7 Reasons why the Grocery Bulk Section will Continue to Thrive
Updated: Jul 29
I've long been an advocate of bulk, or plastic-free, shopping in my local grocery - not to be confused with buying bulk at Costco, which rewards large quantities of products with lower prices. What I'm referring to is that secret corner or aisle of your supermarket, health food store, or co-op that houses an array of loose ingredients in self-serve containers and the DIY tools needed to pack and weigh them: bags, a digital scale, stickers, and markers. I consider it a dazzling experimentation lab if you're willing to have fun and take some risks. I also believe it to be one of most sustainable and resourceful ways to shop for food. In fact, other cultures have long been offering up colorful spices, nuts and dried fruits by weight in their local markets (usually not self-serve though).
As you can tell, I am passionately committed to shopping this way and sharing tips with anyone who'd like to join me on a tour through their natural grocer. I even tote a customized "bulk box" filled with pre-weighed and labeled empty jars of all sizes that fits perfectly in the cart. Efficiency to the max.
For now though, we're all holding out on the future of bulk since it has been radically impacted by Covid restrictions that started in March.
As you may have noticed (or if not, take a peek) bulk bins have been emptied and ingredients pre-portioned into little plastic bags or containers. Self-serve no longer. On the one hand, I'm grateful that these places have continued to offer bulk items within the current limitations. On the other, it's hard to look beyond the resulting surge in plastic waste as it contradicts so strongly with the eco-friendly nature of bulk shopping. My empathetic self struggles with this reality - anybody else? I'm starting to gain hope though as stores allow customers to bring reusable bags and single-use plastic measures are gradually loosening. As of July, for example, many Whole Foods' have re-allowed bulk shopping - no scooper bins, just the lever-controlled ones, which is fine by me.
I recently read an article about tech companies looking to modernize the bulk with automated "smart" systems, already being tested in Germany and France. Yes, this much-needed upgrade would positively transform the bulk from a daunting, time-intensive, and messy experience to one that is efficient, accurate (with sensor-driven dispensers) and highly sanitized. All great wins that could come out of this period of crisis.
Whether the bulk gets made over or not, its many benefits remain the same and may become even more relevant within our evolving food landscape. The emphasis on simplicity and resourcefulness is at the forefront of our homes and kitchens.
1) Save money. 30-60% in fact. Any time you buy a product off the shelves, you also pay for the wrapping and the convenience for it to be pre-weighed and individually sealed. As a bonus, I've noticed additional 20% discounts in these departments too, including Earth Day promos!
2) Buy the exact quantity you need. Perfect for experimenting with ingredients that are not part of your household rotation like chickpea flour or smoked sea salt. This eliminates the clutter for items that sit partially opened in your pantry until you move!
3) Freshness. The more people shop this way, the higher the turnover, and thus the more frequently items are replaced. This is particularly important for ingredients that may deteriorate quickly like nuts, coffee beans, or spices.
4) Less environmental footprint. Less plastic packaging and bottles to dispose of which is especially crucial within our broken recycling system. If you bring your own containers or choose small paper bags to fill up your goods, you'll reduce plastic use even more.
5) Variety. Each bulk section is stocked differently depending on its location, clientele, and physical space. But expect to find staples like rice, grains, flours, nuts, granola, snack mixes, baking ingredients, loose leaf tea, spices, artisanal salts, and coffee beans (often found in the coffee aisle). One of my favorites, the Ashland Food Coop, has a designated liquid bulk area showcasing oils, vinegars, raw honeys and liquid aminos, along with a collection of donated and sanitized glass jars (this latter concept will most likely not survive post-Covid).
6) Support local vendors. So many local brands are represented in the bulk section and it's crucial that we invest in our community. Fillaree, an incredible small business out of Durham, stocks their all-natural bulk soap in many groceries, home and garden stores.
7) Easier on the senses. You no longer need to sift through complex nutrition labels and claims on packaged goods which can easily lead to decision fatigue for us sensitive folks. Instead, here you'll find just one or two brands represented AND you can sample the products with the help of an employee of course...yes, we've all slipped on this one!
I love empowering people to consider new ways of shopping that are simpler and more resourceful, and that ultimately have less of a footprint on the environment. I will continue to sing the praises of this form of plastic-free shopping and hope we see more stores dedicated entirely to the concept of refillables. Check out NADA grocery for inspiration!