Book Review: Food Security for the Faint of Heart

The Ethicurean

The potential for disaster surrounds us every day. The aftershocks of the earthquake in Haiti may seem too big for many Americans to grasp, but we too should have a plan for possible local emergencies such as severe storms that wipe out our power supply for days, earthquakes, long-term illness, or unforeseen personal economic crises. Because when something catastrophic does occur, food security becomes critical: how can you keep yourself and your family from going hungry when hard times hit?

Robin Wheeler explores that question in her book “Food Security for the Faint of Heart,” which emphasizes the need to bring control of our food supply back home through gardening, preserving food, stocking up on basics, supporting local growers and community organizations, and sharing with others when disaster strikes. Many of her reasons for encouraging people to develop this home-grown food security are familiar — the bumpy effects of the global economic crisis, the need to wean oneself from dependence on fossil fuels, and the desire to avoid GMOs and pesticides. She also stresses, however, the community-building aspects of keeping money local and becoming “a new community asset” through sharing skills and resources.

Less than a hundred years ago, Wheeler points out, maintaining home gardens, preserving food, and keeping a full pantry used to be merely common-sense planning, not tarred with the damning label of “stockpiling.” Homes of the time were built with “that wondrous space” — whether a pantry closet or a basement room or a root cellar — “where you just fling a door open and rows of cans and jars shine out at you.”  Despite the trend over the years away from such storage to quick-fix meals, she assures us that we, too, can become food secure.

A handful of chapters cover the obvious techniques of developing garden skills and preserving the back-yard harvest for winter, but Wheeler also goes further. To cover all the bounty provided by nature, she adds a chapter each for herbs, edible flowers, foraging, and medicinal plants, all useful categories to help people identify additional food (and emergency) resources when the usual ones have dwindled.  She also covers water storage (a vital but often overlooked part of emergency planning), buying pantry staples on a budget, and working with others in your community to spread the means to develop food security.

In each chapter, Wheeler offers plenty of ideas, to-do lists, and goals, opening readers’ eyes to the possibilities in community gardens, gleaning, sharing knowledge and tools with others, and more.  She encourages joining with friends and neighbors to pool diverse skills and to work cooperatively on projects such as building raised garden beds or compost bins, not to mention canning or drying an abundant harvest.  Instead of remaining at “the bottom of our food chain” and subject to the “choices” made for us by corporations, she says, we can choose to grow and cook our own food and to prepare ourselves for hard times in a way that “will actually make our world a better, safer place.”

While the book offers a sprightly overview of the topic of creating food security at the individual and community levels, it lacks depth in key areas. For example, I hope readers will exercise caution in embracing the chapter on canning: Wheeler offers information that is somewhat incomplete or questionable, including information on processing times, washing the food before canning, and storage.  (Her recommendation for home-canned goods -– “It is safe from bugs and mice, which means it can even be stored in a ratty old crawlspace” — ignores the fact that vacuum-sealed glass jars may not take kindly to the potential humidity or extreme temperature fluctuations found in such spaces.)  If you are looking for a real how-to introduction to food preservation, you’ll want to revisit our earlier review of some key canning, drying, and other preservation books. If you simply want to explore the ethics and the social implications of food security, though, Wheeler provides plenty of good ideas to consider.

“If I was dishing out advice,” Wheeler muses, “it would be to always plan for an emergency food supply several months before an unpredicted disaster. It would be much better if many people knew how to garden for themselves, and how to choose nutritious crops that last (or can be stored) over a long period.” Add to the pot knowing how to cook and preserve food, keep a well-stocked pantry, and work amiably with others in the community, and we can all cross food security off our list of worries that keep us up at night.