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Getting back to our roots

Erin Crowell - May 17th, 2010
Getting Back to Our Roots:Root cellars make a comeback during a rutted-out economy
By Erin Crowell
Think about your last shopping trip to the grocery store. What food
did you buy? How much did you buy? Did you eat everything you
According to research by former University of Arizona anthropologist
Timothy Jones, more than 40 percent of all food produced in America is
not eaten. Wasted food costs our country more than $100 billion
annually. The average four-person household wastes $600 in food each
year – that’s a decent flat screen TV.
One major culprit is food spoilage. Sure, our intentions are pure –
buying fresh fruits and vegetables for a healthy lifestyle; but the
fact is, we don’t know how to store fresh foods, and it’s costing us.
One major solution: keep those veggies green and you’ll save some
green. Root cellars have been around since the dark ages, but they are
slowly regaining momentum as home food preservation typically
increases during a rough economy, according to the National Gardening

A root cellar is natural cold storage, whether it’s in a basement or a
concrete structure dug into the ground. With higher humidity to
preserve moisture in vegetables, root cellars maintain a temperature
of 33 to 40 degrees during the winter if built correctly.
A few years back, Jeff Geiger—owner of Grand Traverse Balloons—built a
root cellar on his Traverse City property. An avid gardener, Geiger
wanted to keep his harvest fresher, longer. He also was getting apples
by the bushel from his friend Sandy Rennie of Rennie Orchards near
“We literally had thousands of apples last year,” says Geiger. “We fed
our neighbors and friends.”
Thanks to Geiger’s root cellar, last fall’s apple crop is still edible today.
“Galas usually only last a month or two,” Geiger says, just before
taking a bite out of one, its skin snapping – followed by a crunch.
“Apples give off ethylene gas, so you have to store them separately
from other produce.”
Geiger’s apples are stored in one of two rooms. They sit in the
entrance, guarded from the elements behind a re-purposed house door.
It’s cool in this room, surrounded by darkness.
That’s until you open the second door.
With a turn of the knob (and a good shove), a wave of cold air punches
you in the darkness. The smell is earthy, but it’s not stale.
Geiger snaps the switch on a small lamp clamped to a cedar shelf.
There are 12 shelves total, spaced at just the right height and
distance from the wall for optimum food preservation.
The room is fairly empty this time of year, accept for a couple boxes
of potatoes and carrots and a folding lawn chair.
There are different roof options for a root cellar: flat, pitched and
rounded – Geiger chose the latter for air circulation purposes.
“Next time, I’m doing a pitch. It took way too long to get the roof
just right,” he says of the cement blocks above.
Geiger enlisted the help of his friend Dave Smith to handle the
masonry work. A couple friends and family members also helped to build
the root cellar—which measures 10 feet wide by 14 feet deep. Nestled
into the side of a hill, Geiger dug out a hole and used the dirt to
cover the structure to help keep it cool. A root cellar typically
needs to be at least four feet below the ground to avoid the frost
line. Four vents keep cool air in and stagnant air out. Two are
located near the entrance, the other two are on the roof.
It took over a month to build his, but Geiger says a decent-size crew
can build a root cellar in just a couple weeks.
It also pays.
“Oh, it paid for itself in the first year,” Geiger says. “It’s just
phenomenal how long it preserves food. We had more food than we knew
what to do with.”

Like Geiger, Harry Round has known about root cellars ever since he
was a child. Round is president of House of Hope in Traverse City, a
non-profit that helps struggling and at-risk teens become responsible
young adults through discipline, faith and hard work.
House of Hope is currently in the process of building a root cellar on
its campus. The cellar, which will be about the size of a two-car
garage, will house cabbage, beets, carrots, celery, parsnips,
potatoes, turnips, apples, pears and more – food that is grown right
on property, as well as produce that has reached its shelf life in
local grocery stores.
“What stores normally do is leave products on shelves for as long as
what’s safely possible, and 55% of that food is thrown out,” says Val
Stone, community services coordinator for the Northwest Michigan
Community Agency & Food Coalition. “So, Food Rescue picks up the
near-expired food to find a home.”
The goal of Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan is to collect food from
restaurants, bakeries, caterers and grocery stores and distribute it
to area food banks and homeless shelters.
Also on the forefront is the Fresh Food Partnership – a non-profit
that purchases fresh produce from local farmers and gives it to area
food pantries and shelters. These fruits and vegetables are high in
nutrients, something pantries and shelters rarely get from average
food drives where most of the shelves are stocked with non-perishables
like macaroni and cheese.
But, even though these organizations are working hard to bring fresh
food to the less fortunate, the problem lies in the food pantries’
distribution schedules.
“Maybe a pantry’s food distribution isn’t until the next week, so the
potential is there for the food to spoil,” says Stone.
The solution? A root cellar.
“House of Hope’s root cellar could store those foods – foods that have
a longer shelf life, but don’t do well in the pantry closet,”
continues Stone. “The idea of using a root cellar is a great idea
because you can store larger quantities and it’s still fresh and

The idea for building a root cellar came from an early April meeting
between several non-profit agencies at the Father Fred Foundation to
discuss a survey of the 41 pantries in Northwest Lower Michigan.
Food spoilage was high on the list, so began a collaboration between
the Northwest Food Coalition, Fresh Foods, the Michigan Land Use
Institute, Goodwill, Oryana Food Co-op, the Father Fred Foundation and
House of Hope.
Once again, it was Dave Smith volunteering his time to do the masonry
work, who brought Geiger on-board.
“I talked with Harry and helped him with the design and ventilation
aspects,” says Geiger.
Currently, the root cellar is just a foundation, carved into the side
of a hill near the House of Hope’s main building. Cement blocks of
different color—donated by Concrete Services—make up the start of what
will be one of the largest natural fresh food storage facilities in
the area.
In the entrance, “Gen. 21” is imprinted on one of the cinder blocks.
It’s Genesis from the Bible – the chapter about “Beersheba” or a “well
of the oath.” Interestingly, many root cellars were made out of well
pits – that is, until they were deemed unsafe.
This root cellar should be just fine; and with a rising number of
people going hungry in the area, it has to be.
“In 2008, the 41 pantries gave food to around 205,000 people,” says
Stone. “Last year, it was up to 255,000.”
A root cellar will be one more tool for the cause, says Stone.
“It’s worked for hundreds of years and people are just now going
back,” she continues. “It’s true, we really are going back to our

Interested in building your own root cellar? Geiger recommends “Root
Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables” by Mike and
Nancy Bubel. This how-to paperback—which retails for $14.95—covers
everything from building tips to the history of root cellars. For more
information on the organizations involved in the Fresh Food
Partnership, visit; information on the
Northwest Food Coalition may be found at You may reach
Harry Round and the folks at House of Hope by visiting
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