SALT LAKE CITY – Towering grain silos overlook the main highway in Salt Lake City at the Mormon church’s Welfare Square. At grocery stores, there’s a whole section with large plastic tubs with labels that read, “Deluxe survivor 700.” Radio ads hawk long-term supplies of food with 25-year shelf lives.
And houses are equipped with special shelving for cans of beans, rice and wheat.
Storing away enough food and water in case of disaster, job loss or something worse is not just part of the fundamental teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s an idea that is increasingly catching on nationwide. And it’s also big business.
A large majority of food storage companies that do Internet sales are based in the state. Terms once used only by Mormons, such as 72-hour kit, are mainstream, as is the survivalist “preppers” philosophy that taps into the Mormon church’s century-old teachings on the topic.
“The wisdom behind preparing is taught heavily in this population,” said Paul Fulton, president of Ready Store, based in Draper, Utah, about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. “They’ve led the way.”
The Mormon emphasis on self-reliance dates back to the mid-1800s when food storage began as a pragmatic way to ensure survival as church members trekked across the country to Salt Lake City, said Matthew Bowman, assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
Church leaders gave everyone lists of what to bring, and then stockpiled food at storehouses as towns were settled.
By the mid-1900s, church leaders worried about nuclear war were using more apocalyptic rhetoric in encouraging food storage. During the Cold War, church members were encouraged to have a two-year supply, Bowman said.
In the past two decades, the focus on food storage has shifted back to practicality.
“A lot of times we are thinking in terms of food storage that we are preparing for this major calamity or major disaster or for Armageddon,” said Rick Foster, manager of North America Humanitarian Services with the LDS church. “It’s not about that.
“It’s about helping all of us individually to get through these bumps that occur in our lives,” he said.
If members are prepared, they can help themselves and others in times of need, Foster said. When a water main broke in his neighborhood, Foster’s family was able to provide drinking water from their supply to a neighbor who needed water to make formula for her baby.
The church has a massive warehouse near the airport in Salt Lake City where shelves are stacked tall with boxes of food it uses to stock 143 grocery store-like storehouses it runs across the Americas to provide food to members in need.
Foster said the church tries to keep a six-month supply of food for each of the storehouses, a practice that helped it weather the recession when donations dwindled and need spiked. The church sends food from here or one of their smaller regional warehouses to help domestic disaster victims.
While food storage has long been a core Mormons belief, the church has had to modernize.
The church operates 101 food storage centers where it sells large cans and bags of oats, wheat, sugar, potato flakes and beans, and it recently announced a series of changes at these locations in the U.S. and Canada to ensure that food preparation and packaging is safer.
With more stringent guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration about how foods are handled and distributed, the church is now pre-packaging the foods at all but 12 of the centers. Before, church members could go into the centers and pour the flour into bags, or scoop beans into cans.
Much of the food the church stores is homemade. The church owns farms, ranches and dairies and operates canneries. The peanut butter is made from a peanut farm the church owns in Texas. The apple sauce is made from apples at a church orchard in Idaho.
Chris Rutter and his family of six found their food stash vital after he lost his job in 2009 when his company made major layoffs during the economic downturn. It took Rutter two years to find full-time work again.
During that rough patch, they relied on savings and leaned heavily on the stored food. Rutter’s wife, Jodi, made homemade bread, soups and spaghetti sauces from her canned tomatoes, and made gallons of milk last longer by mixing them with powdered milk.
They still buy many of their supplies at their nearby storage center, including 50-pound bags of oats and large tins of chocolate milk powder, a family favorite. Jodi Rutter uses the oats, which have a shelf life of five years, to make her own granola, pancakes and cookies.
She also buys food in bulk at Costco, keeps an eye out for grocery store coupons and has a garden with tomatoes and zucchini and a peach tree.
“We honestly never felt like we were going without,” she said about the period when her husband was unemployed. “We always felt so blessed to have enough to feed our kids.”