But what do we really know about our food supply? The following are some references I gleaned from various places. Warning: this is a long post.
Let's start with canned goods.
From an undisclosed web site:
"Canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing. Canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture. Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures (75° F and below). Canned food as old as 100 years has been found in sunken ships and it is still microbiologically safe! We don't recommend keeping canned food for 100 years, but if the can is intact, not dented or bulging, it is edible."
Of course I don't know about the can of creamed corn I found in a rural cabin when I was nine. That was pure evil.
Here's the link to whole article: http://22.214.171.124/cpca/Planning_and_Preparedness/Individual_and_Family_Preparedness/Food_and_Water/Shelf_Life_Info.pdf
If the food in cans is still good, how about the way we eat now? How do our current eating habits prepare us for the PA world? This from Answers.com:
"Americans are more likely to recognize food products than the specific ingredients in the seemingly endless array of products on supermarket shelves (some supermarkets stock over forty thousand different items). Fast-food outlets—a McDonald's, Taco Bell, or a Subway sandwich shop—are more recognizable than a steer, hog, chicken, or a bushel of wheat.
"By the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. was unable to visualize the source of its food supply from an agricultural perspective, that is, in terms of basic food groups, because a majority no longer live on farms. Instead, food had become an endless array of food products typically found on supermarket shelves, especially those that stock over forty thousand individual items. Most such foods are processed and packaged, and few are sold in bulk as was common sixty years ago. Nearly all were shipped from distant places, packaged in large containers, transported to huge warehouse storage facilities close to cities and metropolises, and trucked from there to be unpacked and displayed on supermarket shelves.
"Consumers were working more, earning more, and willing to pay more for convenience and for appliances like the microwave, which made convenience foods more convenient. By the end of the twentieth century, only one in three U.S. consumers said their food budget was a primary consideration in food purchases, while the other two said service and convenience topped their list."
Only one in three. Here's a link to the whole article: http://www.answers.com/topic/food-supply-food-shortages
Wikipedia article on food supply systems:
"However, conventional food systems are largely based on the availability of inexpensive fossil fuels, which is necessary for mechanized agriculture, the manufacture or collection of chemical fertilizers, the processing of food products, and the packaging of the foods. Industrialized agriculture, due to its reliance on economies of scale to reduce production costs, often leads to the compromising of local, regional, or even global ecosystems through fertilizer runoff, nonpoint source pollution, and greenhouse gas emission. Also, the need to reduce production costs in an increasingly global market can cause production of foods to be moved to areas where economic costs (labor, taxes, etc.) are lower or environmental regulations are more lax, which are usually further from consumer markets."
More stats for the curious: Who goes hungry in the U.S. now?
From Bread for the World:
- 35.5 million people—including 12.6 million children—live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States (10.9 percent).
- 4.0 percent of U.S. households experience hunger. Some people in these households frequently skip meals or eat too little, sometimes going without food for a whole day. 11.1 million people, including 430 thousand children, live in these homes.
- 6.9 percent of U.S. households are at risk of hunger. Members of these households have lower quality diets or must resort to seeking emergency food because they cannot always afford the food they need. 24.4 million people, including 12.2 million children, live in these homes.
Wikipedia article on the food supply. Read the section on dictatorships and kleptocracies for the political causes of food insecurity and links to poverty.
What does it mean?
In my PA world (this is fiction, you know), in the absence of devastating nuclear or other global catastrophes, the capacity to grow food still exists, much as it did before. We are faced with a diminished human population which, in the near term, means that the existing food supply—canned and dry goods—are enough for a while. I don't know how long. Because all distribution networks have been interrupted, the food re-supply stops. In every community, especially in rural areas where some form of agriculture used to exist, people will attempt to grow food again almost immediately. With varying results. Old fossil-fuel-based farming methods no longer exist, so there would be a return to animal and human-based methods. This limits field size, but may increase diversity of crops. I don't know how long it would take for a community to be able to grow enough food to support itself—maybe three to five years, in temperate locations with decent rainfall. Maybe not in Scottsdale or Nome, Alaska. With intact communities who develop some farming success, I would guess that trade opportunities would grow as well. And with farming success and trade opportunities come the many ways other people can exploit and control the food source.
This where Madison, After begins. Ten years after the apocalypse, in a rural setting.
What I haven't been able to source is how long the US's existing food supply would last for our current population, if all distribution suddenly stopped. Two weeks? Three weeks? Longer? I'm not sure it can be calculated, given the different decay rates of perishables. If someone knows, please drop me a note.