Preppers How Much Food is Enough? (Estimates Based on Historical Events)

How Much Food Should a Prepper Have?

M. Roberts

A question that is commonly asked among preppers is “How much food should I store?”  There is no single answer which can fit the needs of all, for each prepper has different income levels and storage space.  Some may be responsible for feeding more than one person while others live in the midst of an abundant natural food supply.  How well one intends to eat during a crisis is another indiscernible factor which will vary from person to person.

Since no two food storage plans will be identical among preppers perhaps the better question to ask is, “How long will the coming crisis last?”  If we knew how long a future crisis would last then each prepper could calculate how much of their food would be needed to endure that crisis.  Obviously, no one can foresee the future to retrieve the answer to this question, but I think studying history can help us make some calculated decisions.

Most periods of food shortage since the year 1900 lasted only 1-2 years while some of them lasted 3-4 years.  Not very many of them lasted five years or more, but there were a few times in the last century when a food shortage crisis lasted a full decade.

In Russia, there were several factors which caused a prolonged period of food shortages which killed millions of people.  One of those factors was war, both WWI (1914) and the Russian Revolution (1918-1920).  During Russia’s civil war, opposing groups lived off the land while also stealing food from the farmers who grew it.

That food was distributed among allied friends and denied to enemy neighbors.  A drought in 1921 only made food more scarce for everyone, including farmers who would often consume seed grain rather than plant it.

Despite relief efforts, the famine was still widespread in 1923.  Overall, the people were desperate (to various degrees) for food for almost an entire decade.  This famine is considered to be one of the worst in Russian history.

The worst period of famine in Cambodia occurred between 1970-1979, also a full decade.  Civil war, brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge regime, and invasion by Vietnam all contributed to prolonging this time of food shortage which killed upwards of two million people.

Also in the last century, the world saw a period of food scarcity during the Great Depression which began in 1929.  High unemployment with a poor national economy kept many citizens in a rut of financial depression, especially those who lived in the southern U.S. “Dust Bowl” states.

Food of various quantities and qualities was still available, but many couldn’t afford it and millions starved to death.  Some regions recovered more quickly than others, but overall this economic depression lasted a full decade.  So far as American history is concerned, the Great Depression is considered to be one of the darkest moments of the last 100 years.

If three of the worst food shortages of the past century are known to have lasted a full decade then I think we can be fairly confident in using that duration as a high-end estimate guideline for future preparations.  One could go back further in time to find longer periods of famine such as the Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648), but the modern world no longer resembles much of anything from the Renaissance period.  Storing enough food to survive independently for additional years beyond one decade would have been considered overkill in retrospect of every food shortage crisis in history since the year 1900.

Based on history we can also know the cause of our next food shortage crisis will likely be associated with drought, internal and external political conflict, or extremely poor economic conditions.  Drought happens unpredictably virtually everywhere while the world had enjoyed very few years of peacetime since WWII.  Of course, the economic conditions worldwide leave a lot to be desired at the moment so all three causes are a concern even now.

Further, some believe this nation will experience another civil war in the not-so-distant future as well as a more severe national economic collapse.  If such predictions prove true in a worst-case scenario it would be wise to expect a repeat of what happened in Russia when nearly everyone was living off the land and consuming every available natural resource while the stolen crops of farmers never reached the marketplace.  Having a good food storage plan in place can help ensure basic survival until the day more prosperous times return, as modern history suggests time and time again that they will, even within a decade.

Regardless of how much food of different varieties and quantities a person has set aside, during a crisis, they will experience three phases as it concerns the usage of their food supply:

Phase One (measured in days and weeks which will vary from person to person):  Fresh food items from the refrigerator and freezer foods will be consumed first, especially if electrical power is unreliable, as well as canned and boxed food from kitchen cabinets and pantry shelves.

People will continue to acquire food from available suppliers (stores, farmers) and natural sources (fishing lakes, hunting grounds) for as long as possible.  In many cases, the crisis will be over before emergency foods stocks have to be tapped, but otherwise, the person will move on to Phase Two.

Phase Two (measured in weeks and months up to 2 years):  The diet of a person relying on emergency food stocks includes much heavier reliance on canned goods which have a shorter shelf life.  Some dry goods will also be consumed for more balanced nutrition.  Using food grown at home (e.g. fruits, vegetables, rabbits, chickens) can help conserve some of those canned goods, but know your trees, gardens, and animal cages will likely be a target of hungry thieves.

If your property is relatively safe from such intruders then make the best use of your harvest to prevent waste.  If no fruit-bearing trees and bushes were planted in advance of the crisis then this would be the time to begin transplanting them from the wild onto your private land. The daily diet should not be what it once was simply because food rationing efforts should be in place, but also to avoid appearing to be fat by comparison to those around you who are suffering from malnutrition.

Starving people will take notice and they will come looking for your food.  Assuming a decent stockpile existed from the start, there is a very good chance the crisis will be over by the time the last can of food is opened.  Otherwise, the person moves on to Phase Three.

Phase Three (measured in months and years up to one decade):  Most of the common canned goods will have expired, although some will still be edible despite some deterioration in quality of contents.  There is probably very little variety left in the pantry beyond dry goods such as beans, rice, and grain.  It’s not much, but a good number of people would have already died from starvation simply because they did not have even this much.

Long-term storage foods such as MRE’s (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) and freeze-dried foods would be extremely useful during this phase.  Many of the fruit-bearing bushes and trees which were transplanted onto your property during Phase Two will start to produce during Phase Three and any food produced at home can supplement or even replenish the dwindling stockpile.  This will include gathering dandelions from the lawn to make soup as well as other unusual recipes we may have heard our grandparents talk about.

Some people will begin to relocate during this time period in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere.  They may or may not succeed in their quest, but if they do leave for good then acquire any valuables they leave behind such as clothing, furniture, combustible materials, and items which would be useful for trade.  (If this feels too much like “stealing” for your liking then make arrangements with them in advance to “clean out” their abandoned home for free.)

Based on history, the odds are extremely good that life will be getting better long before your supply of dry goods are completely exhausted.  Otherwise, you’ll likely have outlasted most everyone around you and learned how to adapt in ways which will ensure your ongoing survival.

Obviously, most people would not be eating quite as healthily during Phase Three as they were during the first two phases, but they would still have far more than anyone had during the Great Depression.  Even so, the odds of remaining in Phase Three for more than a few years is very small based on a study of history.  There is no guarantee a future crisis won’t last longer than a decade, but it’s highly unlikely based on 100 years worth of history which saw many incidents of food shortages around the world.

Returning to our original questions of “How much food should I store?” and “How long will the coming crisis last?”, I believe we can draw some reasonable conclusions from history which can be applied to the future.  History tells us a two-year supply of canned goods (plus some dry goods for better nutrition) would have been enough to endure roughly 80% of all past food shortages.  Unfortunately, due to limited shelf life, most canned food can be expected to begin deteriorating after two full years.

If we want to plan for a longer duration then long-term storage foods need to be part of the mix as well.  Having another two years’ worth of long-term storage foods (dry goods, MRE’s, and freeze-dried foods) would have enabled a person to fully endure about 90% of all food shortages in the last century.

To have such a stock on hand today in preparation for a future crisis would be a tremendous accomplishment!  Most would be content at this level of preparation, but some will want to go the full distance of ten years.

Having only an additional six years’ worth of long-term storage foods would have enabled one to fully endure all of the worst food shortages we’ve experienced in the last century.  Again, there is no guarantee the next crisis will be limited to a duration of ten years or less, but that it will be is a good bet I’d be willing to make based on a study of history going back more than a century.

Ponder the past and prepare for the future by building a food supply which fits your own personal needs knowing you have learned from history which often does repeat itself.


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 21,382 other subscribers


  1. Good article. I would add seeds to grow greens, carrots, and beets inside or raised beds/contains next to house or among landscaping for nutrient value.

  2. As with most long term food (up to 25 yr) you have to mix with warm water for a duration
    before eating. I would only imagine any kind of fire would draw attention in a long term
    shtf situation. With this kind of quantity of food we are going to have to have many a cache
    to store this. Any help on how to cloak the smell of this nasty food. (sarc) Was going to build
    a root cellar with block, but have since decided to try 18 by 30 sandbag material and try
    smaller storage around property. Has anyone tried this option? All the best.

  3. Good article. Thank you for doing your research. Without any research on my part, I planned on 2 years of food storage for shtf time, along with plenty of seeds and fruit trees and foraging. Each person who wants to plan needs to know about foraging in their particular area/region. Where I live (southeast Arizona), foraging is much different than where I grew up (Missouri). Gardening is also much different. Don’t wait until the shtf, start learning and doing now, gardening and foraging are not easily learned or done.

  4. Thank you for a historical perspective on food n survival.

  5. According to the Department of Agriculture, “What about the foods in your pantry? Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). ”

    There is no legal requirement to add a “best if used by” date to a can of food. A “best by” date is simply a guarantee by the manufacturer that the product is as good as it was the day it left the factory. Many people do not understand this and toss food that would otherwise be quite edible.

    I do not recall ever seeing a can of vegetables that had a “best if used by” date that was less than 2 years from the date I bought it.

    The same can be said for antibiotics. The Pentagon is currently saving millions of dollars each year by ignoring manufacturers’ expiration dates that were arbitrarily established. Obviously, these manufacturers have incentives to sell more of their products which they can do by establishing an expiration date that is short. The same can be said for food manufacturers.

    In brief, if the can is intact without bulging, if the contents look good, if the contents smell good, then it is highly likely that the contents will be edible. With time, the nutritional content may have diminished, but the very important caloric value will still be there. Cure any nutritional deficiency with a vitamin pill each day which you have wisely stored in advance.

    If you are unsure about the contents of a can, try a small part of the contents and wait several hours to see what happens in order to be sure. In a serious survival situation, taking the Whole Foods approach and eating fresh everyday will not be an option.

  6. By the way, in the 1970s, my brother who was in the Army Guard at the time, was issued canned rations that were stamped “1944.” He’s still alive and kickin’.

    I have a great deal of canned goods stored for use in tough times. Maybe three years ago, I became suspicious of some cans of Spam that were a few years old. I cannot say that the contents were compromised because Spam comes in rather flimsy cans with thin walls to begin with. In any event, because I thought that there might be a bit too much swelling, in order to be safe, I tossed the cans.

    The only actual can failure that I have experienced with canned goods was with canned tomatoes. The contents ate through the metal wall of the can. I seem to recall that these were off-brand tomatoes. I have noticed that name brand products come in better cans with thicker walls and with, perhaps, superior interior coatings. Given the high acidic value of canned tomatoes, it is not particularly surprising that it was a can with this product that failed.

    I came across cans in the garage a couple of years ago (yes, stored in the worst possible place) from Y2K. I tossed them all last year, as there is a limit as to what I am willing to risk. I’m not crazy.

    It is noteworthy that a can of air-dried fruit from the 80s that was also stored in the garage since then was still very edible.

    • Some canned meats, salmon, tuna fish might not be good to eat but could be as bait to hunt over if you have critters around. When I go through my pantry and find such I open them and cast them around my tree stand locations for some target varmint practice.

  7. Thanks for great article.
    I agree with having seeds on hand. More importantly, begin gardening now. You should also begin raising animals now. Both of these require work and experience to do successfully. You must take the animals’ feed and care into consideration when planning. Just about the time I think I have everything I need for them, something else comes up. But I’m in better shape now than I was last year, and I hope I’m in even better shape next year. It’s an ongoing process. Having dairy goats and cheese making supplies has been a good addition to my preps. Constant learning is key.

  8. Having a lot of experience w/ agriculture, I am making what are called “Tower Gardens”, (just not the expensive fancy commercial types selling for 500+ bucks and running on electricity.) You can find out more info on line by looking up tower gardens. Basically, they are 30 or 55 gallon plastic drums, filled w/ a soil mix and worms and compost. In a four foot area you can grow 40+ vegetables to your liking. Check it out, the easiest, cleanest, and best way to protect your food from predators, 2 or 4 foot.

  9. GregM.

    I would really enjoy taking you out and showing you some amazing foraging possibilities here- since early 80s been in SE AZ *douglas/elfrida/sierra vista/Wilcox/sonoita etc.,*

    Email me, I enjoy meeting new good people

  10. Pat Lucas, if you put a 4″ PVC pipe with holes drilled in it in the center you can drop food waste down that and bam- winner winner

  11. Yes Jesse, you are correct. Lots of pioneers listed their innovations on this method. fyi: One of the the latest I’ve seen is collecting the “tea” from the bottom of the sump and then adding it on top of the soil mix to recycle the nutrients. I am excited on finishing mine and setting them up. I think it’s the best way to grow veggies compactly for the highest yields per square foot. Living in the Northeast, I am going to install castors on mine and plan on wrestling the 30 gallons drums to inside our house in the Fall to hopefully extending the growing season inside for as long as I can. I’ve been blessed to have a nice south exposure. Praise God. Stay tuned!

  12. I really don’t, but here is a 25 words or less, if you want to use it:

    1. Use either 30 or 55 gallon plastic drums.
    2. Usually available free from car washes or soda mfg’s.
    3. cut 1/2 moon holes in the sides, off set from the one above w/ a sawz all or dermal. (spelling!)
    4. Use a heat gun or propane torch on the 1/2 moons and then bend down to create an opening in the side of the drum to support the plant.
    5. cut a small hole in the lowest part of the bottom of the drum for drainage.
    6. get a 4″ PVC pipe, drill a bunch of 1/2″+/- holes in sides, and then install vertically inside the middle of the drum, held in place by the soil mix.
    7. Fill the drum w/ a good soil organic mix and water to settle.
    8. Add worms to the mix and then scrapes down into the PVC pipe and let the worms do their work.
    9. Add germinated plants (heirloom variety) from the outside of the drum into each 1/2 moon slit.
    10. Water and recycle the “tea” from the bottom from the sump.

    Tons of stuff on line, just look up tower garden.

    • Pat, I really appreciate the tower garden info. My lot is about the size of a postage stamp but larger than most townhome lots. Though small, there are all sorts of things that can be grown; I already have mint, wild strawberries, assorted other low maintenance items. Using the tower garden method would really expand my possibilities.

  13. Thanks.

  14. Great. Check things out on line. TONS of info. Keep in touch!

  15. The author mentions, “… most people would not be eating quite as healthily during Phase Three as they were during the first two phases”. I think the opposite. Once the heavily processed and nutrient poor prepared foods that are common in today’s diet are gone, people will transition to simpler whole unprocessed food sources that are in fact healthier. One would be well advised to transition sooner rather than later. Simple low cost long term storable bulk commodities like grains and legumes supplemented by foraged greens are a healthier alternatives to the crap common in western diets today. Transition now. Your health will improve, famine or not.

  16. Start things now. Fruit trees take years to grow and give you fruit. Berries also need time. We have Sheep and Chickens, egg layers. A pond full of fish. And a large garden 50 x 100 ft. seven 50′ rows.
    All this will only supplement the put away food. Learn how to can. Fish, meat and all kinds of thins can be canned.

    Good Luck

  17. Don’t wait for desperate times to try eating dandelions. Given good soil and water, the leaves grow big and lush (not like what you see growing from cracks in the sidewalk), and are especially good cooked in omelets. The central rib is tough, so slice it out before cooking the tender leaves. As perennials, they’ll keep coming back year after year, with spring harvests much earlier than anything else. Their deep roots will bring up nutrients (and water) that other plants won’t reach. You know that they’re good, because the rabbits, groundhog, and deer devour them.

    Also, mark every item in the pantry with its purchase date, then rotate your stock. Eventually, everything you eat from your deep pantry will be a year or two old.

    The simplest rule for “how much do I need?” is one that I heard from the host at a historic English monastery: one pound of wheat (flour) per day per monk. 4 kCal per gram =~ 2000 calories per pound, which is reasonable unless doing heavy labor. If you’re just counting calories (with vitamins and minerals coming from canned goods and foraging), it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s wheat, sugar, flour, pasta, rice, or dry beans: 350 lbs. per person per year. (2000 kCal/day would qualify as a ~25% restriction on typical American dietary habits, according to, and would have significant health benefits.)

  18. For urban folks with little storage space, I would add that “sprouting” seeds are both space-saving and dual purpose–fresh organic veggies in three days, any time of year, not requiring sunlight or soil…plus, depending on the type, you could plant some of them. For dark & cold winter areas, a supply of Vitamin D pills, and for inland areas with no seaweed access, a supply of iodized salt or iodine pills would be a good idea. All of the above can be kept fresh by just rotating it through the current weekly menu, & just storing extra.

  19. Thank you

  20. This is excellent info, thank you. For people who question the quality of their food storage(is it expired, can I still eat it, etc…) Here is a great website for not what the dates say on the package but for how long it will actually last. I use it all of the time and also keep hand written notes so if and when shtf and modern society, including down grids, happens I still have the resource to look into without the internet. Hope this site helps anyone who isn’t sure on what they should keep. Also has a lot of great tips and articles.