when properly stored, it’s always a good idea to rotate your stash.

Apples

Applesauce in jars

Broths in aseptic packaging

Butter, frozen

Cheese, waxed or vacuum-sealed

Citrus fruits

Dried fruits: apricots, cranberries, currants, prunes, raisins

Complex carbs (best stored in the fridge): barley, brown rice, oats, quinoa, wheat berries, whole-wheat pasta and couscous

Eggs

Fermented foods: kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut

Herbs and spices: cayenne, cinnamon, curry powder, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary, Thai curry paste, thyme

Honey

Legumes: dried or canned beans and lentils of all varieties

Maple syrup

Meat and seafood, frozen: beef, chicken, pork, salmon

Nuts and nut butters of all kinds

Oils: olive, sunflower

Produce, frozen: bananas (skinned and placed in a Ziploc bag), blueberries, broccoli, kale, peas, strawberries

Seeds: squash, sunflower

Tempeh and tofu, refrigerated if vacuum-sealed, or frozen

Tomatoes, canned

Tuna and salmon, canned

Vegetables: beets, cabbage, carrots, garlic, onions, parsnips, potatoes, rutabaga, turnips

Whole-grain bread, frozen

Winter squash

Full House: When Stocking Becomes Hoarding

When I was in fourth grade, my class had a canned-food drive. Upon collection of all our donations, my teacher, Mrs. Briggs, called my mother. She was wondering if I could bring something other than the four cans of brains I’d bestowed on the homeless.

Of course, I had a wide range of options. My basement was stocked like an alien supermarket with cans upon cans of organ meat, bags of powdered congee (Chinese rice porridge) and gnocchi. My dad made the excuse that he was a child of the Depression (though that failed to explain the dead animals and porn he’d kept in his care since the 1940s). He liked to frequent cheap Asian markets, while the Euro pasta was my mom’s thing.

When I was 17, we moved from Connecticut to Vermont, and the collection traveled with us. By then, the culinary cabinet of curiosities filled more shelves than our laughably large library of antiquarian books. My dad’s dozen or so computers — dating back to the 1977 Commodore PET — barely found room among the new purchases that he made almost daily at supermarkets and dollar stores.

The mania was infectious. When the A&P in Essex put all its stock on sale to make way for the new Price Chopper, my mom’s own Jewish thriftiness kicked in. Cans of corn and boxes of pasta obscured the previous contents of our walk-in pantry. Eventually moths flourished in a nest of never-ending crackers and cereal.

When my parents divorced and sold their house two years ago, they encouraged me to take one last grocery shop in the basement. I was happy to make use of a case of La Sueur peas recently purchased at Costco and some rubs and herbs from Big Lots and Home Goods. I passed on the Spaghetti-Os with a 1994 expiration date — and the brains.

Some of my parents’ habits have stuck — I, too, go bargain shopping. (The Christmas Tree Shop can be a surprisingly good source of pantry staples.) All my cats’ food comes from Costco or Big Lots, and I have four different kinds of Japanese curry roux in my pantry right now. But there’s a big difference: I plan on eating it. This year.

End-Times Imperative

No matter where you live, there are good reasons to keep pounds of pasta and cans of corn around for emergencies: earthquakes in California, tornados in the Great Plains, ice storms in Vermont.

For some people, though, maintaining a well-stocked pantry isn’t just a smart thing to do; it’s a religious mandate. That’s the case with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as Mormons.

According to Bishop Britt Cummings of Huntington, who heads the church’s Burlington ward, the directive to keep a full pantry is based on a good old American value: self-reliance. “Our belief is that the best welfare program is having reserves if something unplanned occurs,” he explains, citing unexpected job loss and illness as well as natural disasters. “The principle is to have individuals able to help themselves.” But, Cummings adds, “The church has a fairly significant welfare program to help people who aren’t able.”

Until recently, LDS members were counseled to keep a year’s supply of food on hand. The recent, scaled-back suggestion — more easily achieved by members of all income levels — is to begin with a three-month supply and build over time.

In Cummings’ view, filling your shelves isn’t just about shopping. “If you can, grow some yourself and preserve it,” he suggests. “There are benefits of working as a family, working in the soil.” In his house, both the jarred applesauce and the salsa are homemade. Cummings also has buckets of whole wheat, purchased in 1976. When it’s time to bake bread, he mills the grains on a home grinder.

Cans of tuna, peaches and wax beans are also part of his stash, but don’t look for coffee or beer, since such stimulants are off limits to church members.

Explaining his faith’s teachings on preparedness, Cummings dwells on readiness for common occurrences such as bad weather. However, the self-reliance imperative is also tightly linked to biblical threats of deprivation, and some texts have an apocalyptic tinge. Former LDS president Ezra Taft Benson, in a sermon entitled “Prepare Ye,” explained: “The Lord has warned us of famines, but the righteous will have listened to prophets and stored at least a year’s supply of survival food … The revelation to store food may be as essential to our temporal salvation today as boarding the ark was to the people in the days of Noah.”

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About The Authors

Alice Levitt

Alice Levitt

Bio:
AAN award-winning food writer Alice Levitt is a fan of the exotic, the excellent and automats. She wrote for Seven Days 2007-2015.
Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Bio:
Contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the former Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose,... more

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