When Does Stockpiling Become Hoarding?

If you buy food in bulk only to throw some of it out because it spoils, you’re not saving money.

After a particularly aggravating shopping trip back in late March, I suggested that we buy as little as possible for the month of April. We’d live off what was stored in the cupboards, freezer and basement, filling in with vegetables, fruit and dairy as needed.

At the time I meant to report the findings here. That didn’t happen. In fact, I can’t find the envelope with our April receipts. However, I do remember that my life partner added them up and they came to about $91 – which shows that vegetables, fruit and dairy for two people can be pretty darned expensive in Alaska. (Hint: We’re not buying organic or out-of-season stuff and we use milk for cooking, not for drinking.)

How’s our stockpile looking? Surprisingly unaffected. 

In part that’s because items like flour, rice and beans are bought in such bulk from Costco that they’re unlikely to be used up completely within three months. In addition, we use everything but the squeal; nothing ever gets wasted, so food tends to last us longer than it does some people.

But mostly it’s because we’ve continued to shop the sales and to pick up things from the clearance table (28-cent chocolate Easter bunnies – how can I lose?!?), the scratch ’n’ dent bin, the “used meat” section and the bread outlet.

I don’t think we’re hoarders, because what we buy does get used (if only to be replaced by more such items). Yet we’re uncomfortably close to the binge shopping behavior described by therapist Angela Wurtzel:

For some people, going to the grocery store and buying more food than necessary may provide a sense of security …. Knowing that if they want or need something it will be there [is what matters] even though it means some of the food may go bad and will be thrown out in the end.

The idea of knowing in that moment that they will have [those items] is what matters to them.

We haven’t thrown out any food yet. I doubt we will. But we’re acutely aware that we need to keep an eye on such behaviors.

Too much of a good thing?

“Food as security” is a pretty common issue. (Just ask all the people who are food insecure.) It matters a bit more up here in Alaska because so much of what we consume is flown, trucked or barged in. That’s true in the rest of the country as well. But we’re considerably farther away from the sources.

Before it got so (relatively) cheap to bring food in, Alaskans grew, fished, raised and hunted a lot more of the food they ate – and they were a lot less picky about the stuff that was brought in. My life partner, who spent much of his childhood in Alaska villages, reminisces about eating a lot of seal and fish, as well as World War II surplus powdered eggs (courtesy of the federal government, which supplied them to teachers in the Bush). Bananas were worth their weight in gold because LP so rarely got them.

These days everyone expects to see out-of-season fruits and vegetables, a wide variety of meats and dairy, and specialty items like organic, vegan and gluten-free products. Even though LP will cheerfully eat Spam on pilot bread if that’s all there is, he likes to throw a handful of frozen blueberries into his oatmeal or yogurt. (He still treasures bananas, too.)

From time to time he and I talk about the potential for disruption in the food supply. Another seismic event like the Good Friday Earthquake, a major terrorist attack or even a longshoremen’s strike could cramp the average Alaskan’s grocery-shopping habits. That might be as simple as no fresh stuff (waaaahhhh, I can’t have salad tonight) or as serious as “there’s nothing in the pantry and the stores are closed.”

So yep, we buy certain items in bulk and rotate them. Over the next couple of years we plan to expand the garden and the teeny greenhouse that have given us great enjoyment (and nice things to eat). We’re looking at buying and/or growing produce that’s healthy, stores well and is easy to preserve: winter squash, potatoes, rhubarb, turnips, beets, berries and mixed greens. (It also has to taste good, so we’re exploring new cooking methods, too.)

Does that make us hoarders? Only if we don’t eat the stuff.

The stewards of the stockpile

We both believe that wasting food is a sin, which I like to think makes us a little different from therapist Wurtzel’s constituency. To some people, knowing “in the moment” that they have enough is what matters – but if it gets thrown out, they no longer have that security.

A number of bloggers do weekly posts about food waste, complete with yucky photos of collapsed cucumbers or the yogurt cup as Petri dish. They do this to shame themselves into accountability. I hope it works for their readers, too.

If you buy in bulk only to throw some of it out because it spoils, you’re not saving money. You’re also wasting resources: the labor and utilities it cost to grow, harvest, package and transport that food.

I’d like for us to be good stewards of the stockpile. If we bought so much food that we regularly had to throw some out, I’d be concerned.

Truth be told, I am concerned – we both are – about the potential for waste. That’s why we’re keeping an eye on our behaviors, knowing how easily a need for both security and frugality could go wrong.

Readers: Did you ever buy in bulk, or stock up during a great sale, only to have the food expire before it could be consumed?

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • ModernMode

    I wonder if television series like “The Walking Dead” have contributed to more food stockpiling. I’m sure there are people just waiting for the next big disaster so they can say “See, we were right”. Same people that built bomb shelters in the 1950’s.

  • Dena Kelley

    All I needed to hear is that the writer lives in Alaska (as I do). Frankly, with the fact that not only do we deal with multi-day power outages after winter storms but also that a supply disruption from the lower 48 could leave store shelves empty makes me feel it’s always prudent to have a minimum of a month’s food supply on hand. Considering my Mormon neighbors growing up always had a year’s food stockpile set by, I don’t think the author’s 3 month supply is bad at all, and certainly not hoarding.

    • donnafreedman

      @Dena: During a power outage last fall, before I moved back, my partner lost power for three days. He took the thawing meat and fish from the freezer and pressure-canned it (the natural gas wasn’t affected by the outage). This was a bit labor-intensive, given that it was dark, but certainly preferable to losing all that protein.
      Now we have a small generator that would ice the freezer back up if another long outage occurs. We’re luckier than some in that we cook with natural gas, that the fireplace insert has a ledge on which we can warm food and that neither of us is really picky. I’d be OK with oatmeal, canned soup, rice and beans, PBJs and other easy-to-prep foods until the power comes back on.
      Even so, we’re watching those shelves carefully.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  • pennyhammack

    I buy in bulk to cut down on shopping trips. Things like toilet paper don’t have an expiration date. But…I deeply resent it when I buy something at Costco that should last a year or more and find it has an expiration date of two months from purchase date. If they want to sell in bulk, then the product should last the average family a reasonable length of time. We don’t eat rancid cooking oil.

  • judith grossbier

    Pretzels. Tortilla chips. Cheesy puffs. Pork Rinds. Minute Rice. (actually, ANY rice) Pickles. ALL were bad warehouse store purchases.

    However, Target ads give gift cards for MY BRANDS of toilet paper, detergent and paper towels. I will always check my stockpile for the necessity before shopping.

    • cartona

      Why did you buy them? Why?

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