Food in a Disaster

If a hurricane or other disaster strikes your community, you might not have access to food, water, and electricity for days. By taking some time now to store emergency food supplies, you can provide for your entire family.

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What to do...

Emergency Food Supplies

Even though it is unlikely that an emergency would cut off your food supply for two weeks, consider maintaining a supply that will last that long.

You may not need to go out and buy foods to prepare an emergency food supply. You can use the canned goods, dry mixes, and other edible items on your cupboard shelves.

Be sure to check expiration dates and follow the practice of First-In, First-Out (FIFO). The FIFO method applies to frozen, refrigerated, and dry storage items. Label your food and put the older foods in front or on top so that you use them first.

Keep foods that:

  • Have a long storage life

  • Require little or no cooking, water, or refrigeration, in case utilities are disrupted

  • Meet the needs of babies or other family members who are on special diets

  • Meet pets' needs

  • Are not very salty or spicy, as these foods increase the need for drinking water, which may be in short supply

Make sure you have a manual can opener and disposable utensils.

How To Store Emergency Food
  • A disaster can easily disrupt the food supply at any time, so plan to have at least a 3-day supply of food on hand.

  • When storing food, it is not necessary to buy dehydrated or other types of emergency food. Canned foods and dry mixes will remain fresh for about 2 years.

  • Certain storage conditions can enhance the shelf life of canned or dried foods. The ideal location is a cool, dry, dark place.

    The best temperature is 40 to 60°F. Keep foods away from ranges or refrigerator exhausts. Heat causes many foods to spoil more quickly.

  • Keep food away from petroleum products, such as gasoline, oil, paints, and solvents. Some food products absorb their smell.

  • Protect food from rodents and insects. Items stored in boxes or in paper cartons will keep longer if they are heavily wrapped or stored in airtight containers.

  • Date all food items. Use and replace food before it loses freshness.

  • Open food boxes and other re-sealable containers carefully so that you can close them tightly after each use.

  • Wrap perishable foods, such as cookies and crackers, in plastic bags and keep them in sealed containers.

  • Inspect all food for signs of spoilage before use.

  • Throw out canned goods that become swollen, dented, or corroded.

Shelf Life of Foods For Storage

The following provides some general guidelines for replacement of common emergency foods.

Use within six months:

  • Powdered milk — boxed
  • Dried fruit
  • Dry, crisp crackers
  • Potatoes

Use within one year, or before the date indicated on the label:

  • Canned condensed meat and vegetable soups
  • Canned fruits, fruit juices, and vegetables
  • Ready-to-eat cereals and uncooked instant cereals
  • Peanut butter
  • Jelly
  • Hard candy and canned nuts
  • Vitamins

May be stored indefinitely (in proper containers and conditions):

  • Wheat
  • Vegetable oils
  • Dried corn
  • Baking powder
  • Soybeans
  • Instant coffee, tea, and cocoa
  • Salt
  • Noncarbonated soft drinks
  • White rice
  • Bouillon products
  • Dry pasta
  • Powdered milk — in nitrogen-packed cans

How To Use Emergency Food

  • Use perishable food in your refrigerator or freezer before using food in your emergency supplies.

  • Discard cooked, unrefrigerated foods after 2 hours at room temperature, regardless of appearance.

  • Eat only foods that have a normal color, texture, and odor.

  • Discard cans that bulge at the ends or that are leaking.

Preparing Food

Do not use your fireplace for cooking until the chimney has been inspected for cracks and damage. Sparks may escape into your attic through an undetected crack and start a fire.

If the electricity goes off:

Use perishable food from the refrigerator, pantry, garden, etc.

Use the foods from the freezer. To limit the number of times you open the freezer door, post a list of freezer contents on it.

In a well-filled, well-insulated freezer, foods will usually still have ice crystals in their centers (meaning foods are safe to eat) for at least two days. Check to make sure the seal on your freezer door is still in good condition.

Begin to use non-perishable foods.

When food supplies are low:

If activity is reduced, healthy people can survive on half their usual food intake for an extended period and without any food for many days.

Food, unlike water, may be rationed safely, except for children and pregnant women.

If your water supply is limited, don’t eat salty foods, since they will make you thirsty. Instead, eat salt-free crackers, whole grain cereals, and canned foods with high liquid content.

Nutrition tips:

During and after a disaster, it is vital that you maintain your strength. Remember the following:

  • Eat at least one well-balanced meal each day.

  • Drink enough liquid to enable your body to function properly (two quarts or a half gallon per day).

  • Take in enough calories to enable you to do any necessary work.
Include vitamin, mineral, and protein supplements in your stockpile to ensure adequate nutrition.

Food Safety After a disaster

To prevent foodborne diseases, wash your hands with clean water and soap before and after you eat or prepare food and after you use the bathroom.

If you do not have clean water, use waterless hand sanitizers until clean water is available for washing.

Do not eat any food that has not been sealed in waterproof containers (commercially canned or sealed plastic containers) and that may have come in contact with untreated water, such as seawater, floodwater, river water, or pond water.

Keep Food Fresh

  • If your power is out, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep in the cool air.

  • Put a block of ice in your refrigerator if you expect the power will be out for more than 4 hours. It will keep food cool longer. Wear heavy gloves when handling the ice.

  • Even if it's partially thawed, you can still cook or refreeze frozen food as long as you can see ice crystals or if it's still 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower.
Throw Out Spoiled Food

Get rid of food if it:
  • Is in a can that’s open, damaged, or bulging.

  • Has a strange smell, color, or texture.

  • Needs to be refrigerated but has been warmer than 40°F (degrees Fahrenheit) for 2 hours or longer. Foods that need to be kept cold include meat, eggs, fish, poultry, and leftovers.

  • Is food that rats, mice, or other animals may have touched.

  • Is food that you don’t know where it came from.

  • Is food that was canned at home.  
Throw out these things:
  • Bottles, jars, or cans with screw caps, snap lids, crimped caps (soda pop bottles), twist caps, and flip tops

  • Wooden cutting boards

  • Baby bottle nipples and pacifiers
Clean Off Canned Food

If you have cans of food that came in contact with floodwater or storm water, you need to clean them off to make sure they’re safe to use. 

Undamaged commercially canned foods can be saved. To get germs off the outside of the cans:
  • Remove the labels.

  • Dip the cans in a mix of 5 gallons of water and 1 cup of household bleach. Use bleach that does not have an added scent.

  • Label the cans with a permanent marker so you know what’s inside and the expiration date.
Clean things that touch food
  • Wear rubber boots, rubber gloves, and goggles.

  • Scrub surfaces like counter tops and tables with soap and clean water. Rinse. Wipe with a mix of 1 teaspoon of household liquid bleach in 1 gallon of water. Use bleach that does not have an added scent. Don’t rinse. Air dry.

  • Never mix bleach with ammonia or other cleaners. Open windows and doors to get fresh air when you use bleach.

Sources: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), American Red Cross, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)