Stephanie Smith is a statewide consumer food safety specialist at Washington State University. She performs food safety research, writes a monthly food safety column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, and provides technical support and training for WSU’s food safety specialists in more than thirty counties statewide. She also provides technical expertise and training to retail food businesses and workers, and very small food processors and growers.
How has the pandemic impacted WSU’s county-based food specialists?
The county offices have been mostly shut down because of the pandemic. They’re still returning calls and emails, trying to do what they can. In general, there has been—from what I’ve been hearing—a lot more interest in food preservation since the start of the pandemic. We’re mostly seeing it with canning and people who have never canned before as well as people who have canned but are expanding what they’re canning. They’ve done jams and jellies, but they’re wanting to can more complex foods like vegetables and stews. They’re wanting to expand their repertoires.
How has the pandemic changed people’s attitudes toward food and food preservation?
Initially, we were seeing a lot of shortages of different types of foods in the grocery stores. There wasn’t an inability to produce food, but there was a bottleneck in trying to get it on the grocery store shelves. It was being bought up at a rate much faster than it normally would. As soon as it was re-stocked it would empty quickly again. People were going to the grocery stores and seeing empty shelves. A lot of staples were no longer available. There were different shortages at different times—canned food, dried food like rice and beans. Then there was what appeared to be a shortage of meat availability. This continues to drive fear and a vicious cycle of panic buying. Along with that, a lot of people decided to start canning their own food. In previous years, canning had been gaining in popularity. But with the pandemic and what consumers were seeing in the grocery stores, there’s a lot of new or renewed interest. There’s also a lot more interest in people growing their own vegetable gardens. In terms of shopping habits, there’s been a lot more growth in doing take-out or meal kits or grocery delivery. That appears to be the trend: to engage in other services in order to try to avoid going grocery shopping as much. This year’s also been a really, really big change for things like community gardens and farmers markets, which had to limit access at any given time. People miss out on that ambiance and the mingling and the sorts of things that they would normally seek at farmers markets. It was the same with community-supported agriculture. There was a need for support for those different groups on how to put new systems in place so people could still get fresh food and support those businesses. Initially, they were having a really difficult time trying to get started and keep people safe and keep social distancing in effect. Some community gardens completely shut down.
What are some of the lessons learned so far?
I think the pandemic has brought more of an awareness to our food supply and changed some people’s behavior. People have paid more attention to the fact that there are potential vulnerabilities. They may not always be able to get everything they want. It is a good idea to have some things on hand, to have enough shelf-stable food for two weeks, so if you did need to quarantine you wouldn’t have your shelves be emptied. It’s good to have a larger supply at home and keep staples in your pantry. Even outside the pandemic, there are things that could potentially happen, like natural disasters, that can cause disruptions in food supply. The pandemic brought an awareness to the public about preparedness.
Preparing can be cost-prohibitive. What about people in need during the pandemic?
On top of people not having the resources to buy larger amounts of food to allow for a two-week supply, there are people who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. There’s a huge demand on food banks right now. And there’s probably going to be for quite some time. In some rural areas, the local food bank is only open once or twice a month. Fresh foods would have to be consumed right away if you don’t have the means to preserve those foods. You generally have a week or less to consume fresh foods before the quality goes bad. It really is a huge challenge. The thing about food preservation is it can be really difficult for people who don’t have the resources to buy a second freezer or canning equipment. Canning food is not cheap. You have to have the capital outlay to be able to do it. You need the jars and the lids and all of the food and, in some cases, a pressure canner. A lot of times with food preservation we’re talking about the people who have the financial ability to do it. The people who need it most probably have the least freezer space and least resources to preserve food, even for short amounts of time.
Even if you have the resources, you shouldn’t use grandma’s recipe, right?
Correct. Use only recipes that have been tested for safety and follow the instructions exactly. The USDA made some minor changes to its canning guide between 2009 and 2015. You can download the latest canning guide for free. Always go with the newer guide. That’s something I really want to push. In a lot of old recipes, the processes that they used were later found to not be safe. Tomatoes are a good example. They’ve done a lot of research around tomatoes, which need to be acidified to prevent botulism poisoning. Old canning manuals don’t tell you that. Only use newer recipes from reliable sources like Extension or the National Center for Home Food Preservation or the USDA. We know those recipes and processes have been researched. We know that they are safe.
This isn’t a question, but a fact: Improperly canned food can kill you.
With botulism, it’s kind of like playing roulette. You could be canning foods incorrectly for decades and not have a problem. Then all of a sudden, when you do, it’s deadly or debilitating for the rest of one’s life. That’s one of the things that’s the hardest for people to understand. People don’t understand why it’s so dangerous. They don’t understand it is like roulette. Eventually it may land on your number, and that is not a good thing. We’ve had botulism deaths in this state. The last ones I’m aware of were in 2016 (when two people from the same household in Grant County died). It does happen. There’s definitely a risk. Buying canned food from the grocery store is always an option. Those foods are picked at peak ripeness, and it’s very rare to have an issue with commercially canned foods.
What’s your favorite method of food preservation?
If I buy extra produce, I freeze it. I purchase canned beans and canned tomatoes.
What about dehydrating?
Again, it’s about making sure things are done properly. You have to make sure things have been dehydrated sufficiently. If the moisture content is too high and you put it in an air-tight package, you’re looking at Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism) again. Your local Extension office has publications available to help you properly dehydrate food.
What else should people know?
There’s nothing wrong with buying commercially processed foods that have been canned or dehydrated. And, if you need help, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to provide a resource. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us through your county Extension office. We also have a website with a lot of resources that are free to download.
Can-do attitude: Home canning and food preservation has boomed during the pandemic.