This ethos of preparedness permeates Mormonism. Among the faithful, stories abound of Latter-day Saints leaning on food storage after losing their jobs, or doling out canned fruit to neighbors after a natural disaster. We take turns volunteering at the Church’s many “storehouses,” where stockpiled food is distributed to people in need. We read about our ancestral pioneers, who on their westward trek established crops to be harvested by the companies that followed. “If ye are prepared,” an oft-quoted scripture goes, “ye shall not fear.”
Here’s what that looked like in practice for a ’90s Mormon kid in suburban Massachusetts: A section of the basement in my childhood home was transformed into a kind of makeshift grocery-store aisle—wooden racks covered in nonperishable food items. Like many families, we would rotate our supply so that it didn’t go bad, drawing on it for daily meals and then replacing what we’d consumed during trips to Costco.
I didn’t think much of this practice at the time. My Mormon friends saw it as normal, my non-Mormon friends got a kick out of it, and, hey, we never ran out of canned corn. But the pioneer spirit of the enterprise was lost on me—and the older I got, the less it resonated. Spending most of my life in comfortable cities and suburbs, I never had to think much about the source of my next meal. This relative privilege fueled a lack of imagination: The idea of confronting a systemic food shortage was as far-fetched to me as a zombie apocalypse was.
This sentiment was only hardened once prepper culture started gaining mainstream notoriety a few years ago. The bunker builders and ammo stockpilers on reality TV seemed like distant caricatures compared with the people I knew practicing commonsense emergency preparedness. (PSA: The Department of Homeland Security suggests that Americans keep enough food and water in their home to last two weeks.) But the growing prepper cottage industry, promoted by hucksters such as Alex Jones, made food storage look paranoid and extreme, even toxic. There was never a moment when I consciously ruled out the idea of keeping around some extra water and rice; I just didn’t want to be associated with the cultural trappings of that world.
Around the time my first daughter was born, my in-laws—apparently concluding that I was a dud in the preparedness department—began taking steps to ensure that our new family would not die of starvation in the event of a famine. Each Christmas for several years, they gifted us (foisted on us, really) several large cans of storable food. I tried to protest that the stockpile didn’t make sense in our small Brooklyn apartment, but my objections were overruled. I was, I’ll admit, less than grateful for their generosity. “We don’t have room for this,” I would grumble to my wife, as we shoved cans of freeze-dried bell peppers under our bed.