On the Problem of Food Storage and Hoarding

Food pantry before and after.

If there’s one thing that life in this bungalow has taught me is that what we call “minimalism” is simply the way people lived in the 1920s. The original inhabitants of this house made do with one small closet and a few built-in cabinets. If there’s another thing I’ve learned it’s that building additional storage always leads us down the path of over-consumption.

If the Food Network ever makes a foodie hoarder reality show, we could have been on an episode thanks to the shelves we added to the utility room. Those shelves quickly filled with aspirational but never used ingredients such as tapioca flour as well as mediocre food preservation projects that I just couldn’t admit defeat on.

Our kitchen’s ample built-in cabinets.

When it came time for our painters to work on the utility room we decided to take down the shelves and try to live with the storage built for the original inhabitants of this house. Now I’ve noticed that when I go to the market I’m more conscious of the choices I make knowing that we don’t have the room for ingredients that won’t get used much.

Transportation nerds have a phrase for this phenomenon, “induced demand.” Build extra lanes for a freeway and those lanes will fill to capacity and you’ll end up with worse traffic jams than the ones you thought you were preventing. The same goes for storage space. Built it and you’ll end up with a lot of crap you don’t need.

Of course, if I followed this pre-WWII logic to its extreme, I’d have to start dressing more sharply and stop walking around what, in the 1920s, wouldn’t even pass for pajamas. Hey Kelly where did I put my spats?

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  1. “Hoarding” is a pajoritive term that gets tossed around a lot these days. It’s important to discern the difference between having piles of useless disorganized crap that reduce the functionality of a space vs. keeping a generous supply of life essentials on hand in a society that has moved to highly leveraged hyper efficient just-in-time three day global supply chains.

    I maintain a deep pantry with a year’s supply of food – almost all of it basic natural ingredients and home made preserves. I also have a generous supply of water on hand for earthquakes.

  2. I thought that having a good amount of food storage was part of having an urban homestead – an important part of resiliency and efforts towards self-sufficiency?

  3. My desire to have a pared down, minimalist kitchen is at constant war with my desire to shop in bulk and cook all of my household’s meals rather than eat out. Right now the latter urge is winning.

  4. I’m not going to jump on the blame wagon here, because I’ve done some of what Erik is talking about. I’m not paranoid about sell-by dates, but when I come across something in the pantry with a sell-by date of 2010 or so, I’m gonna toss it. Especially when you are a household of two or one, your good intentions can outrun your consumption rate.

  5. All my stuff get rotated and I pay attention to the BB date. I like to have a supply of food because as others have noted, warehouses are not keeping the supply they used to. It would not take much to find them empty. We were always being reminded to ‘Be Prepared’ and I’ve learned only to buy things that I know I will eat and enjoy. I really only need the space my home came with and a small freezer in the garage for grains. But I do know the lure of thinking you will make a batch of something, buying the ingredients, and then not doing it. I am trying to get my act together and not make more work for myself.

  6. I think it depends upon where you live and the availability of public transportation (not near where I live). Shopping opportunities near me aren’t great for organic and bulk foods. Also, experiences with gasoline shortages due to hurricanes have impacted my decisions about food storage.
    Aside from certain perishables, I keep several month’s worth of food on hand. I can and freeze produce from my garden and keep bulk items such as dried beans.

  7. Because I’m in the UK I’m actually doing the opposite, however…
    I am consciously buying and storing ingredients that we’ll actually eat and trying to use up those half-empty packets of obscure foods that seemed like a good idea at the time,
    And I am very aware that most of the available storage in my kitchen is not filled by food, so that is something I’m working on.

  8. I’ve been noticing a trend in people who have been at this DIY / self-sufficiency game for a little while, including myself. First, we learn one skill and are so excited we way, way overdo it. I’m just looking at 3/4s of the fruit preserves ever made out there. Second, knowing we cannot subsist on fruit preserves alone, we learn every other skill we can possibly fit into the course of a few years. We learn a lot. We make a ton of mistakes. We have to clean up those mistakes. (I have two carboys of wine sitting in a closet….for like three years….it’s about time to deal with those. I just threw out probably about $1000 of yarn that languished over the course of years of improper storage and fell apart. Sad.) Then, once we’ve figured out what we’re actually good at and what we actually use in our lives, we pare it back. I can a batch of strawberry preserves, some meats and stews, and lots and lots and lots of stock. That’s what I eat. That’s all I need. This has taken about 12 years to come full circle. Lots of really interesting projects in between but I’m getting better at not completely going down a new rabbit hole. Pick and choose.

  9. Did you know that they did store most of thoer food in the 1920’s in a root cellar or their cold basments? So yes they had a small simple kitchen, but kept the bulk of their homemade canned food in the basement. Even to the seventies people still did this.
    Mainly people made meals from scratch. So they needed a lot of food storage.

    • I wish we had a basement. Unfortunately, most houses in Southern California, even old ones, don’t have basements. I think they were in too much of hurry to build houses here and, since there is no frost line, you don’t have to dig down far for the foundation.

  10. Daily food delivery by wagons/trucks was common in the 20’s – bread, milk, meat, produce, etc.

    • Good point. There were also more markets in walking distance from the house in the 1920s.

  11. Something that hasn’t been mentioned yet — in the event of an event that halts transportation (earthquake, etc) no only will people be unable to drive to the store, the store won’t be getting deliveries from their warehouses. We saw this in the winter of 1996-97, when our area had its first-ever ice storm. Everyone, be sure you have stores of EVERYTHING you may need for a two-week period, including flashlight batteries, water containers and a water filter, a Coleman stove and ample fuel bottles, and stored food that doesn’t need to be cooked.

    • Not only that but without electricity there will be no service at the gas stations or at the stores when registers are down. No credit card machines either. We really need to retain/learn the knowledge of how to take care of ourselves and each other.

  12. Not only do you need spats. You also need a hat, gloves, a walking cane and some makeup to give you those shiny, bright red cheeks. I guess those are blushes due to the embarrassment of walking around looking like a dweeb!

  13. As a homesteader and striving to be a self sufficient one, I grow quite a bit of my own fruits and vegetables from one season to the next season season. That takes a considerable amount of space. I also bulk buy sugar, flour, and other staples the same way…once a year. I do not waste my money on buying and storing things I don’t need or use. Of course to do this it took a careful examination of what I did need in a year. Running back and forth to the grocery store is a waste of time and resources.

  14. I can sort of relate. I once went through my numerous cookbooks and chose interesting recipes I was going to cook. I bought all the weird ingredients. The majority of them sat there without being used for years.
    However I do still maintain a considerable supply of food. And not because we have storms or floods or fires or fuel shortages. Might be a childhood trauma throwback thing
    Claire in Melbourne

  15. Pantry management can be a challenge indeed. More space, ergo more stuff– true enough, but that does not mean, however, that a pantry is not a necessity. My sense is, many houses built in 20th c California lack storage space for food and, of course, many people fill up what storage space they have — attic, garage– with all sorts of nonsense & whatnot.

    In my experience, yes, it’s easy to accumulate “aspirational clutter”– to borrow the term from Karen Kingston– all those cans and pretty bottles and things for cooking projects that just don’t happen. (Ah, wishful thinking meets modern marketing!) And I do believe that it’s a good idea to get rid of this stuff– Kondo now!!– and better yet, not accumulate it in the first place. (Easier said than done, however: grocery stores know their customers weaknesses.)

    Also, without (1) adequate storage space in one’s pantry, plus (2) good organization, and (3) a shopping list, it’s also easy, as one wanders up and down the aisles, to toss things into the cart that, lo and behold, one already has, gathering dust somewhere in there…

    Earthquakes happen. So do ferocious storms, power outages from mysterious snafus in the electric grid, & etc. & etc., and having food, water and other necessaries on hand so that, for a period of anything few days to a couple of weeks, one need not leave the house, waste time in long lines or, possibly, encounter empty store shelves, seems to me a mighty fine idea.

    I recall that Johnny over at Granola Shotgun had an excellent post on storing such supplies safely and in limited space.

    PS All those itsy bottles of spices and dried herbs are the devil for clutter. My own solution is counterintuitive. I poured them into large 1 cup jars and placed them prominently on open shelves at an easy reach just above the counter. So I see what I have! And I use it! If I am not willing to give a spice or dried herb a big jar and space on the open, easy-to-reach shelves, then the heck with it.

  16. First of all, that window allowing light in should have a heavy curtain so not a bit of light reaches food in jars. Light, time, and heat are the enemies of food.

    I think your response is a backlash from seeing the food you neglected. That neglect is your fault. Instead of throwing out the baby (good idea) with the bathwater (old food), maybe you should concentrate on your fixing your mistakes and store food more judiciously.

    I cannot believe you took out that storage space! You cannot live like people in the 1920s. They were not minimalists. They just lived without a dozen electric units to chop and mix food. They had a spoon or a hand mixer to stir cake batter instead of a choice of items. Either our luxuries did not exist or were too expensive.

    My mother mixed homemade cakes with a big spoon or non-electric, hand-held mixer until 1966. She could not even afford a small handheld mixer. THEN, she got a high-quality and high-priced stand mixer. Our fortunes changed for the better.

    They did not choose minimalism. That was all there was or the people of the 1920s could not afford them.

    Did you notice the price of wool suits?

    • Indeed, the light coming in from the windows (even though they are mostly north facing) was a problem with this pantry arrangement. And, yes, kitchen gadget proliferation is a another problem.

  17. I related a lot with this post. In the past few years more storage lost its appeal and we seem to have adapted to the space we have, which it must be pointed out, should be measured in cubic meters rather than square (we live in a tall building and I love using parts of it right to the ceiling). But with the kitchen storage… oh yeah. We don’t have the time, energy or interest to a more varied diet than we have, so more gadgetry and crockery is a nuisance and not a benefit.

    And unlike what seems most people here I (relatively) advocate against food storage: We live in the heart of the city and with farmers markets every week within walking distance. Forcing ourselves to go purchase fresh food weekly makes our diet fresher, more adapted to seasons and more varied. But of course, it really depends on where we live and the rhythm of our lives

  18. I too can relate to this. I have two pantries, one new smallish one in the remodeled kitchen, a walk in one, and a root cellar (100 year old rural Aussie house). I went a little nuts and filled them in a way no woman with three young kids should. Live and learn. I don’t believe there is a right and wrong way per se, but a thoughtful approach to what works best for one’s own situation, garnered over time is best. Shame there was so little guidance for us folk coming of age in the 80’s. Glad to see that knowledge being sought after again

    I also need a kitchen gadgets anonymous group.

  19. One of the first posts I can remember from Root Simple was about securing that food storage wall because if an earthquake happened all the jars would end up on the floor.

    And I’m right there with you: More storage is not the solution to clutter, hoarding, or whatever one wants to call excessive material objects–food or otherwise. More storage space just encourages more junk. I think its cool you’re revamping your home to its original glory.

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