Long ridiculed and misunderstood by outsiders, the Mormon practice of emergency food storage remains a central part of the LDS lifestyle – and gains wider secular acceptance in the prepper era.
Phoenix resident Andra Riegel has enough food stored to feed her and her husband – and any number of her seven grown children who pop in from time to time – for a full year.
Not from her perspective. Riegel is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormon Church, and her meticulously curated supply is one of many ways she follows her faith. “I was taught to keep a year’s supply of food,” she says with no small amount of pride about the rather large, dedicated pantry behind the family room.
Ample food storage is a commandment from the Mormon Church, followed to the letter by especially dutiful Mormons like Riegel. She cooks at home six nights a week, pulling from her year’s supply as easily as one might pluck a can of tomato sauce and a box of dried pasta from the cupboard.
The difference is Riegel’s meal is likely accompanied by a loaf of bread made from whole grains she ground herself, fetched from a 25-pound bucket. Another difference: her ability to whip up dozens of other dinner options besides spaghetti and marinara without ever leaving her house.
Riegel’s stash of wheat, canned goods and freeze-dried produce may seem strange to many nonbelievers, but not to Mormons, or anyone who has experienced the value of a food reserve when times get tough or when disaster strikes. In fact, as the prepper mindset becomes more commonplace in our complicated times, the practice is more mainstream than ever.
Go West, Young Man
The Mormon creed has always been one of self-reliance. Escaping religious persecution first in Missouri and then in Illinois, the first Mormon pioneers arrived in what is now Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Despite a gruesome trip riddled with unspeakable hardships, this beleaguered group still managed to plant wheat along the trail for the Mormons who would follow to harvest.
Once settled in what would become the Territory of Utah by 1850, the independence-minded pioneers created a self-contained, self-reliant agrarian community, one with deep-rooted mistrust of government, exacerbated by an 1857 armed standoff with the U.S. government that lasted 14 months.
By 1868, Mormon president and territorial governor Brigham Young implemented a seven-year food plan for each family to follow to “preserve against a day of want.” The food storage directive from the church has changed over the decades – shaped by the political and economic events that define America itself – but not as radically as one might assume. By 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, church leaders had trimmed the seven-year food plan down to one year, but added that each household should store clothing and fuel. In the midst of Cold War fears during the 1950s and 1960s, food storage discussion from church leadership espoused “think in terms of what would keep us alive,” according to author Neil Leash in his 1999 book, Prophetic Statements on Food Storage – not surprising, when bombshell national events included the Vietnam War, the Cuban missile crisis, a presidential assassination and the explosive Civil Rights movement. In the 1970s, talk of nutritional content – in the form of calories needed to sustain members in the event of a catastrophe – entered the dialogue.
No reliable data indicate how many Mormons practice the policy, or to what degree. There are 15 million members worldwide – less than half reside in the U.S., with roughly 410,000 in Arizona – according to the church’s official newsroom (mormonnewsroom.org). “I don’t have any specific data, but I have a feeling,” says Neil Newell, Manager of Public Affairs of LDS Church Welfare Services, when asked how many Mormons practice food storage. “I think most members are at least trying to build a food reserve.”
Current LDS guidelines, revised in the past four or five years according to Newell, instruct members to store a three-month supply of food that is part of their daily diet, plus drinking water, a financial reserve, and an unspecified amount of longer-term food supplies such as wheat, rice and beans that can last 30 years in terms of usability. Newell credits his gut feeling of at least some level of food storage compliance among most members directly to these new, more “realistic” guidelines. Talk to a cross-section of Mormons and some still believe a year’s supply is the mandate while others say the mandate is closer to “three months.” Newell says that keeping a year’s supply of food per person is still the “ideal,” but it is no longer the official decree.
Food is Food
The same doctrine that commands Mormons to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee (Section 89 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants) also instructs the faithful to eat very little meat but plenty of vegetables and whole grains. Sound familiar? You might see similar wording on a True Food menu.
Food activist Michael Pollan’s 2009 book, Food Rules, boils down to one simple instruction: Eat real food, but not too much, and mostly plants. The foods the church encourages Mormons to stockpile are real foods, with little, if any, preservatives. What they are not, of course, is fresh. While “fresh,” “local,” and “organic” principles drive the success of New Age grocers like Whole Foods, Mormons have historically approached food more pragmatically as a result of beliefs and circumstances.
Volunteers at the LDS home storage center in Mesa fill and seal cans of freeze-dried food.
What kinds of food can be stored a year or longer? Forget fresh broccoli and raw milk cheeses or anything else on food activist Alice Waters’ fresh-local continuum. The products in Riegel’s pantry are as common as jars of applesauce, cans of soup, dried beans and buckets of whole grains. She has a deep freezer in the pantry that stores a quarter of a grass-fed cow and a whole butchered pig. Securing a generator in case of a power outage is her family’s goal this year.
Every item in Riegel’s pantry is something that her family eats on a regular basis. Chicken potpie is the favorite meal – and she can make it entirely from her year’s food supply, including pastry dough made from her stash of freshly ground wheat. She refers to her pantry as “my little country store” and she has taught others in the church how to construct a food storage pantry.
Riegel says the first step is to identify space, which might be an extra bedroom, a hall closet, or even the 8-inch space under the bed. The most important step before buying anything, she says, is putting a pad and pencil on the kitchen table for two weeks and having each family member write down what foods and meals they couldn’t live without. This is crucial to ensure that the cost of assembling a food supply doesn’t go to waste – to put it bluntly, that the family will actually eat the stuff before it goes bad.
Dominique Sill is a 21-year-old pastry cook at Tracy Dempsey Originals and a devoted Mormon whose mother served as her stake’s food preparedness representative. (The Mormon Church is geographically organized into wards of small congregations, which in turn are grouped into larger areas referred to as stakes.) “Mom said the hardest thing was getting people to not only buy foods they would eat, but then actually eat them,” she says.
Admittedly, the typical food storage staples – freeze-dried fruits, powdered milk, etc. – usually don’t lend themselves to scrumptious cooking. But Mormon cooks have learned to innovate. Sill’s favorite childhood meal was a sloppy Joe – ground beef stewed in a mixture of tomatoes, onions and spices, and served on a hamburger bun – that her mom extended by adding chewy wheat berries from the food storage supply. “I still love that,” she says.
Sill is getting married in March and a food storage pantry is high on the newlyweds’ to-do list. “My fiancé is actually excited about building our food storage,” she says. Sill crafts fancy desserts for restaurants and resorts for a living, but you can bet that ingredients for her mom’s homey sloppy Joes will feature prominently in her food supply.
The Pantry Economy
With its 15 million-person consumer base, a flourishing industry has sprung up to supply Mormons – and others – with restaurant-size tin cans (known as #10 cans in industry jargon) of freeze-dried and dehydrated produce, pre-packaged ready-to-eat meals, storage buckets, grain grinders and water purification products.
For-profit companies such as Kaysville, Utah-based Daily Bread target Mormons directly by offering “worry free” food storage systems that provide anywhere from two weeks to a full year’s supply of sustenance, all of which is guaranteed not to expire for 25 years. Some of Daily Bread’s offerings are individual freeze-dried or dehydrated ingredients, but many are ready-to-eat-meals, including a homey-tasting “chicken á la King” – sans the traditional splash of sherry, of course – and a less tasty, but passable “scrambled eggs and bacon.” Daily Bread also caters to non-Mormons with an alias company, Food Insurance, offering an identical line of products targeted to survival-minded consumers who want to indemnify against a cataclysmic event, natural or otherwise.
Ordering a year’s worth of food for a family of four from Daily Bread isn’t cheap – it tallies $11,000 for about 1,000 daily calories per person, or $16,500 for roughly 2,000 calories per day. Budget-conscious Mormons have other, less expensive options for building a food storage pantry. The church operates 101 nonprofit “home storage centers” across the U.S. and Canada, including one in Mesa. Open to the public but created for members, these mini-warehouses stock basic long-term food products such as wheat, white rice and beans in bulk quantities at prices similar to or below traditional public warehouses such as Costco.
While church-run food storage centers offer a limited number of long-term storage products, Brigham City, Utah-based Honeyville Farms, which has a retail store in Tempe, stocks an extensive variety of freeze-dried foods – including dried whole eggs, powdered cream cheese, freeze-dried meats (beef, chicken, ham) and a surprising number of fruits and vegetables, including freeze-dried strawberries and asparagus. Expiration dates vary from five years to 25 years.
No one claims freeze-dried fruits and vegetables taste better than fresh, but they do taste better than you’d expect. Many, especially when reconstituted, taste similar to their water-canned equivalent. Dried beans and whole grains figure prominently in long-term food storage – good news for trendy quinoa and wheat berries – and Honeyville has an interesting mix of grains and legumes, both standard and heirloom. Don’t know how to cook with freeze-dried or powdered foods? Honeyville regularly holds cooking classes, solar oven cooking demos and basic food storage preparedness classes.
When cost isn’t a consideration for food storage, space might be. Daily Bread food systems contain up to 654 of those large #10 cans, requiring a significant amount of storage space – more than half of a small 10-by-10-foot bedroom. While Riegel has a 10-by-4-foot dedicated pantry, attorney Joel Wakefield, a Mormon and father of four, admits to stuffing his limited food storage beneath a stairway. He estimates his family’s current food storage is far shy of three months, but he feels no remorse for falling short of the church mandate. “There are plenty of other things in my religion to feel guilty about,” he says with a chuckle.
Wakefield grew up in Salt Lake City, and moved to South America when he was 12. Even though he doesn’t follow the church directive to the letter, it is likely ingrained in his subconscious as certain situations trigger buying impulses. He will buy a caseload of sale-priced food if that product is something they normally eat in their daily diet, such as tomato sauce, or instant ramen for his kids. “There is an undercurrent of frugality in food storage,” he says, “And the practicality of it reduces food budgets.”
Still, Wakefield admits that storing a year’s – let alone three months’ – supply of food for each member of his family isn’t practical from a space perspective. There is simply nowhere in his current house to store that much food. In other areas of the country, food can be tucked away in a garage. Arizona’s extreme heat makes the garage – unless air-conditioned – impractical. According to guidelines, long-term food supplies should be stored at no more than 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like many aspects of the Mormon faith, from tithing to sacred undergarments, the practice of food storage is sometimes met with incomprehension or outright hostility by outsiders. Many Valley residents who grew up in the church can recall being ridiculed by non-Mormon classmates who found the concept of food storage to be cult-like and fatalistic.
Even in the post-Mitt Romney era, the perceived crackpot factor sometimes bedevils Mormons. Upon learning Riegel has a full year’s supply of food tucked away, “Some people have expressed alarm,” she says. “They want to know if I know something they don’t, so I have to explain it’s a lifestyle.”
She recalls one instance when a new neighbor asked Riegel if she was Mormon and if she had food. “I said yes, and then he said, ‘If things get bad, I’m coming with my gun to take your food,’” she says. “So I said, ‘There’s no need for that! I’m quite willing to share.’”
Was the man joking? “I’m not sure,” she says. “I don’t think so, so I assured him I would share. Our faith is all about sharing.”
The highly organized, centralized nature of the Mormon Church may also contribute to mistrust about food storage. If the world’s 15 million Mormons spend even a relatively small average amount – say, $100 – per year at church food storage facilities, that’s a $1.5 billion church-owned industry. Are church members being exploited? The perception undoubtedly exists. “Anti-Mormons love to portray the LDS Church as a cold, corporate entity that’s run by greedy old men,” Mormon blogger Kelly Bingham wrote in a moroni10.com article titled “The LD$ Church vs. The LDS Church.”
In response, Mormons point to the church’s many “revenue depleting” efforts, like the construction of new temples, and its sundry charitable endeavors, which are all directly funded by tithing and revenue from church-owned businesses. It should be noted that the Mesa church storage center also houses a “bishop’s storehouse,” Mormon-speak for food assistance depots where disadvantaged and needy members can collect free essentials.
Food storage has sometimes faced criticism from practicing Mormons – not on theological grounds, but practical ones. On one online Mormon message board, a member bemoaned the difficulty of implementing a sensible rotation plan so that somewhere down the line, grandchildren aren’t tossing out 60-year-old drums of rancid wheat and cans bulging from botulism.
Consequently, many Mormons choose not to practice food storage, viewing it less as a divine imperative than an elective act of risk reduction. Andrew Christensen, a 40-something attorney and Mormon who does not practice food storage, says, “If you’d asked 10 Mormons 30 or 40 years ago why they store food, I think for several the answer would have had something to do with anticipating the end of the world, but ask 10 today, and I think you’ll get more pragmatic replies about being prepared for localized natural disasters, or other short-term disruptions to the ordinary functioning of the economy – even just job loss or other budgetary shocks to a household.”
Christensen doesn’t see the church emphasizing food storage as emphatically as it did in the past either, something Wakefield attributes to a cultural shift. “My grandmother canned in southern Utah – and frankly, practiced food storage out of necessity. You couldn’t just run to the store in the 1920s in rural Utah,” Wakefield says.
Food preservation – canning, curing and the like – has seen a resurgence in popularity with churchgoers over the last decade, but it’s driven more by a desire to satisfy DIY urges than feeling the urge to “put up” in case of an emergency, members say.
But many Mormons – like Riegel – continue to embrace food storage as a part of their heritage. “We’re supposed to do this, and it can be wholesome and spiritual to maintain a pantry,” she says. “It gives me a great deal of comfort knowing it’s there.”
Food Storage Staples
The kitchen workhorse for numerous stocks, sauces and dips.
Toss them into pancake batter, or boil in apple juice for a nice dessert topping.
Fresh-ish taste makes for a decent cream of asparagus soup.
The secret ingredient in Bernie Kantak's Original Chopped Salad.
Dried sweet Potato
Throw a cupful into stew, or mix with brown sugar for a side dish.
These local wheat berries are the basis of Chef Charleen Badman’s salad.
Top a salad with them for a little crunch; also good for smoothies and sauces.
Grind into a powder and sprinkle on popcorn; also works great in casseroles.
Dried refried Beans
Many Mexican restaurants use dried refried beans; they taste just as good and cook quicker.
Has a bacon-like flavor without the fat; great for omelets and split pea soup.
Makes a decent chicken salad, especially if the salad has lots of mayo and herbs.
Tailor-made for turkey tetrazzini, a creamy casserole of turkey, peas and noodles.
Beloved by chefs; can play a supporting or starring role in salad or soup.
Not Just for Saints, Anymore
Mormons aren’t the only ones squirreling proverbial nuts away for the long, hard winter. In fact, it becomes a less distinctly Mormon practice by the year. “I don’t think of this as a doomsday thing, but rather an emergency insurance policy,” says Candy Lesher, a former restaurant owner, culinary instructor and devout Catholic. “Three times now it’s ‘saved’ us.” She has maintained a well-stocked larder for more than 25 years, and relied on her food reserves to feed her family when she lost her job, when cancer struck, and when she broke her ankle and couldn’t drive for six months. “It’s really empowering to know I can take care of my family because of my larder,” she says.
Lesher converted a small bedroom into a walk-in pantry with stainless steel shelving and large plastic bins filled with dry goods and cans. A yellow notepad lists the contents inside each of the eight bins. Long ago she invested in a grain grinder and her favorite recipe is cornbread made from freshly ground popcorn. Her dehydrator cranks out gourmet kale chips flavored with brewer’s yeast. Her current supply of food, which she admits is “low for me,” would get her and her husband through two months.
Lesher doesn’t think of herself as a “prepper,” nor does she fit the stereotypical profile: someone who stores all manner of gear and supplies – including firearms – in the event of a disaster, natural or otherwise. She keeps her dedicated pantry stocked because she has experienced heartbreaking and humbling personal setbacks and her supply of food was a godsend.
But “prepping” is certainly trending. While definitive data is lacking, the number of self-identified preppers appears to be growing based on the sheer number of companies and blogs catering to them. Prepper Fest Expo (prepperfestaz.com), a biannual trade show in Arizona since 2013, markets itself with the tagline “It’s not for doomsday, it’s for EVERY day.” Typically, up to a third of all exhibitors sell some type of long-term food storage. The most recent expo, held at WestWorld of Scottsdale last October, featured a handful of mainstream food suppliers, including DeCio Pasta, a local dried pasta company.
And the trend only appears to be picking up with every Class 5 hurricane landfall, Ebola outbreak and Middle Eastern land-grab that gets splashed across cable news. Some fears represent credible threats to your security, some not so much. But they all serve to shift the collective conscience. More and more, keeping a healthy supply of food and water in case of social breakdown and service interruption is less often dismissed as paranoia, and more often embraced as common sense, especially in areas prone to natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.
Which invites a question that individual Mormons have faced for decades: Just how much food and water is reasonable to stash? And the answer is always the same: God only knows.
Food Storage Recipes
Cooking dynamically from a food storage pantry is challenging: How does one evade the tedium of pasta with tomato sauce, macaroni and cheese, beef stew and green bean casserole? With that in mind, we asked a couple of local chefs to provide some inspiration. The assignment: Come up with a recipe using only ingredients found in a traditional Mormon food storage supply.
Charleen Badman and Bernie Kantak rose to the challenge. Though not necessarily recipes you’d turn to in a state of emergency, these chef-developed dishes should provide inspiration and get your own creative juices flowing.
Chef Charleen Badman
FnB / The Bodega / AZ Wine Merchants
Known for coaxing the very best flavors from fresh, local vegetables, coming up with a dish made from food storage items was extremely challenging for Badman. After experimenting with a dozen different ingredients, the “veggie whisperer” chose something she is intimately familiar with – Hayden Flour Mills White Sonora wheat berries – and something she’d never seen before, freeze-dried asparagus, which surprised her. “The freeze-dried asparagus comes close to approximating the taste of fresh asparagus,” she says. “At least compared to some of the other [freeze-dried] vegetables I tried. The texture isn’t quite the same, but the flavor is good.”
Badman developed a Greek-inspired salad that should make any food lover happy.
Wheat Berry Salad with Asparagus,
Roasted Red Pepper & Sun-Dried Tomatoes
with Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette
Recipe by Chef Charleen Badman
Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette:
1⁄2 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons dried parsley
3 tablespoons preserved lemon, finely chopped
2 tablespoons dehydrated onions, reconstituted and minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon dried oregano
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Stir the first seven ingredients (vinegar through black pepper) together in a small bowl. Let sit for at least an hour for the flavors to develop, then slowly whisk in the olive oil. (Use a blender for a better emulsion).
Wheat Berry Salad:
1 pound wheat berries, cooked*
2 cups freeze-dried asparagus, reconstituted
1 jar (8.4 oz.) roasted red bell peppers, drained and julienned
1⁄2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and julienned
Toss the cooked wheat berries with just enough of the vinaigrette in a large bowl to coat the grains. Let sit for at least 30 minutes to allow the berries to absorb the dressing. Toss in the remaining ingredients. Taste the salad and season with more dressing (you may have some left over) and salt and pepper if desired.
*To cook wheat berries, start the night before by soaking the berries overnight, covered in cold water. Drain the berries and place in a large saucepan. Cover with enough fresh, cold water to rise a couple inches above the wheat berries. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer until tender, about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adding more water if necessary to keep berries covered. Drain and rinse berries under cold water to remove excess starch. Drain berries before proceeding with recipe.
Chef Bernie Kantak
Citizen Public House / The Gladly
Kantak regularly tells people to go to Honeyville Farms to purchase freeze-dried corn, a key ingredient in his famous Original Chopped (née Stetson) salad. “I think I use freeze-dried products more than other chefs. I use a porcini mushroom powder for crusting a filet, and I make cream of corn with both fresh and freeze-dried corn. It makes the ‘corniest’ flavored creamed corn,” he says. Kantak took some liberty with his food-storage dish, choosing beef short ribs, but since fresh meat can be frozen for up to a year, it still fits the spirit of cooking from the long-term supply.
Porcini-Crusted Short Ribs with Corn Grits and Fig & Raisin Compote
Recipe adapted from Chef Bernie Kantak
21⁄2 to 3 pounds boneless short ribs
1⁄4 cup ground porcini mushroom powder*
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil (or olive oil blended with canola oil)
Whisk the mushroom powder with the salt and rub generously all over the short ribs. Heat the oil in a skillet over high heat until oil shimmers but isn’t smoking. Working in batches, sear ribs until dark brown on top and bottom, about three minutes per side. Remove ribs from pan and cool for about 10 minutes.
Tightly wrap about four ribs at a time in plastic wrap, and then in foil. You will have about three or four packages. Place in a roasting pan in a single layer and place in an oven heated to 300 degrees. Roast until the meat is tender, about five hours. Remove from the foil and the plastic wrap. Break ribs into chunks with a fork. To serve, spoon 3⁄4 cup of grits in the center of a plate. Top with short ribs and a spoonful of compote.
* To make 1⁄4 cup porcini mushroom powder, take 11⁄4 ounces of freeze-dried porcini mushrooms and grind in a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder) until very fine.
4 cups water
3⁄4 cup medium-coarse ground cornmeal
1⁄4 cup powdered instant milk
1⁄2 cup freeze-dried corn
11⁄4 teaspoons salt
Bring water to a rolling boil in a large saucepan. Meanwhile, stir the remaining ingredients together in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk the cornmeal mixture into the boiling water. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, whisking frequently to make sure the grits don’t stick to the bottom of the pan, especially during the last 10 minutes of cooking. Cook until the mixture is thick and the grits are tender, about 25 minutes.
Fig & Raisin Compote
1⁄2 cup apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 cup apple juice
1⁄2 cup dried figs, de-stemmed and quartered
1⁄2 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon dehydrated onions
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the compote is thick and syrupy, about 15-18 minutes. Cool before serving.
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