The Mission: Put Up in Bulk

By Lois M. Baron
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When I was growing up, canning involved my mom sealing fruits and vegetables into glass jars with metal lids. To me, the process was hot, time-consuming and a little scary because it involved a pressure cooker or, at a minimum, boiling water and the risk of botulism. (The possibility of incorrectly canned food loomed, in my young mind, as large as the threat of tornadoes in my Midwestern childhood.)

However, with the help of a friend and in less than two hours' time, I recently put up five-gallon cans of the following dried foods without breaking a sweat: almost 20 pounds of dehydrated apple slices, and 25 pounds each of black beans, refried bean flakes, nonfat dry milk, spaghetti and regular rolled oats.

I stock up on food items because I, as a Mormon, was raised to believe in storing a supply of basic foods to tide you over during hard times. Because I'm a Mormon, I know of a place in Upper Marlboro offering the facilities to can a variety of staples whose shelf life can stretch up to 30 years.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints runs 101 dry-pack canneries, which are housed in multi-function home storage centers (see sidebar). The church doesn't intend the facilities to be public but won't turn away nonmembers. It wants everyone to have a three-month supply and be working toward a year's stockpile.

At the cannery, people are allowed to package only dry food stocked by the center. (It's possible to buy in bulk from the center as well without processing the food at the cannery. And food can be packed in pouches as well as cans.) The center also has three portable canning units that it lends for a week at a time, free of charge, for home use. People may use the portable equipment to can anything they want. "Husbands, kids, whatever fits," jokes Lowell Hayes, regional field manager for the D.C. Home Storage Center and nine others.

It is housed in a 14,000-square-foot building, built in 1979 and tucked in a low-key industrial zone next to Andrews Air Force Base; military jets make thundering runs overhead. I park in the first lot I come to, closest to the bishop's storehouse entrance. The storehouse is a large room stocked with dry goods and refrigerated foods that are available to needy members who earn the authorization of church leaders, called bishops, at the local level. Nonmembers also can ask a bishop for food assistance.

Here's how my canning session worked: My friend and I met Juliana Letren, 43, an employee who guided us through the process and has worked at the cannery for 10 years. We grabbed a cart and headed into the food warehouse armed with a shopping list. We perused the no-nonsense labels on industrial shelves laden with huge boxes and bags and piled our selections onto the cart.

Outside the canning room, in a wide hallway lined with more industrial shelving, we stopped to pick up rolls of preprinted labels for the cans; close by the room's rubber-clad swinging doors, we noticed clear plastic jugs that contained small amounts of various dried foods, available for topping off a can or to hold leftovers from anyone's canning session. We also collected a big scoop, a low-sided bin big enough to hold three five-gallon cans and a trash can on wheels.

The 900-square-foot canning room has two work areas, each quite spare and about the size of a two-car garage. The areas have their own electric canning machine and several stainless-steel tables, but they share access to a large digital scale, canners' supplies (hairnets, gloves, tape guns, Sharpies for marking dates on the labels, cleaning products and rags), pallets of No. 10 cans that measure six inches across and seven inches tall, their metal and plastic lids, and cardboard boxes that can be assembled to hold six cans each. One wall chart lists safety rules. Another wall chart cites quantities of food needed for one adult per year: grains, 400 pounds; sugar, 60 pounds; salt, 8 pounds.

Letren demonstrated a few cans' worth and left us to it. We got the hang of it pretty quickly. I liked it right away, getting a childish sense of pleasure from operating a simple, heavy-duty machine and ending up with many shiny, filled cans.

Since the Great Depression, Mormon church leaders have encouraged people to store food and supplies for emergencies, such as severe weather or job loss. Cans keep dried foods safe from bugs -- and mice, too. I have wanted to put dried pasta in cans ever since I poured a box of macaroni into a pot of boiling water and found myself staring at floating moths.

Back to the session: While my friend and I filled, sealed, labeled and packed the cans into boxes that we were building as we went, the other canning area bustled with five women who are Mormon church members in Eldersburg, Md. They had been here before and worked with streamlined efficiency.

The preprinted labels provide nutritional information and preparation directions. Stored in a cool, dry place, my dehydrated apple slices and spaghetti should be good for 30 years; hot cocoa mix, two-plus years.

Then it was time to clean up and check out. We had been asked to leave the place as we'd found it (spotless). The bill Letren presented us covers the cost of the food in bulk and the supplies involved in transferring the contents from big bags to cans. There are small fees for supplies bought separately for use with the portable units, such as the cans (80 cents each), resealable lids (20 cents each) and packs of oxygen absorber (8 cents each). Lowell Hayes says the church prices are about at cost.

And then, slight sticker shock hit me: I had canned $217 worth of dried goods. In choosing foods my family uses frequently, I hadn't kept track of how many cans there were. Each of the six 4.3-pound cans of spaghetti cost me $4.05. My 15 cans of apple slices came to $73.50.

I left thinking it's like Costco: good deals for large quantities. So my basement now holds a few years' supply of staples. If worse comes to worst, as I point out to my husband, we might get tired of black bean soup with apple pie. But we won't starve.

Lois M. Baron is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Arlington

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