In the early 90s in Newfoundland, there was a now-defunct department store called Woolco (ultimately bought by “Volde-mart“) where I first encountered bulk food. The first time I walked into the store, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Bins full of gummy bears and Smarties that were begging me to dive in with both hands. Ok, so maybe this wasn’t exactly bulk food as much as it was bulk junk, but that really wasn’t an issue for me at the time. And let’s face it, it still isn’t. Nevertheless, bulk food has now become quite popular and there are plenty of local grocery stores that are entirely devoted to bulk food or at the very least have a large bulk section. When I say “bulk”, I don’t mean giant flats of canned spaghetti sauce or enormous bottles of parmesan cheese. What I’m referring to is everyday food staples that are often sold in prepackaged quantities, but are also available in bins where you can scoop out as much as you want. This is where the magic happens.
So what’s so great about buying in bulk? So much! First of all, you can buy as much as you need. Just because it’s in bulk, doesn’t mean that you have to buy pounds and pounds of oats. Need a cup? Buy a cup. It’s on sale and you want to stock up? Buy as much as you can use. Need an ingredient for just one recipe? Want to try something new, but you’re not sure if you’ll enjoy it? Buy just enough to make your yummy meal or to be a little adventurous and you won’t have to throw away any expired packaged ingredients. You’re saving food from being wasted and preventing the use of precious resources to recycle a bunch of plastic. Not to mention what you’re saving from being thrown into the landfill.
Don’t forget that you’re saving money, too. So much money gets thrown out in food waste and packaging every day. When you’re not paying for packaging and food that won’t be eaten, you’re saving yourself a pretty penny. A 2012 Bulk Foods Study that was conducted by the Portland State University Food Industry Leadership Center (that’s a mouthful), found that consumers save 89% by buying food in bulk. And that’s organic food! This study was based on American prices, but from my experience, the savings are comparable in Canada. For example, a quick price check at a local grocery store showed that a 15oz can of black beans cost $2.29 (on sale). The same black beans in bulk cost $0.39 (on sale) for the exact same amount of beans once cooked. That’s quite a big difference. Maybe you’re thinking that the time commitment and the energy you use to cook the beans will end up costing you as much as it would to just buy the can, but you actually need very little of both. Soak your beans overnight (you’ve gotta sleep sometime!), bring them to a boil the next day and turn off the heat, letting them soak until fully cooked in the hot water. Drain them and use them immediately or put them in a container topped off with water and store them in the freezer until you need them. Voilà! Bulk beany deliciousness for a fraction of the cost of packaged.
But I need a bag, you say. And that’s packaging. Very true, but you can reuse your bags instead of throwing them away each time like you would with prepackaged food. Same goes for your twist ties. I must admit that I have a handy helper (see husband) who washes and folds my bags each time, but it is something that I would take the time to do myself if it came down to it. You can also find reusable produce bags that you can keep with your cloth grocery bags or in your bicycle panniers. I’m safely assuming that everyone is using cloth grocery bags by now (because it’s 2016).
A great store here in Victoria, BC for bulk food is For Good Measure. They have pretty much everything you can imagine in bulk. Gluten-ful and gluten-free flours, baking soda and powder, oats and grains of all types, lentils, pastas and spices for which you won’t find better prices (gotta lay off the Seuss), and, of course, beans! There’s also Ingredients Café and Community Market which has a nice bulk section where you can also find tea! I like to go one step further and get my soaps in bulk as well. I make body soap, but I buy my dish and laundry soap from The Soap Exchange. You can bring in your own container, have it filled and pay by weight. You can also bring in your previously purchased laundry and dish washer soap buckets and have them refilled. I only need to refill my soaps about 3 times a year. It can seem like a big investment at first, but when you consider what you would spend each month on a bottle of dish soap, you end up saving a lot and supporting a local business at the same time. Win!
Seems like you would have a lot of bags of food to store, right? It’s not exactly practical to store and use flours and grains when they’re in plastic bags. My solution, born out of practicality rather than hipster love, was to use mason jars to store my bulk food. After moving into my house, I discovered that there were little creatures finding their way into my food. Needless to say, I was displeased. A convenient and bug proof system was necessary, and mason jars happily do the trick. I painted the bottles with some chalkboard paint, making it easy to identify and change the contents as needed. Being a preserve enthusiast anyway, the jars line up nicely next to my pickles and jams. Since I usually buy more than will fit into a jar at one time, I have extra bulk foods to store. Instead of keeping the bags in my cupboards taking up space, I keep them all together in a storage container and refill the jars as necessary.
All of these benefits and I haven’t even mentioned some of the bigger positive impacts that buying in bulk has on the environment. Less waste, less waste, less waste. Bulk items cut down on shipping materials and delivery costs (shipping more at once means using less fuel!), less packaging means less to recycle. We often forget that recycling isn’t a magic eraser. Just because something can be recycled, doesn’t mean that its effect on the environment is null and void. Recycling demands resources like water and energy, so it’s best to follow the three Rs in the order presented: reduce, reuse, and then recycle. That being said, recycling is a non-negotiable at this point and is definitely better than sending waste to the landfill.
Aside from being cost-effective and good for the environment, buying bulk food is just plain fun. It’s like being a kid in a candy store, but this time around you get to load up on healthy ingredients that will make for delicious meals. Then again…a scoop of gummies here and there can’t hurt.