Pellets, powders and pastes in the bulk section of stores like Food 4 Less have intimidated many shoppers new to purchasing from plastic bins — even cooking instructor Mary Shaw.
"It was horrifying," Shaw says, recalling her first trip 25 years ago to a health-food store in Santa Fe, N.M., and running up against a wall of "beige food."
Instead of backtracking to the aisles lined with neat, individual packages, Shaw made a deal with herself to try one new food from the bulk section every week. Her sense of well-being expanding with each shopping trip and subsequent meal, Shaw started relishing the fiber-rich grains, beans and dried fruits, heart-healthy nuts and oils and antioxidant herbs and spices.
"I began to realize that was a better way to buy food," Shaw says.
Bulk-foods fans like Shaw, now culinary educator at Ashland Food Co-op, may have to spend a few minutes scooping, weighing and labeling pantry staples before tossing them in the cart. But they agree they're enjoying better-tasting groceries at lower prices.
Bulk foods, Shaw and other grocery-store employees say, are fresher because supplies are constantly restocked. And shoppers' prerogative to purchase small quantities safeguards flavor, particularly of herbs and spices.
Buying only what you need also prevents waste, Shaw says.
But the bulk section's absence of cartons, boxes, bottles and wrappers — indicative of why food purchased there is usually cheaper — has become a lure for environmentally minded shoppers who can't reuse or recycle food containers to their satisfaction. While cardboard, glass and some plastics employed to package food can be recycled, plenty of other materials, like cellophane wrappers, can't.
"It minimizes the amount of packaging that goes into the waste stream," says Co-op shopper Tracy Harding, citing as an example the single plastic bag encasing 25 pounds of granola headed for the Co-op's bulk section.
"That's one container as opposed to 50 containers" Harding says. "And you can use your own container endlessly."
About 75 percent of customers use their own containers in the bulk section of Ashland's Shop 'N' Kart, says Tiffany Kaae, bulk-section manager. So they don't pay for the weight of the container, customers weigh the empty vessel and note its tare weight — subtracted at the register when the cashier rings up the bulk food.
A "container exchange" in the Co-op's bulk-food section allows customers to obtain clean plastic cartons or glass jars free of charge, which they can keep or wash and return. Customers trying to avoid hard-to-recycle plastic bags can purchase reusable muslin bags that Harding sews and sells at the Co-op for around $3 apiece.
Shop 'N' Kart bundles and recycles all of its paper bags received with 25- or 50-pound shipments of bulk foods, Kaae says. But the store often dispenses large plastic tubs favored for shipping certain items to customers who want to reuse them," she says.
"They're good for storing rice, beans, everything."