Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What Do You Do With the Cold Food When the Power Goes Out?

This is another post in support of Emergency Preparedness Month here in the US. In addition to all the other emergencies that can occur, hurricane season is well upon us in this part of the world.  In the northern hemisphere, winter is around the corner. At some point one of these events (or something similar) will result in massive power outages that will affect thousands of people . Are you prepared to deal with a long term power outage? If the electricity is off for a few days (or longer) what will you do with the food in your refrigerator and/or freezer? 

I bet almost everyone has food in their freezer. If you only have a few items, you can probably eat them during your power outage and not lose any of the money you've spent on the food. If you have a very large freezer or a stand alone freezer that is full, you risk losing all your food unless you have a plan to deal with it when the power goes out. This post is designed to give you some ideas on how to minimize your potential food losses.
  • When the power first goes off, be sure to keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Unopened, your refrigerator/freezer will keep your food colder, longer than if you keep opening the doors. If possible, wrap the entire refrigerator or freezer in blankets to keep the cold in. I will admit this is easier for smaller units than the larger ones.
  • Use alternative sources to refrigerate/freeze your food. This is easy to do if it is winter outside. Anything that is in the freezer can be buried in the snow in your back yard to keep it frozen. You can also use the cold weather for a refrigerator.  Put the milk, butter and cheese in an ice chest and put that outside too. The ice chest will help protect the items inside from freezing, yet they will still remain cold. Don't forget to protect any food outside from animals (domestic or wild) that might live in your area. If you'd prefer to keep your food inside, you can always pack snow in gallon size plastic bags, put those bags in the ice chest and keep the chest inside the house with you. In the summer, if the power outage area is small, and you have friends who still have electricity, take the critical stuff to their house.
  • Get in the habit of filling jugs with water and placing them in the freezer as space allows.  This is especially important in summer. It is a standard practice at our house. When the power is out, a full freezer will stay colder longer than a half empty one. Also, you can place those frozen jugs of water in the refrigerator to turn it into an ice box like your great-grandmother most likely used. This will give you some additional time to implement Plan B. My Plan B is a massive canning effort so the food won't go to waste. As an extra bonus, those jugs will provide you some nice cold water to drink when it thaws!
  • Do you know that you can make ice in the summer with a Sun Oven?  I admit I haven't tried this yet. The idea is to use radiational cooling at night to make the ice. I read this from a research paper posted on a BYU website a few years ago. Point the Sun Oven at a clear section of the sky - no trees or other objects in the way. Place the water in the Sun Oven and leave it overnight. Check on it very early in the morning - like 4:00 am. Depending on the size of the water container, the water should be frozen or have a layer of ice on it and the rest of the water should be very cold.  I am definitely going to have to try this sometime. It may add another tool to my emergency preparedness plans.

In addition to the practical tips above, I have a few 'unconventional' ideas in my emergency plans to keep things cool. I plan on using these ideas if the power is out for a very long time - a few weeks or longer.
  • Dig a hole and bury your ice chest as a temporary cool storage area. Dig a rectangular hole just big enough for the ice chest. The entire chest should be under ground. Line the hole with some garbage bags or heavy duty plastic to keep the dirt out of the chest. Back fill with dirt if necessary to close any voids - you won't be removing the ice chest until the power comes back on. When the ice chest is closed, cover the top of it with a plastic tarp and hay, straw or other mulch to keep it cool. This idea is more like 'root cellar' cool not refrigerator cold. So in that sense, it won't keep leftovers from last night's dinner. It will work for short term storage for things like eggs (cover them with mineral oil first!) cheeses, and other foods that do well at 55 degrees. Don't dig your hole in a sunny area. The north side of a building works best for this idea (in the northern hemisphere)  - you want it in the shade full time. Also if possible, dig the hole under cover so when it rains, the hole doesn't fill with water.
  • Make a zeer pot.  A zeer pot is an idea from Africa. It's used to keep vegetables cool in the hot dry African climate. Here is a link on how to make one.  You can search the Internet for more information on zeer pots - there is a lot of info out there. I have seen YouTube videos on these as well.  I made one a few years ago and I can tell you for a fact they work. The only trick needed here in the humid southeast US is to keep the pot inside the house or garage - not outside. Mine cooled down to 50 degrees in the middle of the summer while the pot was in my garage. Again, this is to keep things cool not cold.  It won't work for leftovers from dinner.
  • Do you have access to a stream or river?  If so, you can do what our ancestors did and that was to submerge food in the stream to keep it cold.  This works especially well if you have access to a spring or spring fed stream where the water can be very cold.  If not, it will still be colder then the outside temperature.  Additionally, don't forget that the water in the bottom of the stream will be colder than the water at the top. Be sure to wrap the food well and place it in plastic containers so it does not get wet. You don't want the food to come in contact with non-treated water that can make you sick.

These are just some ideas I have in my emergency plans for when the power goes out at my house. I consider these ideas a 'first line of defense'.  I also have plans to can as much of the meat as possible in the first 3 or 4 days if the outage is expected to last a long time. 

Some of you may be thinking "Why don't you just can the meat now and save yourself the trouble later?" The answer is simple. While we do eat meat I have canned, it is not my most favorite method of preserving meat.  I don't enjoy the flavor. I consider the taste/texture 'okay' -  I will eat canned meat if I have to and on occasion when I am cooking with food storage I do choose to eat it.  Still, I do not eat it everyday. I will save the massive canning effort for when I have to do it.

Here are some other ideas on food safety when the power goes out from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). What do you need to know when the power goes out?

What are your plans to deal with your frozen foods in a power outage?

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