Author of The Dark Secrets of SHTF Survival and the online course SHTF Survival Boot Camp
Editor’s Note: If a disaster is bad enough and lasts long enough, it isn’t going to take long before there is no food to be had. In this interview with Selco, he shares his real-life experiences and explains how people kept from starving to death when there was no food in the stores. ~ Daisy
How do you get food when there are no stores?
At the beginning of everything, most of the people did not have any significant “stash” of food in their homes.
In other words, the majority of common folks had food for a
couple of days in their pantry and that was it. There were exceptions to that because the process of collapse did not happen in a few hours (in terms of suddenly there is no food in the stores).
When the chaos started, people looted stores after a short period of everyone buying things in a panic. Still, the majority of folks did not manage to get a decent stash of food from stores. Some did not want to believe that they were gonna need a stash. Others did not want to go out and participate in looting because it was dangerous. But I think the most obvious reason was that all food from stores was taken very fast.
In the beginning period of SHTF, events unfold at a very fast pace. Actually, events go one after another so fast that if you find yourself lost in one event at the end of several events, you ask yourself, “Why in the name of God I did not go out and buy a whole bunch of food while I still could do that?”
Was gardening an option? If so, how did people protect their gardens?
Yes, it was an option, but the percentage of food from a garden was low because of a few reasons.
It was a city, without enough land for significant food growing, and the second reason is that even people who had some land (small gardens near houses) needed time to grow food there.
People usually did not grow food there in normal times, flowers, tea, maybe some particular kind of tomato, salad greens, and similar.
I remember going and checking gardens for tomatoes because people had tried some new sort of tomato close to their home, not as a way to have food, but as an attempt so they could see is if it was OK to have it somewhere before they had a bigger piece of land for growing (before SHTF in a peacetime).
So yes, gardening was an option, people used every part of the available land, but that was not enough, and it was like you are checking every day how your tomato is growing and you wait for it, but then you pick it and realize you have food for only a couple of days.
We were not prepared at the time to use every piece of land for food growing. It takes time to establish that.
Still, it was precious, and it was protected of course, just like your home, in the same way.
How often did MREs get dropped?
There was no schedule for food drops, at least no real schedule because it was all based on rumors like, “Tonight they are gonna drop food from airplanes.” If you asked, “Who told you that?” the answer was “a guy who heard it from a guy who heard…” So, of course, it was completely based on luck.
Sometimes, it would “fall down” every second night, or you heard it had fallen somewhere, it would be “I heard it from a guy who heard it…”
Sometimes it was 3-4 times per week. Of course, they dropped it, but that does not mean we could find any of the food. Other people would simply grab it before you.
Some folks headed for the hills every night in order to wait. People would choose one guy from family to go up every night and wait.
If those food drops had any schedule there where they loaded planes (as I understand later, the place was in an airbase in Italy) it was completely lost on us down in the city in the chaos and empire of rumors.
You need to understand that in that time those planes were not the only ones to fly, so sometimes we were out waiting for food but actually, other planes bombarded us.
But very early we learned to recognize the low humming sound of food planes, distant but powerful.
Now when I look back, it is weird how we trusted some of that information. For example, if we heard that food was gonna be dropped that night in some particular part of the city, some small area of some hill, people would go there.
A reasonable man would have thought, “Oh, so some poor ragged guy in the middle of civil war and information blockade suddenly has info on where several huge military airplanes are gonna do some operation?” Not to mention the fact that the whole city together with all the hills looked to those people in the airplanes like small dots.
It was nonsense. But we were hungry, scared, and in the middle of chaos without any real information, so people trusted in a lot of things, especially in the good news.
Do not underestimate the power of rumors in hard times.
“Food drops” were performed for many cities in this area during the hardest part of the war. They helped on different levels.
Even today I find one of the happiest sounds to be the sound of MREs raining on a hard surface. I did not know the technical details (and still don’t) of how exactly that worked, but most of the things that were dropped would break apart in the air, so on the ground, it would “rain”.
It was like a lottery to be in the middle of that rain because the MREs were good stuff, and valuable, but some of the bigger stuff coming down could kill people. (It happened with bigger packages).
MREs were meals all in one package: food, sweet stuff, matches, even that hot sauce that was pretty handy when we want to add taste to some weird food that we ate or to mask a bad taste.
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Were you able to forage any food?
When it comes to foraging for plants, I know it is a popular opinion in some circles that you can survive and live by foraging.
In terms of urban survival, it is, in my opinion, overestimated if you are an average man.
Maybe it would work if you have lots of knowledge about edible plants, and maybe if you have many resources of those plants and are in the wilderness.
We were just average urban folks. Our knowledge about edible plants was limited to the one or two usable plants that could be used for homemade tea.
For example yes, we used pine needles for tea. It sounds great today, it is good healthy tea with vitamins and so on, but you can not live on it, it can be in addition to your food, but not your main resource.
Older folks jumped in with their knowledge. They were folks that in those times remembered WW2 and hunger, and people usually listened to them when it came to what plant you could use for food.
Plants like nettle and dandelion were used, and in the worst periods, people simply started to use any available grass mixed with a small amount of flour.
Eating plants and herbs in that time was not a case of healthy living. It was a matter of not having anything else to eat.
Were you able to scavenge for food from deserted buildings?
When the SHTF, especially in the beginning, some houses became empty. People left or died inside (for whatever reason, for example, shelling). Then folks would go through the empty houses and scavenge for food.
One memory from that time is the endless stench of rotten food (there was no electricity for the fridges). In the beginning, you could find food in that way.
If you were lucky sometimes you could find a bigger amount of food. Sometimes you came upon a house where the ex-occupant clearly hoarded food in the first days of rioting.
That period of time did not last for long. The stench of rotten food was pretty much substituted with another kind of stench. Soon there were more dead people then spoiled food in the city.
But even later, you would never know what you could find in destroyed and abandoned houses. Maybe few cans of food hidden or forgotten somewhere under the rubble, or in a destroyed fridge.
One thing interesting from that period (when it comes to scavenging) and also very important in prepper terms is that I witnessed and was part of something that I can call the transition of scavenging or maybe resetting the values of goods.
It goes something like this:
First people ran riot on stores and looked for valuables like gold, money, TVs, stereos, cars…then as they realized the situation, they looked for weapons, fuel, then candles, batteries, and food, then they’d dig up some gardens for few potatoes.
People needed some time to realize what was really important. It didn’t take very long but sometimes even a few days or a week is important.
I have seen people running from a mall with items that, in few days, would become most ridiculous items to possess (and to take from a burning mall) in the middle of a collapse, things like a TV or a laundry machine or a music collection of a famous band.
The majority of people could not imagine what was coming, so they could not fathom that a bag full of AA batteries was gonna worth more than 50 laundry machines.
For example, the laundry machine was usable only to plug a hole in the wall from shelling or to reinforce the door.
I am not advocating that you go out rioting and taking stuff from malls and stores when SHTF, but let’s say that if you find yourself there, think about what is useful to take in prepper terms.
Here is one example: if the SHTF again here, there is a parking machine in front of my home that gives you an automatic ticket when you insert coins. As soon as I see someone busting it open to take money from inside I will go and take the small solar panel from it (it is solar power operated). While other people think about money inside, I am thinking about solar power on the outside of it.
Where you able to hunt or trap anything for meat?
It was the city, so hunting or trapping anything more complicated than a pigeon was not really an option. The other reason was that it was city in the middle of a war, so real trapping had its own complications like shelling, constant noises, and similar.
If your situation is extreme, hunting or trapping can be about trapping pigeons or shooting a stray dog.
What are some things you can eat that most people wouldn’t think of as food?
It is a matter of levels. Sometimes I get questions over mail asking if we had cases of cannibalism, and the answer is no. People need to realize that the road to that extreme is very, very long.
There are many bad things to eat before getting to that extreme (even if you are willing to go there) and people do not realize that.
I ate spoiled and old food of different kinds, expired food (cans of cookies from military storages that were expired for decades), food with worms (cooked together with those expired cans), grass that was boiled in water, leaves from trees. We ate different kind of meat, pigeon for sure, and I am quite positive cat meat once, and rat meat once probably.
How did you extend food to make it feed more people?
Over time, it gets important to have some food, or in other words to have your belly “full” of something so easiest solutions were to water food down, or to mix it with plants.
In other words, we ate a lot of “soups.” For example, if we had a small amount of meat and rice, but we have water and some plants, we would make a big pot of soup.
In some cases, it looked more like tea (a lot of hot water with a small amount of food inside) but it solved the problem of how to make something big out of small amounts of something.
When a situation is hard – when it is hard and demanding on both psychological and physical way – you cannot really ration yourself. You need to eat something, because of the simple fact that you can not operate if you are not fed. So we ate a lot of very low-quality food, and yes we were always more or less hungry.
How did you cook food without power?
We cooked with fire, a stove that used wood, and often an open fire in the yard. It was a constant equation of heating and cooking with low wood resources.
For example if we needed to get a fire for heating it was used at the same time for cooking. (See Selco’s article on staying warm during a long-term SHTF scenario.)
A small open fire on the yard was used in weather when there was no need for heating.
Was there a black market for food?
Of course, and it was a matter that changed all the time based on what was available in the city at a given moment.
if food drops that week were good you could find MREs cheaper. Other times, all you could find was suspicious-looking meat cans without manufacture or expiration dates on them.
Nothing was fixed and for sure on the black market, not even fact that you gonna survive the trade not to mention other things. (See Selco’s article on the dangers of barter and trade)
Again, it was a matter of levels, so there were people who “owned” the black market (people with strong organizations, firepower, and connections). Sometimes they dictated the “pricing” of food in the city, and sometimes there were common folks who could offered you few cans of meat or two MREs from their stash.
Sometimes you could run into a man who was offering you “powdered eggs” but in a dark, not secure environment (you are trading with unknown armed people for example), you needed to be sure it is not some useless powder.
There were scams and you needed to be sure who you were trading with, how secure the place was, and what you were actually trading for.
How much of your time was taken up with acquiring and preparing food?
It was a matter of economic thinking. It was not about making it delicious because we had scarce resources like wood for the fire. and simply because often it was impossible to make it delicious.
It was brought down to the level of getting your stomach full of something so you can continue to operate one more day.
Things to know about eating when the SHTF
There are options of foraging for edible plants and hunting or trapping some animals in the city when the SHTF, but do not count on that as the main resource for your food, not in the long run.
Acquiring food in urban settings comes down to the idea of taking food from other people – either people that are not there anymore (empty houses) or people that are still there (through the trade or attack).
All of the above options (just like a lot of other prepper activities when SHTF) usually are not fancy and romantic/friendly.
When scavenging through deserted places, you can get injured and that injury can get complicated when there is no medical care. During a trade, you can get scammed, ripped off, or simply attacked and injured or killed because of the resources you possess in that moment or due to a lack of careful planning.
By attacking other people to get food (if you find yourself that desperate or if you wish to go that way) you are risking, of course, being killed.
In the end, it comes again to the idea that you need to be prepared very well for SHTF with your stash of food or your small garden where you are gonna choose what to have and how to use it in the most efficient way. You should minimize the need to go out and scavenge, at least until, you figure out some things.
Selco survived the Balkan war of the 90s in a city under siege, without electricity, running water, or food distribution. He is currently accepting students for his next physical course here.
In his online works, he gives an inside view of the reality of survival under the harshest conditions. He reviews what works and what doesn’t, tells you the hard lessons he learned, and shares how he prepares today.
He never stopped learning about survival and preparedness since the war. Regardless of what happens, chances are you will never experience extreme situations as Selco did. But you have the chance to learn from him and how he faced death for months.
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How did people in the country survive. Where they looted. Did areas band together for defence? We have a huge garden like everyone else around here. We are 2 hours from any major city and 45 min.from two small towns. We have good fishing 10 min. Away and surrounded by bush (forest). Do you have any information for people in this situation? Thanks to you and Daisy for your articles.
I also read a few years ago where Selco said that soap was very valuable. That a neighbor died cause of no soap. I have been also storing some soap. He said you can find coffee on black market but soap was harder to come by.
I am in a similar boat as you are, rural area, major city a good ways off, small towns still a drive away.
In the past, SELCO has mentioned that rural areas did not fair well, IIRC.
However, I do not believe they would be a one for one.
1) Population density: The population density of Bosnia is higher than the USA, at 178.6/sq mi vs 85/sq mi. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosnia_and_Herzegovina vs USA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States ) Even looking back over time, the density has not changed that much prior to and post Bosnia war ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovina )
2) Land mass: Bosnia is slightly smaller than the state of West VA at 19,741 sq mi vs West VA at 24,230 sq mi. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Virginia )
3) Climate and terrain vary greatly when comparing the two.
4) Growing seasons. Main land USA (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and various territories) the grow zones vary from 2a/b to 11b ( http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ ). Right now there are people in the south (FL, GA, panhandle) who have already started gardens. I have 2-3 feet of snow still out there.
In the northern areas I can tell you if there is a SHTF situation, fuel shortages and the snow plows quit running, no one is going nowhere unless you have snowshoes, cross country skis (the real ones, not ones made for groomed trials) or a snow machine (see fuel shortages).
Go to your big box stores and look around at the people. The average American can barely waddle from the parking lot to the front doors without getting winded, let alone strap on a pair of snowshoes or skis and go any appreciable distance in deep snow.
Dont get me wrong, I take note of everything SELCO and Mr. Martinez says. There will be similarities and there will be differences. Best thing to do is to network, get to know your neighbors, to be ready to form a mutual aid agreement (to use UN vernacular).
And keep prepping.
Food. Yes. Was reading the article and chuckled when Selco said about people died being squashed by the falling mres… Am very sorry. Tragic? Greatly.
Asked a group how a bear would taste like. Got the answer that I could expect but then, my real question is, if you’re going to go looking for wild animals in the nature, you’d better take the alpha predator first. Why? In my opinion, that’ll leave the choice of food source wider and much more, for a while, at least.
So, take the bears, wolves and cougars first. Then, your other meat might be abundant.
And all in all, since we are still able to stock up and prep up, keep it going.
Thanks for this Selco and to Daisy too. Appreciated this kind of “been there, done that” info.
I’d no idea we killed anyone with drops. Certainly wasn’t our intent.
We couldn’t keep schedules because the armies or thugs would just wait and steal it.
They also had SAMs so trying not to get our flyboys shot down.
Problem here is SHTF no one is gonna drop anything to help anyone and if they do I wouldn’t trust it. It’ll be poison or a setup.
We couldn’t border cross with anything. It was before KFOR went in. They kept the borders locked down. I remember fuel being $16 gl (4 liters) back then. They killed a guy they caught but we weren’t allowed to intervene on that side cause we were under UN control (Observe and Report). Shit still bothers me mentally today.
I was into preparedness before I went. When I came back it was super reenforced.
It’s really interesting hearing about this from the opposite perspective (the US one, I mean) after learning about it from Selco. When I visited him in Bosnia he took me to the hill where the drops took place and we also went to the sniper perches so I could see exactly WHY people could not just go to the river and get water. It was really something to see the places he writes about.
He also told me how grateful they were for those drops, despite the risks. He said the death toll would have been thousands higher without your help.
Thanks for sharing your memories of that.
I actually learned much from the people just as I have all these years later from Selco.
We did what we could. Our intentions on our end were pure. Can’t say that for the politics that got us there. Not everyone liked us for sure. Hell even our own country turned on us somewhat cause of the UN. I told my men we were gonna do the job and make sure American interest were protected. We did just that. That blueberry don’t mean I didn’t bleed red white n blue.
The kids suffering is the part that eats at me. You do what you can with the means you got available. Even that goes sideways sometimes. Another story for another day.
I’d started learning Macedonian. I always found it helps when you are in someone’s home to do so. Taking my Oklahoman accent and trying to combine letters like Z and D saying ZDravo (a greeting) left much to be desired and got laughs. But even that broke the ice when talking with folks especially the farmers on the border.
Just as we are experiencing shortages so did they. The few middle class with cars in Skope only had one wiper usually and they took it off the car and in the store or house with them. They had a river but a fishing pole was $100 for a worn out zebco 33 cheapie if you could find it.
Yeah wouldn’t trade that tour for the world. It was hard on me and my family. I left shortly after my daughter was born and next time I saw her she was walking. You don’t get that time back. Gotta make amends as a grandpa.
Don’t waste no days cause not all of us came back. Life’s short.