How To Start a Victory Garden and Pandemic Pantry
The past 15 months of living through a pandemic have taught me many, many lessons about what is essential in life. Reading books instead of scrolling Instagram ranks pretty high. But the one lesson that sticks out is how safe and relieved I feel to have a fully stocked pandemic pantry and freezer.
Not being able to go to the grocery store during some of the worst months of the pandemic sent fear through me. We ran out of disinfectant when the news told us that we had to wipe down our food or get sick, but no local or online store carried any. Shelves of basics like flour and yeast, bread and beans, and fresh produce went empty. As a mom with five mouths to feed, I got creative pretty quickly and relied on tips from my grandmothers, who had lived through the Depression. Their number one piece of advice? Grow a Victory garden. Now.
My husband has two bright green thumbs. I, admittedly, do not. And while we grow extensive gardens of flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables every year, this past year, we got as strategic as we could so that we can ensure that our pantry would remain full of nutrient-rich foods even if the local stores could not. We canned, froze, and dried as much food as possible. When the grocery store chains ran out of meat, we called local farmers and were able to buy in bulk. It paid off. This past winter and early weeks of spring, we still have plenty of food to keep us sustained, even as we plan our garden for this summer’s growing season.
If you’re curious how to grow food — even if you don’t have a yard — then check out the tips below. I’ll include lots of resources at the end of this article.
What is a Victory Garden?
Victory gardens were a morale-boosting effort undertaken by everyday families across the US, UK, Canada, and Australia during WWI and WWII. The idea was to free up industrial farms to grow food for soldiers and have families grow their own food in their yards and in public spaces. This effort, combined with ration cards and stamps, helped ensure that troops could be nourished while fighting foreign soil.
Many families would can, dry, and store their food in root cellars to extend the harvest into colder months when fresh foods wouldn’t be readily available, and that practice continues to this day. Many families are getting back into the art of canning, and this pandemic has proven to be a golden opportunity to take a new look at how to store food.
Typically, families grow staples they can use in multiple recipes. Think tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, peas, etc. If you want to start a Victory garden, but you’re not sure what to grow, try this exercise:
- Look at what your family has eaten for meals over the past few weeks, are there any staple ingredients that stand out?
- If you were to meal plan for a whole month, what kinds of meals would you want to cook?
Once you figure out what kinds of foods you want to grow, the next step is to calculate how much of that food you need to harvest to feed each person in your home for a specific period. For example, how many rows of potatoes would you need to provide for a family of four for a year if you plan to eat potatoes in some form at least once a week?
How to calculate how much food you need to grow?
It can seem daunting to figure out how to plot out your garden, especially if you’ve never done it before. But don’t worry, it’s pretty easy now that online calculators can help you get the exact plan you need.
Check out this calculator that can walk you through a list of foods, household size, and even if you’re planning on growing a self-reliant garden (meaning you’ll only eat out of your garden) or a kitchen garden (meaning you’ll produce lots of food but won’t remove the need to shop.)
Once you figure out how much soil space and produce you want to grow, you’ll know more about how much prep work you’ll need to do. You do not have to get wild with preparations or even spend a lot of money. That said, a few things we do at our house each year includes:
- Turning new compost into the soil — we purchase several yards from a local gardening center.
- Install row cover to protect crops from insect and wind damage and mitigate soil dryness while in a drought.
- Replace any broken tools and gloves.
- Set up rain barrels under the roof of our house to collect rainwater to use in the gardens during the dryest parts of summer.
What if you don’t have a yard to plant?
All of this might sound great, but what if you live somewhere that doesn’t have a yard you can plant a garden? No problem! There are tons of fabulous indoor garden plans you can check out like these here:
- This hugely popular gardening tower as seen on TikTok can produce an impressive amount of food.
- Build a DIY container garden in the sunniest windows in your house.
- Join a community garden where you can plant in a public space for a small fee or free. Ask your local town or city office where to find one.
- Ask a friend or neighbor with a plantable outdoor space if you can grow some food in exchange for a portion of what you grow.
Canning, freezing, drying, and root cellars.
Once you’ve got your garden all planned, planted, and you’re looking at an upcoming harvest, you should probably consider what to do with all the beautiful food you’ll have.
Canning, drying, and root cellars are all excellent ways to store food safely at home. I’ll include resources at the end of this article for you to learn more about each of these.
Building Your Pandemic Pantry
Now that your garden is growing and you’re developing plans on saving all the food you’ve grown, you can start to think about building up your pandemic pantry.
Before last year, we never kept a pantry. Our family only ever had enough food that we purchased during our weekly grocery shopping trip. We never went hungry, but we also never had a reason to make sure we had a cache of food available if the stores suddenly emptied. But in 2020, that’s exactly what happened. Even though we live paycheck-to-paycheck, we had to get super creative to figure out how to build up a store of food and supplies because we could no longer go to a store when we felt like it.
I was not able to purchase things in one go. Not only can I not afford to shop like I have no budget, but it is ethically irresponsible to hoard goods, particularly in an emergency like a pandemic. That said, I did look for places to shop in bulk, especially online. And when I couldn’t buy something in bulk, I would purchase one extra of whatever item it was, and I slowly built up my pantry.
Here is a quick peek at what I keep in my pandemic pantry.
This might seem like an oddity to include but during the roughest parts of the pandemic, many shelves emptied, leaving us feeling woefully ill prepared.
- Basic first aid kit, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, cotton balls
- Over the counter medicines
- One extra prescription refill such as inhalers
- Thermometer, oximeter, hot water bottle, reusable ice pack bags, booger snorker (kids are gross.)
- Extra tampons and pads.
We purchased all of our meat through a local farmer. This is a great arrangement because we can ask for specific amounts of meat to fit our needs. We also know where our food comes from and have developed a relationship with the people who feed us.
- 3 month supply of beef in various cuts
- 3 months supply of chicken (whole, cuts)
- 3 month supply of pork in various cuts
- Frozen soups, ravioli, wraps, pizza dough, pepperoni, bags of shredded cheese, butter, one dozen eggs for baking, blueberries, strawberries, and English muffins (my kids love these).
- Frozen tomato paste and tomato sauce from the garden.
- Frozen pesto and herb-infused butter from the garden.
We do a ton of cooking and baking at our house so everything on the dry goods list has to be something that I can use in multiple recipes. Otherwise, precious shelf space in my tiny galley kitchen gets used up for things we’ll never eat. It’s a great idea to think about what you eat the most of and buy that.
- Lentils, split peas, dried soups from the Alessi company, brown rice, flour, yeast, sugars, corn starch, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt, and seasoning.
- Canned soups, beans, and tomatoes (diced, crushed, and whole.)
- Canned from the garden: squash, carrots, beets, zucchini relish, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, pasta sauce, homemade soups, chicken stock, vegetable stock, peas, green beans, corn, and dilly beans.
We have a rudimentary root cellar where we store only a few items at a time. Each year, we store apples, carrots, squash, and potatoes there because it is cool and dry and keeps the food safe and fresh.
Bulk Items Purchased Online
One trick I learned if you shop on Amazon is to put something in your shopping cart then hit “Save for later” and you’ll get notifications for when the price drops.
- Case of pasta (8 boxes)
- Case of pizza sauce (12 cans)
- Case of refried beans (12 cans)
- Granola bars, protein bars, peanuts, and tetra packs of milk for my kids.
I base our monthly meal planning entirely on what we have in our pandemic pantry. This way, I can avoid going to the store and therefore lower my risk of exposure.
Even as the world opens up and the risk of catching Covid is lowered, I’ll still keep up the Victory garden, food storage, and a fully stocked pantry on a frugal budget. It’s worth it to me to know that if I need it, I have food available.