Jana Riess: For today’s Latter-day Saints, it’s food storage light

From two years to one year to six months to three months: Food storage requirements aren’t what they used to be for church members.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Canned goods like these can be found in the food storage kept by many Latter-day Saints.

It’s January again, which means that in my food storage, it’s time for “out with the old and in with the new.” This month has found me examining expiration dates and throwing away what has gone bad. I try to stay organized with my food storage, but sometimes I get there too late: The ketchup has darkened from bright red to a funky maroon color, and there’s rust around the rim of the canned peaches.

Readers of this column know I’m often sounding the drum of liberalization in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pushing for church leaders to move into the 21st century on issues like same-sex marriage and women’s roles. But there’s one area where church leaders have quietly liberalized, and it has gone largely unnoticed. That is food storage, where the expectations have gradually decreased from two years to one year to six months, and are now down to three months.

That’s about what I have, I think (though the recent pandemic taught me that in an emergency, food storage gets used up more quickly than I expected, partly because I underestimated just how many cookies I would require when faced with a threatening world crisis). So in this one area of my life, I seem to be living up to church leaders’ requirements.

But I haven’t changed much in my food storage practices; their counsel has.

Looking back through old General Conference talks, I would say the mood today is more avuncular (“you will be in a position to help your family if you prepare for emergencies”) rather than reproving. But decades ago it wasn’t uncommon for church leaders to upbraid members who hadn’t done enough.

In the April 1981 General Conference, apostle L. Tom Perry lamented that a U.S. recession had caused the number of members who requested assistance from the church welfare program to skyrocket. “A little dip in the economy found the membership without oil for their lamps,” he chastised. “Immediately it was necessary for those not adequately prepared to turn to the church for assistance.”

Church leaders in previous decades were full of creative ideas on where and how to store giant buckets of wheat, rice and other staples. You could use the buckets and No. 10 cans as pillars for a child’s platform bed, or put a piece of plywood and a tablecloth on a row of buckets and call it a coffee table.

And it wasn’t just about storing food; you were supposed to grow and can your own. I learned how to make jam from a Relief Society sister in the 1990s, and how to make a very basic quilt. Latter-day Saints today are still known for activities like quilting and preserving but more as an art form than as the mode of survival they were just a few generations ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a brief uptick in the church focusing on preparedness, with apostle David Bednar specifically acknowledging that while church leaders don’t speak as much about food storage as they used to, the counsel to prepare for emergencies still stands. He included a rare and welcome touch of humor, saying that when he and his wife were investigating what foods they had stored, there was one stash they were reluctant to open. It had been decades since they had stored those containers and, he said, they didn’t want to unleash another global pandemic.

There are many likely reasons why the church doesn’t hammer home the virtues of food storage like it used to do. One is simply that current church leaders don’t have the same generational trauma earlier leaders did. In the 1990s, when I joined the church, most of the brethren had come of age during the Great Depression, which showed in their near-constant stream of cautious advice about financial preparedness. Today, most of the church’s apostles were born after World War II and came of age during the nation’s postwar economic expansion. We get fewer sermons on thrift and making do.

Demographics also play a role. In the United States, where 4 in 10 church members live, Latter-day Saint families are smaller than in the past, though they are still larger than the nation’s. Having fewer children means fewer mouths to feed in an emergency. Then, too, the fact that some Latter-day Saint families now have both parents working removes some of the strain: If one loses a job, the other is still bringing in income (and, in the U.S., the all-important employer-based health insurance).

Another factor is the rise of social safety nets in the U.S. and some other countries where the church has a strong presence, such as the Philippines. The church has always encouraged members to rely first on themselves and then on the church’s welfare program before tapping into any government assistance, but the fact that government programs are there to help takes the pressure off the church to dig into its considerable wealth.

It’s also just downright difficult for many people to store a lot of food. The poor don’t have the space to put it or the means to stockpile a long-term supply, and both they and the rich are often on the move. Food storage is not particularly portable.

Theologically, there’s also been a marked shift. Food storage is now tied primarily to a family’s ability to weather ordinary problems — a job loss, a health crisis — rather than to the imminent end of the world. There are still doomsday preppers in Mormon culture, but that sensibility is no longer mainstream.

Gary and Gordon Shepherd have chronicled the rise and fall of General Conference topics in their book “A Kingdom Transformed,” exploring the main changes from 1830 to the present. One of those is the gradual disappearance of eschatology. We still talk in spiritual terms about the “gathering of Israel,” but no one is telling members from the pulpit they should be buying land in Jackson County, Mo., to prepare for a Second Coming that’s right around the corner.

It’s not surprising that as Latter-day Saints have become more at home in this world, we seem less fixated on the next one. The “latter days” part of our church’s name is more emphasized than ever, even as the concept recedes in the background, leaving us with a whole lot of pinto beans.

They last forever, so they’ll still be around whenever Jesus does decide to come back.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)