This time last year, we had apples stacked on the kitchen table, in baskets on the dining room floor, an mounded beside the cutting board. Some were snacked on fresh, crisp and sweet, but most were packed in canning jars as apple sauce or pile filling to be lined up in neat rows in the cupboard and savored in the dead of winter.
We had visions of similar abundance and activity this year, but it was a bad year for apples. A late frost wiped out nearly the entire crop across our region. You can still buy apples at the grocery store, of course, shipped in from across the country compliments of our sprawling food supply system, but the cost of everything apple related is through the roof.
It's rare in this day and age for people to have such a stark reminder of the precipitous uncertainty of the harvest. We're so used to grocery stores with overflowing shelves that we forget people we were once dependent on the weather and other variables beyond their control for sustenance and life. With the recession still lingering, people are particularly aware this year of changes in the food supply as they can't just smooth over it with extra cash as they have in the past.
It isn't just apples, either. Last spring was poor for maple syruping, and only lingering stockpiles from the year before prevented an expensive shortage. We're already being quietly warned that the cost of beef and bacon will shoot up next year. With so many regions experiencing drought this past year, it isn't economical for producers to keep feeding their herds, so they're slaughtering early. While that will flood the market with cheap beef and bacon in the short term, it will lead to shortages and higher prices next season.
It's enough to make any one trying to eat well or on a budget (and doesn't that describe most of us?) worry themselves into an ulcer. What can we do?
While I certainly don't have all the answers, here are a few things that families can do to position themselves to better ride out tumultuous seasons in the food world. (And make no mistake - we'll be seeing more of them. Our current system is unsustainable, and although alternative systems are striving mightily to close the gap it will not be a smooth transition!)
1) Get a freezer and/or a canner. When windfalls, good sales or abundant harvests come you need to be able to take advantage of them! Freeze, can or otherwise preserve whatever you can. Food stored neatly and safely is peace of mind far better than money in a bank, because you can't eat money and it's value wavers - the value of good food only ever increases.
2) Learn to cook new things. It's rarely a bad year for everything, so while your preferred options may be in short supply you can still eat well if you branch out a little. It's not uncommon to find we dislike foods simply because we've never had them prepared well (or correctly). Consider focusing your experimentation largely on foods that are local to you - things you can pick up cheaply at the road side stand or grow yourself.
3) Change how you shop. Look for opportunities like CSA's, which require money up front but typically give you tremendous bang for your buck. Consider buying staples (like rice) in serious bulk - it's shelf stable, you know you'll use it, and you'll pay a lot less per pound buying it all at once. You may have to save up to make the purchase, but it will definitely pay off. Look for "seconds" and surpluses suppliers are willing to sell off at reduced rates (often found at orchards or farmers' markets near closing time).
4. Emphasize comfort food. There are two ways to do this. First, pass on the fancy, expensive meals when you're cooking at home in favor of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, old fashioned comfort food. It's economical and will make the "fancy food" feel all the more special when you do have it. Second, stock up on the things you aren't sure you'd function well without, whether its coffee or your favorite shampoo. Psychologically, it goes a lot further than you'd expect!
How do you handle bumps in the food supply?