Rethinking Minimalism (A Little Bit): The Ethics of Food Storage

canning food

A while back, I wrote a post exploring the connections between Jesus’ teachings and minimalism. Much more could still be said on the subject — I’ve since realized that I overlooked a bunch of Scripture passages that point to a minimalist lifestyle.

However, I recently read Sharon Astyk’s superb book Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation, which challenged me to rethink things a little bit. (That’s my idea of a great book, by the way: one that forces me to reevaluate conclusions I’ve reached without making me feel angry or defensive).

As the title suggests, one of the book’s primary subjects is food storage. Of course, right off the bat, this subject made my brain start humming. Is food storage consistent with a minimalist lifestyle, I wondered? More importantly, does it fit in with life in the Kingdom?

My childhood familiarity with the Scriptures has always given me the general impression that storing possessions is bad. After a quick search on the word “store” in the Bible, for instance, I found these well-known passages:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven”  (Matthew 6:19).

“Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).

Jesus also tells the story of a rich man who has such a great crop one year that he can’t store it all. He decides to build himself a bigger barn in which to store it and then take it easy for a couple of years. In response, God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Jesus explains, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

So food storage = bad?

Naturally, I’m discovering that the matter isn’t nearly so simple.

The Case for Food Storage

Astyk, drawing from her Jewish faith, makes some very compelling arguments for the merits of food storage.

In her introduction, she makes a case for the revival of what she calls “the welcome pantry and the welcome table.” For Astyk, the main purpose of having a full pantry is so that we always have something we can share with the people who come to our door.

“We think of the pantry as a measure of personal security – and it is,” she writes. “But it is also a measure of our capacity for generosity” (p.  xvi). She explains, “A reserve of food means that our pantry is never so empty that we cannot share a little” (xvi).

“We live in a world of need,” Astyk observes. She reminds us how many people go hungry ever day around the world and even here in North America, and notes that these numbers are rising.

“That rising tide of unfed hungers makes us see the world in terms of scarcity,” she observes. However, “the welcome table and the welcome pantry run contrary to this. They remind us that the summer comes round again, and that we have on hand sufficient to share, even if our sharing is plain” (xvii).

This is the important key to Astyk’s idea of food storage, and what makes her book remarkable: her repeated emphasis that “that reserve is for sharing, not for holding close” (p. 308).

And this totally resonates with Jesus’ parable about the man who builds bigger barns to hold his surplus of grain: he’s not storing it to share; he’s storing it so that he can “have plenty of grain laid up for many years.” He intends to “take life easy; [to] eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). It’s all for himself.

But back to Astyk. She points out, “Every faith that I know of has elaborate laws of hospitality and generosity. It is worth remembering that these faiths . . . grew up not in worlds of wealth and privilege but in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, when we were far poorer than we are now” (xviii).

Every faith demands that we welcome the stranger, even — or especially — in the face of our own hardships. And so we are wise and generous if we aim to have a stocked pantry so that we can help those people in need.

Moreover, if a time of need hits your community, and public food reserves become strained, Astyk argues that it may be your moral prerogative, if you have the means, to have a reserve of food of your own so that you are not taking food from others who do not have the means. She mentions folks like the elderly and disabled in particular. In other words, we should try to leave community reserves for those who need it more than ourselves.

The other major topic of the book is food preservation – that is, preserving food (using various methods) in times of plenty (like summer) so that they can be used in times of lack (like winter). Food preservation enables us to eat locally-grown foods year-round, so that we don’t have to rely on the unsustainable food system currently at work in North America.

Together, then, food preservation and food storage help diminish the power of the toxic, wasteful, destructive food systems of today in favour of more sustainable ones, which is a moral issue as well as a practical one.

stew food

Further Questions Regarding Minimalism

I must confess that it has crossed my mind before that extreme minimalism might have some ethical issues attached to it. With extreme minimalism, might we not end up relying on the preparedness of other people? Are we not simply asking other people to do the work of buying and maintaining the tools we might need?

Does minimalist living sometimes encourage us to take advantage of others?

(One way I have responded to these questions is to remind myself that most people in North America have WAY more stuff than they need which ends up going to waste. So taking advantage of their excess could actually be considered a moral act. It’s not my fault most homes contain seven times the amount of toys their kids need. But it frees me up from having to bring along toys for my own kid.)

And in the comments to one of my posts on minimalism, Lily pointed out how striving to live a simpler, more sustainable life actually prohibits minimalism to a certain extent. Growing, preserving and preparing your own food requires a fair amount of equipment and space. Like Lily, I own canners, a dehydrator, a Kitchenaid mixer, two freezers, etc. These are, I believe, helpful tools for building a sustainable food system.

And in fact, Sharon Astyk addresses this very issue: “For someone who is hostile to consumption, I have a lot of stuff. I live in a big old farmhouse full of stuff. I’m not really sure how to resolve this contradiction, or how I feel about it” (p. 285).

She adds, “I admire people like Peace Pilgrim and Buddhist monks who had with them only what they could carry. But of course, when Peace Pilgrim rested, she rested in the homes of people who had pots and pans and blankets. The Buddhist monks rely on charity from those who have more. The minimalist aesthetic works for some, but depends on there being community and public resources and those who have something to give” (p. 287).

Astyk has decided to try to create one of those homes that is able to welcome and sustain guests.

And I think I want to, too.

Final Thoughts

I still strive for minimalism in many areas of my life. However, in response to these reflections, I’ve come up with a couple of reminders for myself:

  • Motives matter. If I’m storing food and possessions with the mindset that it’s only for myself, I’m not being Kingdom-minded. I probably need to let it go or change my attitude.
  • What I’m collecting and storing matters. Are they merely status symbols, or sources of self-validation or a sense of security? Or are  they really valuable tools?
  • The amount of stuff I own matters. In terms of things like equipment, am I going beyond what I can reasonably use myself? Could someone else benefit from it more than me?

These are some of my reflections. What are your thoughts?

Images courtesy of chiostrun and smittenkittenoriginals.

For further reflection: consider the Parable of the Friend at Night (Luke 11:5-8).


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  1. I think there’s a big difference between food storage and food hoarding – like the parable of a bigger barn. The lesson is not that it’s unwise to build a barn, but rather that we should build such things with the right intentions.

    A few years ago a neighbor lost her apartment to an electrical fire. Between myself and another neighbor we had set up and furnishes a vacant apartment donated by our landlord with an an air mattress, pillows, towels, toiletries, litter box and food for her cat, and basic utensils, cookware and food literally before the Red Cross even made it past the parking lot (we had this done – towels hung, bed made, kitchen set up, in about 2 hours post-fire, before the woman got home even). This was all done because we had a little extra stored in our homes and even though the helping neighbor and I were both on the “very poor” side of finances we provided for someone in need without costing us a cent at that moment. It’s one of my prouder moments in life.

    That instances made me take the mind-frame that I should always have enough on hand to provide for another at a moments notice – now that doesn’t mean I have a warehouse full of stuff. But in a pinch I could put together a box of non-perishables, towels, maybe some linens or clothing, etc. without batting an eye plus if that moment never comes around to provide for another person again I take comfort in knowing that in the case of a personal emergency my family could be clothed and feed easily without be a bother to someone else. Once again, it’s not that we have closest of stuff stock piled – but I keep traveled sized soaps on hand, a few extra towels and one or two extra sheets (usually all but officially retired from use) on hand, I have non-perishable food that is easy to cook with, etc. To me, also striving for simplicity, this does not feel excessive in anyways, but rather prepared and I think that is key.
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  2. Well, and think about the parable of the virgins and their oil lamps–I know it’s talking about being spiritually ready for the Lord’s return, but it seems you could take the lesson that it’s good to be prepared for reasonable eventualities. The prepared virgins had an extra bottle of oil–they weren’t sitting on some vast squirreled-away oil hoard. But they had enough to get them through the whole night and not just the first part, so when the bridegroom was late, they were still ready to go in. And the unprepared virgins, maybe they thought they were being minimalist by not bringing extra oil, but in the end it meant they were locked out in the dark.

    I like the lessons you drew, and that book sounds interesting. Motives matter, for sure, as does the nature of what you’re storing. There’s not much merit in stocking up on toys and tchotchkes, but there can be merit in storing good food and the equipment needed to help you store and preserve it.

    Is an attitude that says, “I don’t need to keep all these things in my home because I can always go out and buy it” really a minimalist mindset? When minimalism forces us to rely on our decidedly unminimalist culture…maybe that’s somewhat counter-productive. Why does simplifying have to be so complicated!

  3. I think you touched on it with the “status symbol” part. I’ve been praying about your minimalist stuff for a while, because I store a lot. Because of that, we have saved, tens of thousands of dollars. I have clothes for all three children for the next six years (I make that the limit, no longer!) and I haven’t had to buy any school supplies like paper, pens, crayons etc. And all of this is because people get rid of so much stuff, for no reason. Clothes are meant to go through more than one child. We do not have a large house, but I am able to keep it somewhat organized in totes and diaper boxes (I should show you a picture: it’s taller than I am.) I have not paid a penny for any of it, people are so relieved to get rid of it, by dropping it off, throwing it in our car at church, etc. Some of the hand-me-downs I throw away, or give away to be used for scrap, but some stuff is so nice. I am starting to only keep a certain amount per size, as seriously, people throw and give away so much. I know we would not be able to afford the clothes we have, possibly for years. Is that storing up treasures? I know that while I am so appreciative, if the house blew up and I lost it all, I know God would provide again., so I wouldn’t worry. I think it’s being a good steward, and making the most of what you have? What do you think?

    • I totally agree, Sandra, that clothes are meant to be used by more than one child. I think it’s fantastic that you’re making use of clothes and other items that would otherwise go to waste. Sounds like good stewardship to me! I’m amazed that people are willing to give away and throw out so much. I guess I don’t know that many people with older girls.

      When I was reflecting on whether or not to store Lydia’s clothes, I was thinking that perhaps I should be passing them along for others to use in the interim, especially since we don’t know if/when we’ll be able to have more babies, whether they will be girls, etc. I certainly didn’t intend to throw them away! But if you’ve already GOT a bunch of kids, and another on the way, storing definitely sounds very wise!

  4. Great post, Kathleen! It will have me thinking all day! Jesus carried very few possessions, if any at all. Yet, he ate and slept in people’s homes who welcomed him. These people obviously had food and resources to share with Him, and wouldn’t it be beautiful to be one of those welcoming people? But, this also has me thinking about what Jesus called his followers to do: give up everything you have, and follow Him. Like I said, I’ll be thinking all day.

  5. So interesting! Regarding the minimalism debate, I think some are called to live a more apostolic lifestyle – in the sense of literally leaving all they have behind to follow Christ. Others are called to a more hospitality-centered minimalist lifestyle, where they do actually own a fair amount of stuff but are committed to the things you’ve discussed (using them to bless others, etc.). I used to feel called to more of the apostolic, give-everything-away-and-follow-Jesus-with-the-clothes-on-your-back, but that was also during years when I thought I was called to lifelong singleness, which clearly ended up not being what God really wanted for me. So now it seems like, by default almost, I get to choose between hospitality-focused minimalism or just plain old materialism and excess. (Also, why does it seem like marriage = more posessions?). Great post!!

  6. I think pretty much everything is ok to store as long as in our hearts we are not attached. I mean that we should be able to give anything that we have to a person in need. Our possessions were given to us by our father which means that we should be able to share with his children. Storing food will allow us to be prepare not just for our own storms but the storms of others. It’s a good thing in my opinion.

  7. We all have different personalities, gifts, talents, passions, likes, dislikes. The beauty of minimalism and the concept of simple living is that it frees up our thoughts, efforts, AND physical space to focus on the things we truly care about, without letting other “clutter” get in the way. If you’re all about storing and preserving food, and especially if you’re doing it in part to give it away, then go for it. You are aligning your possessions with your values. The Bible teaches that we all have different gifts that are each important and make up the body of Christ – why shouldn’t this apply to our possessions as well?

    Does extreme minimalism depend too much on others? Somehow I doubt it. I think we have a tendency to over-think this one. We can’t just evaluate this based on one moment in time or one-for-one exchanges. If you are a pretty hard-core minimalist, whatever you are NOT using and consuming most of the time is benefiting others (and the environment) in the grander scheme. And, when you don’t consume, you are able to use your money and other resources for others instead. You are not depriving yourself to the point where you always draining the resources of others, but rather “living simply so that others may simply live,” as Mother Theresa said. To put it plainly, it all evens out in the end. I think as long as we are giving to others (tangibly or intangibly) according to our own strengths and talents (which may be in the form of preserved food!), then it isn’t selfish or draining of others. If we work to foster healthy two-way friendships, and ultimately, communities with much giving and receiving going in all directions, people are happy to share from whatever talents or possessions they have when the need arises. And really, we MUST share. I always think of the polar alternative to everyone being an extreme minimalist – where EVERYONE owns lots of EVERYTHING, JUST IN CASE. It’s madness. The healthiest alternative is to all own little bits of different things and share, and let the people who “like their stuff” maybe just own a bit more than others. ;) Diversify! To quote an earlier comment, maybe instead of “I don’t need all these things in my home because I can always go out and buy it,” a minimalist philosophy could be changed to, “I don’t need all these things in my home because I can always borrow them from my community with which I also freely share my possessions and talents.” Minimalist or no, we always have something to give. Jesus sure did.
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  8. This is great Kathleen. I started to reply here but it was getting obnoxiously long, so I posted my response on my blog. Thanks for revisiting this topic, I think it’s an important conversation.
    Lily recently posted..Minimalism, Simplicity, and St*ffMy Profile

  9. I just discovered your blog, and I love the title and the premise behind it. It gives me an expression to bring together multiple issues I’ve been wrestling with in my own spiritual journey.

    I’ve read Sharon Astyk’s book and also found it very insightful and thought-provoking. I am drawn to the idea of minimalism, but I believe there are some very worthwhile and valid reasons for collecting and keeping certain things. For example, we were given several boxes of mason jars. I’m not currently in a season of life where I’m canning, but I do like to store food in glass rather than plastic, and when I’m delivering food to someone else, I like to send it in a jar. The jars are plentiful, so I can give them away freely not worrying about whether they’ll come back. Without letting my “stash” take over my house (and I am very vigilant about this), I also like to keep scrap fabrics (eg. discarded denim or wool clothing) and other materials that most people would throw away, knowing that I can turn them into quilts or gift bags or stuffed toys. I especially like to make things out of materials that would otherwise be discarded, “redeem” them through creativity and effort into something new, and then give them as gifts in place of store-bought, overseas-factory-made ones.

    I want to distance myself as much as possible from the human and environmental costs of our North American-style consumption. Sometimes I accomplish this through a minimalist approach – especially when it comes to my own wardrobe/personal care routine/possessions. But sometimes I accomplish this best by being a good steward of the abundance that has been entrusted to me. Creating an atmosphere of hospitality and the right kind of abundance are important to me as a woman/wife/mother. Of course it’s all a journey, and I’m still finding my way!

  10. Lifelong minimalist and Quaker here. The idea of simple living or minimalism (to me) is to live with only what you value and find necessary. So, for example, if you’re a baker you may have a ton of needed baking supplies and tools. As a non-baker, I have very few of those items.

    We also preserve and store food, and I’ve no trouble buying or storing necessary tools for those chores. After all, it’s something we enjoy doing, and it’s also something that helps to curb our spending and keep us eating healthfully. As for the food itself, as someone else pointed out above, I think there’s a world of difference between food hoarding and putting away food for later use.

  11. I think you answered it best with the point that in the US we have way too many possessions. I think minimalism is realizing we don’t need all the stuff, not that we’re trying to put our burdens on others or not show hospitality toward others.

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  12. I have been thinking about this a great deal, and can think of two non-hoarding examples of storing food. Joseph assisted in storing food for a famine during a time of plenty. With the price of food continually going up, it seems wise to purchase in bulk when something is on sale if you will eventually be buying it anyway. Also, as mentioned, there will always be some to share during a disaster etc. Another example is Proverbs, where we are reminded to look to the ant…the ant works very hard to store up food when it is available. Just some thoughts. We should trust God and not obsess over the matter and hoard, but be wise, work hard and be prepared to take care of our families without burdening others during trying times.

  13. I recently bought a small apartment sized freezer and was having a bit of trouble coming to terms with it in a minimal context. But I decided that the ability to store fresh food for longer was well worth it.

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