Shortage of Canning Supplies Causes Headaches for Home Gardeners

There aren't enough jars and lids to go around.

jars of pickles
Jars of pickles on a table.

@angriley8 via Twenty20 

When grocery store shelves became uncomfortably empty in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people turned to their own backyards in consolation. They planted seeds and tended vegetable gardens throughout the spring and summer, in an effort to feel more self-sufficient and food-secure, and perhaps also to pass the time in a productive fashion.

The result has been bountiful crops of vegetables that now must be harvested. But what to do with all those tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cabbages, and more? Canning is the obvious solution, except that it's now difficult to find the materials with which to do it properly because everyone else is doing the same thing.

The Guardian reported that many U.S. stores are now out of canning jars, lids, and bands. A spokesperson for Ball, maker of Mason jars, said there has been "unprecedented demand for supplies." 

"The demand has resulted in supply constraints, extended lead times and recently limited product availability at stores and online," the spokesperson said. To replenish the stock as quickly as possible, the company said it had increased glass production and found additional lid manufacturers.

People wanting to preserve their home-grown produce have gone to multiple stores and driven considerable distances to try to source canning supplies. Some have resorted to paying higher prices to order online, or buying full sets of lids and bands, when they only needed one of those items. 

The surge in demand should not be surprising, as it seems the logical extension of so many seeds being sold in the spring. (Seed sales are estimated to be up 300% this year.) Online tutorials for both gardening and canning have been hugely popular, and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (part of the University of Georgia) said it "received more than 500 emails and phone calls since mid-March from new gardeners, those who are expanding their gardens or seeking help with plant disease issues, a jump from previous years."

If you are one of the unfortunate few who cannot find canning supplies, it's important to realize that this is one situation in which you should not make do with what you have. Don't mess around with old sealing lids, hoping they'll do the trick. Kate Shumaker, a spokesperson for Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Studies, said:

"It's important that people precisely follow the proper steps and recipes when home-canning to help prevent botulism, a rare but potentially deadly illness produced by bacteria called Clostridium botulinum ... Home-canning is a science, but it’s not the time to experiment. You can’t make up your own recipes. A lot of things can affect the safety of your final product."

If you're in a real pickle, another option is freezing your excess produce. Some things can be frozen raw, such as chopped tomatoes and sliced bell peppers. Others should be blanched in boiling water before freezing, such as string beans, broccoli, greens, peas, and asparagus. You can freeze grilled vegetables, like zucchini and eggplant, and it will retain wonderful smoky flavor. You can also slice cooked corn off the cob and package it in bags or containers to freeze. 

You could also look into fermentation, which is another form of food preservation that does not require sealed containers. Fermented foods last a long time, though not as long as canned. Anne-Marie Bonneau, a.k.a. the Zero Waste Chef, explains:

"Fermentation requires very little of our energy to prepare. To brew kombucha, you brew tea, sweeten it, backslop a bit of kombucha from a previous batch, add the SCOBY and wait. To ferment vegetables, you chop them, salt them, pack them in a jar and wait. Some dairy ferments require even less work. To make kefir, you add some kefir grains to milk and wait." 

The waiting component is perhaps the biggest challenge for people, but because canning and fermenting are both an act of preservation for the future, they're not all that different. People who are canning or fermenting do not expect to eat their finished products immediately, and are willing to wait for the results.

Hopefully, though, you will be able to find the canning supplies you need, and next year you'll know to stock up at the same time that you order seeds for planting. Ultimately, it's a hopeful and positive sign that so many people are learning to preserve their own food. I suspect that once they've tried it and enjoyed the convenience of having delicious summer vegetables on hand all winter long, they'll want to keep doing it – and that is a definite win for our food supply chain.