We live in a complex world. Simpler times are clearly behind us.
Our nation's food system rests on a complicated network of farms, imports, and distributors with tight delivery timelines that could be thrown off by anything ranging from a drought to international politics.
What a difference 400 years makes.
Consider the "starving time" of Jamestown as an example of bad luck and bad weather leading to tragedy.
In the winter of 1609-1610, two out of three settlers in the Jamestown Colony died. A combination of poor leadership, a siege by a neighboring Indian tribe, and a disruption in the food supply caused a crisis so bad that the remaining 60 colonists found themselves eating shoe leather and facing accusations of cannibalism.
This is not an example of something that could never happen again! Let's take a moment to remember this colonial nightmare as it holds three valuable lessons for how to prepare for food shortages today.
Recipe for Disaster: Jamestown 1609
Let's start with a bit of pre-American history. In 1609, Jamestown was facing food shortages brought on by a seven-year drought, and worsened by Captain John Smith alienating the local Indian tribes who the community initially traded with. In July, hoping to prevent a crisis, the Virginia Company sent ships with food and supplies to hold the colony through the winter.
The best laid plans to prepare the colony for a hard winter in the New World, however, were thwarted by an unforeseeable disaster. The fleet of ships was torn apart by a hurricane. Later, Chief Powhatan put the colony under siege, ordering attacks on any people or livestock who ventured outside of the fort. The inability for the colonists to go out to hunt or forage exacerbated the ongoing food shortage.
As the winter drew on, the early colonists were weakened by the slow starvation, and disease started to take a toll on the community as well. As they grew more desperate, unable to grow, forage, or trade for more food, they started to butcher horses. Later forensic studies suggest that they may have even resorted to eating those who did not survive.
In May the following year, when ships finally arrived with new colonists and refreshed supplies, only 60 people remained in Jamestown, a population dwindled from over 300.
Modern food is still vulnerable to drought.
Obviously, some of the factors that led to the disaster in Jamestown do not apply to our modern food system. You probably are not concerned about your community being under siege (at least today). Yet, some factors of the Jamestown story are still very relatable. Our food system is vulnerable to weather events beyond our control (as our fellow patriots in the southeast have experienced with Hurricane Matthew), or to long-term challenges such as droughts.
Droughts strike creating shortages
Drought creates shortages
For example, the droughts that have troubled California and the southwestern states for years have led some farmers in Nevada and ranchers in New Mexico to give up on their crops or livestock. Others are forced to reconsider what crops they can grow on the limited water supply.
Although climbing prices at the grocery store are alarming enough, imagine if an event such as a major storm, an embargo, civil unrest or a famine disrupted the food supply entirely. As a society, we have become dependent on easily accessing a variety of fresh and packaged foods at the store. How prepared are we to handle a disruption in the food production or distribution systems that make this abundance possible?
Imported food poses other risks.
Imports of fish could halt
Increasingly, the food system in the United States relies on imports from other countries. About 50% of fresh fruit and 20% of vegetables are imported, while meat and seafood are also brought in from outside our borders.
Imagine if we suddenly had to rely only on what we grow domestically. If a political crisis or a natural disaster in one of the countries that supply our food caused a shortage, how long would it take for there to be a major run on goods at the supermarket?
Worst Case Scenario: Famine
On the other hand, what if food production in the United States failed completely? Famines are often caused by a natural disaster, economic crash or a bad harvest that spirals into an ongoing food crisis. In history, famines such as the Irish Potato Famine or others in India and Ethiopia have wiped out whole villages or caused mass migration.
For example, the famine in Ireland killed 1.5 million people, and prompted another 2 million to emigrate, many to the United States. All told, Ireland lost 25% of its population and the country's economy suffered for years afterward.
Famine often hurts the young and the elderly the most, leading to slow and painful death by starvation. And political turmoil can make a famine brought on by natural causes worse, as the competition over dwindling resources can lead to cruelty or in-fighting.
What should we learn from Jamestown?
Circling back to Jamestown, what could the settlers have done to prepare for the food shortage that came? The people of Jamestown might have thrived had they:
- Kept a larger store of food
- Promoted a more resilient food system by growing or raising their own crops and animals.
- Maintained good trading relationships.
Disaster hit not simply because they weren't prepared, but also because multiple support systems for the settlement failed.
- First, the drought ruined crops.
- Then, they were unable to trade.
- Finally, their imported food was shipwrecked.
Without enough emergency food stockpiled, their food production system was not resilient enough to see them through the winter.
3 Tips: Strive for food resilience and self-reliance.
Scientist Carole Deppe argues for "food resilience" and self-reliance, so that if the worst-case scenario becomes reality, you and your family can still feed yourselves nutritious meals that you will enjoy.
1. Prepare for the worst with emergency food supplies.
First, we recommend keeping a supply of emergency food. To lay the foundation, we believe it's best to have a 3-month emergency food supply for each adult on-hand. Look for a long shelf-life of up to 25- years. You can continue to add to your supplies, as your budget allows, and be prepared for short-term emergencies too.
2. Learn to garden.
Grow your own Patriot Garden
Keeping a patriot garden not only slashes your family's grocery costs during normal times, it also helps you prepare for the possibility of long-term food shortages. What you don't serve fresh, you can also preserve as sauces, jams, and other canned goods, ready to feed your family in an emergency.
Storing heirloom seeds, like those in our Survival Seed Vault, also promotes food resilience. These non-GMO, heirloom seeds can be stored for 5+ years, so in the case of a major food system disruption, you can grow your own produce. Starting a well-tended patriot garden can continue to feed your family year after year.
3. Don't just grow your own food; shop locally too.
Support your local farmer's market
Deppe also suggests prioritizing buying local foods when possible, to support local food resilience. Think of buying local (at a Farmer's Market event) as maintaining good contacts within your community in case of emergency.
If the settlers at Jamestown had fostered good relationships, they would have been able to trade with their neighbors for more supplies and a larger variety of food. When you shop your local farmer's markets or buy locally-sourced products such as honey, preserves, bread and meat, you create contacts with local farmers and artisans. You support small businesses and the health of your local food supply; and if a crisis hits, these relationships could give you an edge.
Prevent your own "starving time."
Just like the settlers in Jamestown, we can't know exactly what lies ahead. If history is any indication, however, food shortages will come again, whether they are brought on by bad weather, government actions or the more complicated problems of our modern food system. Rather than worrying about how you and your family would fare, take some time now to prepare a plan and get started storing food to get through any crisis that comes your way.
Ask yourself. Are you prepared to feed your family
in case of a food system disruption?
If the answer is no, our Patriot Advisers are standing by now at 866.229.0927 to walk with you along your preparedness journey.
Have a great weekend and stay alert, friends!
Elizabeth Anderson, Preparedness Adviser