How to Scavenge from a Supermarket

The world as we know it has ended. The lights are out, most people are dead, and you and a group of survivors need to find food. Here’s how you do it.

Let me say upfront that I’m not condoning looting — please only take from a supermarket (without paying) if you’re very sure the lawful owners aren’t coming back. This is a thought experiment, so treat it as such.

Here are a few assumptions about your situation. First, you’re in this for the long haul. You’re looking not just for tomorrow’s dinner but to restart agriculture (and chemistry). This leads into the second assumption: although the supermarket is located in an urban area, your group is settling in the country. This will provide you space to farm, and get you away from the city which will, over a few decades, become reclaimed by nature (until a sparking wire sets everything on fire).

That means you have to transport whatever you want back to your colony. I assume you have a few vans or pickup trucks for this purpose, which means you have both a weight and a volume budget. I’m assuming that you’re scavenging shortly after the collapse, when things haven’t really spoiled or been picked over yet, although the power is out.

Finally, I’m assuming that whoever is left is working together. This is a big assumption, as a lot of so-called Preppers think about hostile gangs and bandits. One article I read advised sending a scout with a radio and a gun several hours in advance. I’m going to put that aside, and focus on something else: once you’ve got an abandoned supermarket, what exactly do you take?

To write this piece, I’m drawing on Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge (highly recommended), as well as internet research and my own ideas.

In the Parking Lot

You’re going to want to do this during the day, ideally in sunny weather. You might as well drive right up to the entrance, or if you’re feeling ambitious, the loading dock. (Heck, see if you can hotwire a refrigerated 18-wheeler!) You should also inspect the entrance for signs of break-in by wild animals.

While you’re in the parking lot, you might as well scavenge from the other vehicles. The most obvious thing is the gasoline (either through a siphon or by puncturing the tank with a receptacle waiting below). However, it’s not worth your time to bleed every car in the lot dry; save that effort for an actual gas station. There’s no harm in topping off, though.

If you can only take one thing from a vehicle, take the alternator. It’s under the hood hooked up to the engine. Hook this up to any belt drive and it will produce 12V DC. What makes it superior to your typical generator (or motor in reverse) is that the voltage is independent of the belt speed, as long as that speed is constant. You can also grab the battery and the jumper cables from the trunk.

That aside, you’re going to have a problem as soon as you try to enter the supermarket: it’s dark. Supermarkets are cavernous, mostly windowless buildings, and you’re not going to make it past the checkout line with the light from the windows. So hopefully you have some flashlights or at least candles. Although AA batteries are going to be fairly worthless in most other situations, you should find them first if lighting is a problem.

The Essentials

Alright, you’re in, and have a light source. Take a few moments to figure out the layout of the store, and grab a cart. Then, start looking not for food, but what can grow food.

You can only take so much, and no matter how much you take, it will run out eventually. With these two constraints in mind, the most valuable item is rather unexpected: yeast. You can find it dried in packets in the baking aisle, and it’s small and light enough to fit in your pocket. But this microorganism is going to be critical for when you start baking your own bread. Speaking of which, grab salt, sugar, and (white) flour. Keep them dry. Also in packets is powdered milk, which will last years compared to fresh milk’s weeks.

If you’re lucky enough to find a gardening section, take any seeds of edible plants you find. You can also grab a bag of potatoes or a head of garlic from the otherwise useless produce section, and plant them. You can try planting raw peanuts, as legume plants perform the incredibly useful job of putting nitrogen back into the soil, but the seeds in the store probably won’t be viable. It’s also not worth the volume or weight to take back bags and bags of potting soil, although you may want to take one in the hopes of introducing beneficial microbes to your fields.

You’re unlikely to find tools beyond can openers and scissors (both of which you should take), although you should definitely check out the kitchenware section. Knives are obviously useful. You can put other items inside big pots and pans, which will be useful not only for cooking but for chemistry. Cookie sheets are perfect for letting water evaporate in the sun, leaving behind whatever was dissolved in it. (Be sure to nest them for transport.) Also take any matches or other fire equipment you find (which includes the extinguishers on the walls).

Reusable water bottles are probably useful, since you’re going to be outdoors. Might as well fill them with water from the disposable bottles, which aren’t themselves worth taking. Instead, go to the laundry aisle. You’re looking for liquid bleach with 5% sodium hypochlorite as the main ingredient, and without any colorants or perfumes (which may be poisonous). Add a few drops of this stuff to a liter of water and let it sit for an hour to disinfect. It’s worth getting several containers to lock down your water supply, even though they’re heavy. (Also grab some vinegar while you’re there; it’s a useful acid for pickling.)

The last item, before we actually get to food, is dietary supplements. Grab a lot of these, making sure to get the male and female varieties (and a few pregnancy ones too). Your diet may be pretty monotonous, and these supplements can save you from a host of different ailments. Keep the bottles after they’re empty for the medical knowledge on the label.

Food

Obviously, a lot of food will have spoiled without electricity. Produce will wilt, cheese will mold, meat will rot. What’s left?

With dietary supplements, you have a little bit of leeway with nutrition, but you still need calories. For carbs, grab a good amount of dried rice (heavy, but compact) and whole-wheat pasta (it might be worthwhile to unbox it and put it in another container, like a pot). I mentioned potatoes as seeds earlier, but you can also look for other root vegetables to either eat or plant.

Eggs stay good for a month without refrigeration. Many items, such as ketchup and mustard, only require refrigeration after opening. Consider a PB&J feast before the bread and jelly go bad. Peanut butter, on the other hand, will keep for a while and is packed with nutrients.

Grab plenty of soy sauce for the rice (it keeps indefinitely), as does honey. You can also grab spices, not for their nutrition but for the taste. They don’t take up much room, so it’s an easy way to improve morale. Chocolate bars also fall into this category.

The biggest supply of nonperishable goods, however, is in cans. Beans, tomatoes, green veggies, take them all. As long as they’re not leaking or bulging, they’re safe to eat.

Another thing you want is oil, which is useful for plenty of things besides just eating. Plain canola oil is probably best, although you can grab olive oil for actually cooking with.

Medicine

The simplest and most important piece of modern medicine to salvage is frequent hand washing. To that end, get hand soap, the big refill jars. In theory, you can wash your hands from these directly, but a few dispensers will allow you to have more washing stations, and more control over how much is used per wash. It’s probably worth getting a few dispensers to slow the rate at which your main supply is consumed.

Or get dish soap — because it’s so concentrated, it will last a lot longer than hand soap. While we’re on the topic (and in the aisle), get sponges, cloth towels, and steel wool — which ignites when touched to a battery.

Or you could use rubbing alcohol (70% concentration), useful as both a firestarter and an antiseptic. Also grab some hydrogen peroxide and iodine solutions. Naturally get bandaids and gauze, and a little medical tape. Also take antibiotics and anything that can prevent infection, as well as over-the-counter painkillers.

It’s probably not worth venturing into the pharmacy unless you have medical training, and many drugs will be useless without refrigeration. I don’t think you’ll find a stethoscope or other medical instruments (unless it’s the sort of place that does flu shots), but they will be much more valuable than the drugs.

I don’t think it’s worth it to haul back toilet paper — it takes up so much space and will be used quickly. I do think you should take a few feminine hygiene products. Sanitation is the obvious reason, but along with the painkillers, it means that women can still contribute to the colony for the entire month.

Back to Reality

Hopefully you will never actually be in the situation of finding food in the apocalypse. However, in going through this exercise, I hope that you can come to appreciate all of the food and other goods that modern life has given us. By thinking about how we could use (and sometimes misuse) everyday equipment, we retain a link with our ancestors who worked the fields and lit fires.

There’s something empowering about knowing how food arrives at your table, and what else you could do with the supplies around you. Simultaneously, there’s something really humbling about realizing how dependent you are on having food delivered almost to your door, and having access to medicine that would have been miraculous two centuries ago. Given how much we rely on civilization, I really hope it sticks around.

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