#20: Being prepared

It's easier to not be taken by surprise if you're not panicking and you're looking down the line.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.

This week’s issue is a day late because I’ve gotten involved in some coronavirus emergency response projects. More details all the way down. Please take a look—you might be able to help. (Especially if you work in digital marketing, big data network analysis, advertising, media-buying, or at TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.)

Last week saw accounts of a crumbling healthcare system pour out of Lombardy. As if that wasn’t chilling enough, coronavirus infection rates began to spike up in France, Spain, Germany, Washington, and New York.

But even last Wednesday, no one in the UK was taking coronavirus particularly seriously.

Until then, the UK Government’s national response had been to delay significant action while attempting to contain the cases that were discovered. It did not mandate cessation of air travel, recommend closure of gathering places, or encourage companies to move to remote work. The number of new cases reported in the UK ticked up faster and faster every day.

Last Thursday, the UK announced a formal strategy: Isolate very high-risk individuals and allow the virus to sweep—slightly slowed through measures on the margin—through the rest of the population

Jaws around the world dropped in unison.

Masses of people everywhere—including prominent scientists, many of whom were epidemiologists and public health experts—publicly and privately questioned this strategy. (I was part of one such group.)

On Monday, the UK Government announced a change in strategy: Immediate initiation of some social distancing measures, mostly voluntary.

Later, they told us that the model which had driven the previous decision had been built using absurdly optimistic assumptions—which might have resulted in a quarter of a million deaths.

I’m glad they changed their strategy but it feels like too little, too late. (I can’t help but think the same is true for the US, particularly Washington, New York, California, and Massachusetts.)

Suddenly, the feeling in the air in London has changed. The streets are much quieter and the restaurants and bars are empty—either already closed or about to close. Shelves in supermarkets are bare of toilet paper and all the crisps are gone. There’s no flour to be had anywhere. The lines for checkout are long, and the carts are full of stacks of frozen pizzas and crap like that. But you can still buy beans and grains, oil, salt, sugar. People here seem to be panicking, but their response to panic is buy bizarre foods in bizarre quantities.

Good decision-making is what you need in a (very) rapidly developing situation—such as a coronavirus pandemic. But it’s hard to make good decisions while panicking.

The faster the situation develops, the more you need a realist imagination that allows you to see past hysteria while also imagining plausible outcomes that might be worse than what the crowd currently can conceive.

Being realist while being imaginative allows you to continually prepare for the bad scenarios as you envision them, while continually keeping a close eye on how things develop so that your view of possible scenarios is being continually updated. Of course, it’s crucial to be ready to change your action plan as new data becomes available.

So, this week, I want to explain how to build—and when to use—an emergency food supply. What follows is my own view of things so please consult other sources of information. To be clear, I’m definitely not saying that civil order and food supply chains will immediately collapse in a coronavirus outbreak. But it might be prudent to plan for a period when your access to food and consumables is severely limited.

Emergency food

I looked around online for a good guide to how to lay down a good emergency food store. There are many guides to stocking up on things like batteries and flashlights, but many of the guides for emergency food say to have a lot of peanut butter and energy bars or bullshit like that. They also don’t tell you how to use and maintain your store.

What is emergency food?

Emergency food should be shelf-stable at room temperature for a very long time—many months at least—without any maintenance from you. The following things fit the bill and are inexpensive:

  • Dry carbohydrates (rice, noodles, couscous, pasta, grits, flour)

  • Dry legumes (beans, lentils)

  • Dehydrated vegetables

  • Freeze-dried and dried fruit

  • Canned goods (fruit, fish, beans)

  • Sugar, salt, oil, spices

  • High-proof alcohol

  • If you’re expecting water and power cuts: Bottled water, portable stove and suitable fuel.

I’ll say more about what to buy for different scenarios later. But before that, it’s important to say that emergency food is not:

  • Normal groceries and frozen foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat, frozen pizzas, and ice cream. Buy extras of these if you know there will be a temporary interruption in regular food supply.

  • Snack and treats, like chips, candy bars, and nuts. But you can buy some of these to keep around for diversity when you’re huddled in the dark eating cold canned soup for the 18th day. Just kidding. (Or am I?)

When to buy emergency food?

Stock up by buying some emergency food every time you do a grocery run—a week or two worth of carbohydrates, or legumes, or flavorings (a canned sauce or a spice pack). Stocking up gradually instead of all at once naturally creates variety in your emergency food store.

If you must buy all your emergency store at once and in a hurry, scroll to the bottom of this issue for a buying guide.

When to use emergency food

The most important thing about emergency stores is that you keep them on hand for use only in an emergency. This means buying your emergency stores and keeping them for a time in which food is no longer easily available or not available at all. You should not touch emergency stores until you can no longer buy replacements for them through regular channels.

Maintaining emergency food

  1. Store emergency food in sealed, waterproof packets—you don’t want critters in your emergency stash. This may mean repacking what you buy (reusable ziplocs or glass jars are good). Each pack should be about a week’s worth of product, to make it easier to rotate (see #4).

  2. Label everything, marking expiration dates clearly. This is especially important if you’re repacking products.

  3. Store all the emergency food in the same place, grouped by expiration month. Pick a cool, dry, dark place for storage.

  4. Rotate emergency food out by cooking and eating it, each time replacing what you’ve used with the same amount of newly purchased food. (That bit’s important.) You should never have expired food in your emergency store. A good way to do this is to set a monthly calendar entry to evaluate the emergency food store. It should take about 5 minutes to pull out the food that’s expiring soonest. Remember to immediately replace what you eat with the same amount of the same type of food (replace legumes with different legumes, carbohydrate with a different carbohydrate, etc).

What to buy

From what I’ve seen in the last week, panicking people stock up by buying haphazardly. Especially incomprehensible are those who buy 8 weeks worth of toilet roll, 3 weeks worth of assorted snacks, and nothing else.

What you buy depends on what you expect to face.

Here are a few scenarios. The first two are what most of us will face (or have faced) this year.

  1. Severe voluntary social distancing with stores still open. You have very limited ability to leave the house but regular supplies of ingredients are mostly available from your usual markets and shops. Water and power are uninterrupted. In this scenario, stock nearly all dry carbohydrates and legumes for emergency food. Keep buying fresh ingredients whenever possible—only dip into emergency supplies and cook them as needed. Life, honestly, will be much as normal except for not eating out much or at all. (This will be catastrophic for the hospitality industry.) You probably won’t need to dip much into the store.

  2. Shelter in place with stores mostly closed. You’re unable to leave the house and ingredients are available but harder to come by. Water and power are uninterrupted. Use up any fresh foods you have. After that, you have an opportunity to finally clear out the fridge and freezer. You can finally eat that jar of soup you froze last year, maybe with a slice of toasted freezer-burnt bread. In this scenario, stock nearly all dry carbohydrates and legumes. Eat through your fresh, then frozen foods—only then dip into emergency supplies. (You might need to dip into the store a bit.)

  3. Shelter-in-place with stores closed and power/water unavailable or intermittent. It’s a disaster. In this scenario, stock bottled water and meals that are ready to eat (canned or retort-pouched), as well as a gravity-fed water filter, portable stove, and fuel. Eat already-cooked food before it goes bad. Then cook first fresh, then frozen food before it goes bad. Open your fridge and freezer as infrequently as possible. When all that is exhausted, start cooking from stores, saving your ready-to-eat meals for when you run out of cooking fuel.

  4. Supply chains have failed, they’re burning the city, and you’ve barricaded yourself inside your apartment. You should stock high-calorie food bars that will aid in your escape. Why didn’t you leave sooner? I hope you have lots of cash on hand. And diamonds and antibiotics.

tl;dr: For me, coronavirus emergency food planning means buying long-store dry goods to dip into periodically if the city is on lockdown for the week or the month—in the near-term, some products might go out of stock but fresh food will probably be available enough that you won’t need to touch the emergency stock much.

Be prepared but don’t panic. Yet.

A sample shopping list

[A clarification: This is a sample store list. It’s what I’ve laid down because I like eating food that’s been processed as little as possible. If you hate rice and love pasta, get more pasta. If you need more tea, get more tea. Take a look at the list of suitable emergency store foods above. If you don’t like German Haribo Ginger-Lemon gummies, there’s no hope for you.]

Here’s a 4-week emergency food supply for 1 person. It is neither superabundant nor unnecessarily meager. It assumes water and power are both running and that you know how to cook (the Internet can be helpful here). Conveniently, it also fits into a surprisingly small box.

  • 2.5kg assorted rices (basmati, jasmine)

  • 2kg assorted pastas (including couscous and rice noodles)

  • 4.5kg assorted legumes (red/green/brown lentils, kidney/black/cannellini beans, chickpeas)

  • 1l olive oil

  • 2kg flour

  • 0.5kg sugar

  • 1kg salt

  • 6 tins of tomatoes (diced, peeled, and as sauce)

  • 8 tins of fish (tuna, mackerel, sardines)

To leaven the monotony of eating emergency food:

  • 4 bars of chocolate

  • 3 bags each of the German versions of the Haribo Gold Bears and Ginger-Lemon gummies

  • 100g of assorted teas

  • 1kg of dried fruit and nuts

Pretty austere but it’ll give you peace of mind and keep you going if you need it to.

Or you could leave your tiny city apartment and move somewhere with a garden.

Help please

In the last five days, we’ve spun up a couple of coronavirus response projects:

  1. A data-driven advertising program aimed at converting coronavirus skeptics through highly targeted stealth viral campaigns. Most people don’t truly understand why coronavirus is such a disaster. (Like these spring-breakers in Florida.) These skeptics don’t adhere to social distancing measures, so the virus continues to infect new people faster than healthcare systems can cope with. You can probably help fix this problem if you work in digital marketing, network analysis, advertising, media-buying, or at TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You can also donate to pay for media buys or machine time. I can’t share details publicly but email me if you’re interested.

  2. A guide to coronavirus risk reduction for the food and beverage industry (which is a locus for transmission simply by its natural dynamics). This is most useful for F&B businesses in cities where a coronavirus crisis is approaching but not yet a crisis, but also for those which have been closed to help them think through what they will do when they reopen. If you’re in the hospitality business, please take a look and share widely. If you know people who can translate the guide, please send them the website link along (translation instructions are on the page). We need versions for everywhere, but especially versions in traditional and simplified Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, French, and Spanish translations are already on the way.


If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.