Remember the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020? Even if you were fortunate to have enough on hand, you probably either knew someone or heard stories of people desperate to find some. Then breadmaking supplies—flour, yeast—vanished, snatched up by prescient consumers who saw the writing on the wall and either already knew how to bake bread from scratch or decided they would learn. But wait, you say. I see the connection with breadmaking, but what does toilet paper have to do with cooking from scratch?
I’m glad you asked.
Take a look at your pantry right now. How many items are convenience items? Now imagine those items are toilet paper. What happens if you can no longer find those products? What if the soup aisle is empty, and the sauce and gravy aisles a ghost town? Suppose you can’t purchase boxed macaroni-and-cheese and Hamburger Helper-style meals? Or your artisan bread, refrigerated biscuits, or frozen pizzas?
Can you cook if the convenience foods you rely on aren’t available at the store?
If not, you need to learn to cook from scratch; it’s one of the most important survival skills you can have. If you can’t cook from scratch, you’ll scramble to feed yourself.
But perhaps you think this is just more fear-mongering. Fair enough. Let’s look at some facts.
The supply chain for goods and services isn’t something we typically think much about in our daily lives (although that is changing.) We go to the store and we purchase our fresh produce, or our bread, our meat, our toilet paper, our cleaning supplies, or whatever it is our heart desires. If we can’t find it at one store, we go to another.
Sure, every once in a while, there’s a good sale and products might be sold out, but we expect that with a sale, right? And we know that by the next time we shop, the item is restocked. That’s our normal.
But our supply chain is fragile. At its best, it’s a finely tuned instrument. Yet if even one element breaks down, its effect ripples out. If multiple elements fail, simultaneously or consecutively, the impact multiplies. Some already understood this. Many are beginning to understand it.
Let’s take a look at some of those elements.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least until we’re all vying for that last package of one-ply. With only a whiff of a rumor about a shortage, self-preservation kicks in.
Sometimes the concern is legitimate. If a hurricane is forecast, you’re wise to top off your vehicle’s tank and your generator.
Other times, fear of a shortage creates the shortage. For a multitude of reasons, some people decided to hoard toilet paper. Word spread and pictures of empty and almost empty shelves circulated. Then other people feared they wouldn’t be able to get toilet paper when they needed it, so they began to buy additional packages, too.
This cascade continued until shelves everywhere were picked clean, and stores introduced limits. The vanishing act spread to napkins, tissues, baby wipes, and any other product that might do the job.
Meanwhile, a few hours up the road from where we live, a plant that manufactured those same products informed news outlets that there was no shortage. They were still manufacturing and shipping the same quantities. Demand, though, skyrocketed.
A similar scenario happened with bread. This cascaded into flour and yeast. If you were already prepping, this was likely of less immediate concern to you. Others, though, scrambled to fill a gaping hole that just opened at their feet.
Just in time shipping
Survival Mom has an informative article about just-in-time shipping, which I encourage you to read. Basically, our economy relies on the ability to get goods where they’re needed, when they’re needed, and in the quantities in which they’re needed. Stores don’t keep huge stocks on hand; they keep only what they believe will sell before the next shipment arrives.
It’s a remarkable system, really. However, what makes it remarkable also makes it vulnerable. Recent events provide plenty of evidence of this.
In our toilet paper example, increased demand meant the supply evaporated before the next shipment arrived. And because people snatched it up the second it made an appearance on the shelves, there always appeared to be a shortage.
Same in our bread example. Larger-than-normal numbers of people buying larger-than-normal quantities of bread (and then flour and yeast, etc.) resulted in shortages because products always sold out before the next shipment arrived. But if you had supplies and could cook from scratch, you had bread.
Maybe you’re thinking they should just make more. It sounds easy. But many manufacturing plants produce multiple items. They can’t increase production volume the way we increase the volume of our radios. And some plants produce for commercial clients, not for retail. Retooling a factory takes time and money.
Recent examples of other factors impacting just-in-time shipping
- Driver shortages –We’re seeing this right now, aggravated by Covid-19 shutdowns of training facilities, which created a big gap in the pipeline of new drivers. According to the American Trucking Association, trucks deliver 72.5% of U.S. freight (by weight.) Trucks without drivers don’t deliver anything.
- Fuel shortages and price increases – Trucks with drivers but not fuel also don’t deliver anything. Whether it’s a lack of fuel or the high cost of it, we feel it in our pantries and our wallets. The Colonial pipeline hack, referred to later, is a recent example exacerbated by panic buying of fuel.
- Failing infrastructure – The I-40 bridge closure over the Mississippi River in Memphis highlighted how aging infrastructure impacts distributions. Concerned officials spoke of the long-term closure of river traffic and its potential to impact the nation’s supply chain. At a minimum, it has regional implications. During the three-day waterway restriction 62 vessels with 1,058 barges, mostly carrying agricultural commodities, queued up, waiting. Detours cause delays and delays cost money, and it all impacts what you see on store shelves and how much you pay for it.
- Accidents – The Suez Canal is one of the busiest waterways in the world and the Ever Given container ship brought it to a halt for six days. It fascinated me to learn about some of the products on the vessels stuck waiting. Things like oil, liquified gas, and automobiles didn’t really surprise me. But there was also coffee and tea, crops, cement, livestock, lumber, exercise equipment, home improvement supplies, and Ikea furniture, just to name a few. Notice that the list includes both raw materials and finished products; that affects what’s available now and what’s available later.
- Cyberterrorism – Hackers downed Colonial Pipeline sending many consumers panic buying at the pumps and accelerating the domino effect of stations running out of fuel. Even though experts reassure us it wasn’t an attempt to take down a portion of our energy grid, it tells anyone who might be interested in doing so what will happen. Experts also tell us that the number of small businesses hit by cyberattacks is increasing. If utilities go offline, for example, companies don’t manufacture anything.
Inflation is a fact of life. We all see how it whittles away at our buying power at the grocery store (and everywhere else.) The only question is how much. Cooking from scratch gives you more options to save. One bag of flour makes far more food than a just-add-meat boxed meal.
Hyperinflation is the bull in the china shop compared to inflation. Convenience foods are a distant memory under that scenario. Here’s a recent discussion of the topic, how to holistically prep, and suggestions about what to buy before it happens.
Budget-friendly food storage
For most of us, this might be the most practical and important reason for cooking from scratch.
Stocking up on versatile basics like rice, pasta, bouillon, canned/frozen/freeze-dried veggies and fruit, and cans of chicken allow you to cook many, many different types of meals. Also, learn how to lengthen the shelf life of cooking oils, which are an essential part of many homemade dishes. These basic ingredients reduce your reliance on single-entree meals that are typical of convenience foods and just-add-water meals, and they’re easy on the budget. And if you buy your annual meat supply all at once, you have to know how to cook it all.
Shop grocery store sales, use coupons, and do some or all of your shopping at dollar stores and discount stores like Aldi. Focus on buying individual ingredients with long shelf lives. In some cases, you’ll want to repackage foods for the longest possible shelf life, and you can find instructions for that here.
Not only is this a frugal and quick way to build your emergency food storage pantry, but it’s also healthier than fast food, eating out, and consuming convenience foods.
How important is cooking from scratch…really?
There are many perspectives on what an emergency, or SHTF event, looks like. For some, it might be an EMP knocking out tech and electricity. Others see it as disrupted or completely broken supply and distribution chains forcing them to make do or do without. For still others, it’s ever-increasing inflation causing the price of store-bought convenience food to exceed their ability to pay for it.
Whatever it looks like for you, an honest look at the fragility of our supply chain is not fear-mongering.
And it’s a reality we must stop pretending doesn’t exist.
In an emergency, people always outnumber the available resources. You must store basic ingredients and be able to cook with them. As Survival Mom says: Prep more—in this case, learn to cook from scratch—so you can worry less.
The plain truth is…regardless of what SHTF looks like for you, learn to cook from scratch, or it’s gonna be a lot harder to feed yourself and others in an emergency.
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