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When we think of a year’s emergency food supply, it’s easy to think of a pallet of MREs or a mountain of Mountain House packets. Those can certainly fill the need, but what if you don’t want to drop thousands upon thousands of dollars on your food stores? What if you wanted to put together a year’s supply of food in the cheapest manner possible?

Whether it’s a backup plan for economic troubles, a bug-in food supply in case of pandemic, or just a practical preparation for whatever lies ahead, this basic food supply has a lot in common with our ancestors’ annual stockpiles. Grain, oil, sugar, salt, and a few other key ingredients can provide all the nutrition we need—just like they did in the past—without breaking the bank today. Plus, this food stash will last for several years, providing you store it correctly.

Start off with 20 5-gallon food-grade buckets. If you have a little coin to spare on the project, buy new 5-gallon buckets with lids. Get a few buckets with gamma lids (screw-on) to store products that will be used often. The other buckets can have standard lids. If you’re on a budget, you might try to score buckets from bakeries and restaurants—either for free or for a nominal price.

Next, get enough Mylar storage bags and oxygen absorbers to go with the buckets you have. You can do smaller Mylar bags for rationing purposes and modular storage, or use large bags to line each bucket (the easier way). You don’t need O2 absorbers in everything. Sugar, honey, and salt will never need them, since they don’t “go bad” from oxygen. Grains, powdered milk, and other foods will definitely need them.

Now it’s time to start filling the buckets. The amount of food needed can be calculated with some simple math. If a person needed 2,200 calories a day, then multiply 2,200 by 365. This gives us 803,000 calories required for one year. Using that, you can build a list of staple foods that keep well and are nutritious.

Consider this sample list for one person for one year:

400 pounds of grains: This can be white rice (brown doesn’t last very long), wheat berries (whole wheat kernels), barley, corn, spelt, millet, quinoa, and even pasta. Four hundred pounds will fill 12 5-gallon buckets, with each bucket storing about 47,000 calories. This translates to 75 cups of flour or 25 to 35 loaves of bread or 150 servings of cooked grain per bucket.

60 pounds of dried beans: White beans (navy beans) have the highest calorie count per pound (about 847 per lb.), but a mixture of legumes is nice for variety. Sixty pounds of beans will fit into two 5-gallon buckets, and provide about 20,000 calories per bucket.

16 pounds of shortening: This can be solid fats like Crisco, ghee, and coconut oil, or 2 ½ gallons of cooking oil. Whichever way you cut it, 16 pounds of fat yields about 50,000 calories and represents the most calorie-rich component of this food storage plan. This all fits into one bucket.

16 pounds of powdered milk: Use the non-fat variety for longer storage life, but definitely include a few O2 absorbers in this solitary bucket. This is also a good bucket for a gamma lid, and you might consider breaking the powder up in smaller Mylar bags. Sixteen pounds of it has 25,600 calories.

35 pounds of sugar: Plain old white table sugar, while devoid of most nutrients, has a very long shelf life. Thirty-five pounds of this stuff will fit in one bucket and provide about 60,000 sweet calories.

50 pounds of honey: This will fit in one bucket and provide 68,000 calories. This is also our most expensive bucket, typically worth between $150 and $200. But honey never goes bad, and serves many purposes.

40 pounds of potato flakes: Mashed potatoes, potato soup, potato bread, little fried potato cakes like mom used to make—perhaps there should be additional buckets of this versatile product! But for starters, one bucket holds about 40 pounds of this food staple, which is roughly 63,300 calories.

The final bucket is a grab bag of important stuff. You should have 10 pounds of salt, which can be very handy. Some should be iodized for iodine intake, and some should not be iodized (so you can make fermented foods with it). Spices, dried herbs, and seasonings should be included too, all carefully packed to trap their unique aromas and save your palate from complete boredom. Finally, if you toss a few bottles of multi-vitamins in there, all the major nutrients should be covered.

All totaled, these 20 buckets provide an amazing 900,000 calories of food value and cost about $1,000, depending on the bulk food prices you can wrangle. The finished buckets should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place that is impervious to rodents and other pests. Food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) can be sprinkled through the grains as a wholesome, edible bug killer to deal with weevils and other pantry pests.

Finally, learn to use this food. Rotate it into your normal cooking and eating habits. Get a hand-crank grain mill to grind the grains. Try baking some bread on your wood stove this winter. Make some mead from your honey. Whatever you do, just use this stuff, and refill each bucket after you use it up. This way, you’re accustomed to using these valuable food staples and you’re better prepared, no matter what the future brings.

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