Pennsylvania, Unites States: Buying in bulk may conjure the inelegant image of stocking up on cheap toilet paper, but bulk food is not only efficient and modern, but sustainable. It’s the future of traditional grocery stores.
Bulk foods are better than packaged foods for three reasons: First, you can buy your produce completely package-free by putting your dry goods in either glasses or compostable paper bags. The unsustainable culture of convenience has encouraged food producers to make more packaging, leaning heavily on pre-portioned, pre-cut, travel ready produce that’s sealed tightly in a plastic mold. Buying in bulk makes a sustainable alternative to that wastefulness accessible to those who don’t have the resources for a personal garden or traveling to a farmers’ market. Most of bulk food is also shelf stable; it won’t go bad before you use it, reducing food waste. Finally, bulk food typically relies on dried nuts and fruit, and whole grains, all of which are minimally processed and have a low carbon footprint compared to other popular snacking items.
You might be tempted to say this is a movement that’s dominated by big cities like New York or London, but in my hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a new bulk food store called Provisions is thriving. It’s the first true grocery store in a city that was up until recently a food desert – meaning it was very hard for residents to find produce within the city limits on days that the farmers’ market wasn’t open. The decision to open a bulk food store was not only based in environmental considerations, but economics – because of space restrictions in an urban storefront, they couldn’t fit the same kind of selection shoppers are used to without going package-free, says Adam Porter, co-founder. Having no packaging also reduces the environmental impact and cost of shipping because the goods can ship using the space efficiently. Once again, we see the sustainable option is also the most financially salient, contrary to dominant business narrative.
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I asked if he saw any kind of culture shock or learning curve in the shoppers for whom bulk food might be completely new, and he happily reported that most shoppers are open, if not thrilled, to avoid plastics. The primary hurdle he sees is their selection. Carrying several varieties of dried beans and grains, some are hesitant because they don’t know how to prepare them, but with a little education – recipe cards and meal ideas prepared by local chefs – they expect this shouldn’t be a problem for long.
Provisions’ mission is to rekindle the connection between a person and their food. The recipes not only empower Harrisburg residents to eat better but to cook together, the foundation of almost every community. They encourage anyone who shops there to give input on what they like and what they’d like to be able to buy. Talking to a member of a small independent team who have the freedom to make changes is a much more intimate process than with corporate grocers. They truly want to reflect and meet the needs of their community while making a larger positive impact on the environment.
Stores like this are on the rise, but they’re still rare. In their research, Adam and his co-founder Shaun found only a handful of cities across the world with stores remotely like theirs. This could be explained by the notoriously difficult grocery business with sometimes razor thin profits; Adam says they need to be creative with their resources to meet the supply demands, but being independent also gives them the freedom to break away from rigid corporate culture and policies.
Despite the hardships, I’d love to see more stores like this trailblazing efficient, sustainable practices. According to NPR if all Americans switched to bulk versions of common foods, it would save tens of millions of pounds of garbage annually. If this trend hits the mainstream, it could have a huge effect on global food waste and the accumulation of plastics in our soil and oceans.
Do you buy in bulk or live near a bulk food store? I’d love to hear from everyone about their experiences going zero waste in the kitchen!