Less than a mile away from where Hurricane Sandy once engulfed the Staten Island ferry pier and shut down transportation for nearly a week, artist Tattfoo Tan has a small sign posted on his front door. “DON’T DESPAIR,” it reads. “BE PREPARED.”
Tan greets guests for the opening of his latest work in a khaki shirt, cargo pants, and a flint striker on his belt loop. For someone who has spent much of the past two years training himself in disaster preparedness, Tan appears upbeat, and smiles warmly as he introduces guests to several large, military-grade cargo boxes of dehydrated food under a tarp.
These are meals Tan’s prepared himself, first by sneaking food waste from an undisclosed grocery store, cooking the ingredients, drying the results, and packaging them to last. “MRE” stands for Meals Ready to Eat, and Tan stores them in medical cases he bought from Iraq war veterans on eBay. He started building his collection of MRE’s in 2012, but for the next two months he’s showing them as part of his New Earth collection, a series of projects meant to raise ecological consciousness. By combining food waste issues with disaster relief, Tan hopes that his MRE’s, which recently won a Core77 design award, will help educate the public on multiple aspects of food security. He plans on teaching MRE classes himself at the local Port Richmond high school.
“If any natural disaster did happen again, I’d be able to sustain myself and maybe some of my friends,” Tan explains. During Sandy, his local grocery store flooded, and Tan had to walk to the center of the island and take a bus to Manhattan in order to stock up. “Because of this location, I did not suffer what other people suffered. But I suffered in a way that I felt I was insecure.”
Tan won’t say where he got the food that went into items like his apple sauce prosciutto (dehydrated strips of apple sauce), chipotle mashed potato, or carrot soup with sundried tomato–only that he sourced his ingredients from that which had been discarded because of blemishes or uneven shape. Much of that, Tan explains, turned out to be marked-up potatoes or split carrots.
Tan’s tackled food security issues in his past work, too. Before he embarked on the MRE’s, Tan had set up a trilogy of projects around resilience. For SOS (Sustainable. Organic. Stewardship.), Tan immersed himself in a series of environmental training programs and became certified by the city as a master composter, citizen pruner, urban permaculturist, and community organizer. Tan then went on to create a host of works like a free seed bank and mobile gardens placed in shopping carts.
But as far as disaster preparedness goes, urban gardening and creative takes on freeganism are a far cry from the preppers hosting conferences on the apocalypse and stocking up on canned sandwiches. “That’s not my theory of preparedness. Preparedness is staying healthy, or understanding food that you could pick up from trees or plants that are edible,” Tan says. “I try to stay positive, not try to be a worst-case scenario person. For me, it’s not about the future but what we do now.”