The new survivalism market may not be based entirely on individual paranoia. One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is to be prepared to help oneself and one’s neighbors in adverse situations. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used to preach the necessity of having enough supplies on hand to feed one’s family for an entire year; according to the LDS website, that recommendation has since been dialed down to three months. Even so, with a membership of 14.4 million scattered all across the country, the Mormon Church is a very large customer base to be tapped (although none of the survivalist company websites I’ve seen refer explicitly to Mormonism, or any church).
Whatever the motivation for consumers to stock up, there’s no question that survivalism is entering the mainstream. Many of the products I’ve mentioned are available through major retailers: Wal-Mart sells food storage kits from Auguson Farms. I first learned about Shelf Reliance from a promotional email from CostCo offering $300 off the usual $1,999.99 price for “THRIVE Essentials Grains and Proteins Kit,” which included 15,698 servings of food in 36 buckets. Hardly an impulse buy, but a bargain at about 11 cents per serving.
That particular kit, while massive, only includes the most basic staples: wheat, rice, oats, beans, instant milk, etc. It barely scratches the surface of the Shelf Reliance line of products. The website offers vegetarian and gluten-free options, freeze-dried whole strawberries and grapes, and bacon and chicken and beef. With ingredients like butter powder, egg powder, and spices and seasoning, you could make just about anything by just adding water and heat. You could live on this food in your everyday life, even in the absence of a new world order. But would you want to?
I decided to order some of this stuff to taste it for myself. First, I got a sampler pack from Survival Gourmet's "Go Foods" line (slogan: “Feed your freedom”), which contained a generous selection of freeze-dried entrees and drink powders, plus an audio CD narrated by a co-founder of the company (Track 1, “Hunger in America,” Track 3, “Challenges of Our Times”). The drinks I made from the Orange Passion Green Tea powder and Kona Joe instant coffee mix both smelled pretty good, but tasted like sugar-free gum and dirt, respectively. Of the entrees, the Creamy Tuscan Pasta (“Best if used by August 23, 2027”) was the best; its bow-tie noodles and sun-dried tomato sauce were reminiscent of Hamburger Helper. The Chicken Cheddar Rice (which was actually vegetarian) and Western Potato Chowder had a similar sort of creamy, salty, comfort-food vibe, but their inclusion of vegetables highlighted the biggest problem with re-constituted freeze-dried food: the texture.
This was also what made the Shelf Reliance cooking ingredients hard to love. From them I ordered the ingredients of my favorite breakfast, a cheddar-tomato omelet—which in Shelf Reliance terms means a can of powdered eggs and a Mylar pouch each of shredded freeze-dried cheddar and diced freeze-dried tomatoes. I added the prescribed amount of water to each ingredient before frying them together, and it all cooked easily enough, and again, smelled great. But I couldn’t get over the squeaky texture of the eggs, the sad, sour sliminess of the tomatoes, and the chewy cheese that just didn’t want to melt.
In other words, not the best food I’ve ever had, but I’d happily eat it in an apocalypse. However, these companies aren’t just marketing freeze-dried ingredients for use in an emergency. Instead, they’re encouraging customers to buy it for everyday eating, all year round. The food storage gospel teaches that buying in bulk isn’t merely a precautionary measure; it’s a whole new lifestyle. And in the case of Shelf Reliance, that gospel is spread by “consultants” who, eager to earn discounts and extra income, attend conventions to learn how to sell food to their friends and neighbors at Tupperware- or Mary-Kay-style parties.
In one consultant training video online, a pretty, aproned young mom named Amber gives out snack samples and talks about how much she incorporates THRIVE freeze-dried food into her everyday cooking. She describes “The Q” system, a food investment plan to build up your food storage system with a set monthly budget. This is the Shelf Reliance soft sell, encouraging customers to gradually incorporate the freeze-dried stuff into what they’re already buying every month anyway. If you spend $600 a month on groceries, say, why not spend just $400 in the grocery store and $200 on your monthly allotment of THRIVE, shipped automatically to your door on pallets? Soon, you’ll have built up your whole food store without even realizing it. And from that supply, you can start incorporating freeze-dried ingredients into your family’s favorite recipes in lieu of fresh ones.
Only at the end of her presentation does Amber tell the story of a “rice crop failure” three years earlier that sent prices skyrocketing and all her neighbors dashing to the grocery store. Meanwhile, she sat calmly in her living room. She had all the rice she needed. “So I didn’t have that sense of urgency or worry,” she said. “There are so many little perks to having a home store.”
The threat of disaster takes up a very small portion of her presentation, however. Most of it is about how she saves money and time by not driving to the grocery store and by not wasting any unused food. Got mushy mushrooms in your fridge? Replace them with THRIVE freeze-dried mushroom powder! Tired of preparing messy sausage and smelly onions? THRIVE has dry replacements for those, too. Never want to go to the grocery store again? Amber happily demonstrates how easy it is to replace fresh food with canned items, and to gradually convert to the “THRIVE lifestyle.” She makes it all seem incredibly sensible. This pitch—that you can cook with these ingredients all the time—carries the implication that having a year’s worth of food on hand isn’t paranoid; it’s just smart shopping.
Amber’s chipper training video, set in a beautiful, modern, suburban kitchen, makes no mention of the dark fears that underlie the impulse to hoard. Nor does it make explicit the most insidious, and the most cynical, aspect of survivalism’s sales pitch: the message that when disaster inevitably strikes, we won’t be able to rely on our friends and neighbors (and certainly not our local authorities) for help. By then, it will be too late for social gatherings and cooking demonstrations. We won’t be able to trust anyone but ourselves.