Bulk Bins vs. Bulk Stores

As minimalists, Angie and I struggle with where to place the line between self-sufficiency and having too much food stuff. Most folks trying to achieve a self-sustained lifestyle want to see a freezer full of food at the end of the summer and a fully stocked pantry going into winter. I, on the other hand, feel conflicted about this. Is having 12 jars of homemade jelly, 6 jars of honey, and two cases of salsa excessive if you eat those things nearly every day? Is wanting to “hoard” the bounties of summer for winter enjoyment actually hoarding? I know the answer is “no” but sometimes my mind tells me things like, “you live next door to the store, why do you need 10 quarts of berries and 5 dozen ears of corn in the freezer? Why do you even have a freezer in the first place? Walmart has a whole row of them!”

I’m learning not to listen to that voice. Besides, food is a great source of joy for us. Making it, eating it, sharing it…all of these things make us happy. And as Marie Kondo might say, if it sparks joy, it’s not clutter, right?

What started this most recent session on my internal debate is that it is time for our quarterly trip to Sam’s Club and we are finally out of pinto beans. Over a year ago, we bought a 12-pound bag of pintos, along with a 25-pound box of rice. As I sit here typing this, the last of the beans are in the crock pot, making the base for what is starting to smell like a delicious vegetarian chili. The beans cost around $7 at the time, making them about 58 cents a pound. I believe the price is now closer to $8 at Sam’s and the weight of the bag is now 10 pounds instead of 12 (or about 80 cents a pound). My inner self is wondering, do we buy another giant bag of beans or do we simply get what we need from the bulk aisle as we need it? Bulk beans are 99 cents a pound at Kroger.

Along with the price, there’s storage to consider. But, for as much as I hated finding space for a 12-pound bag of beans, I can’t count the number of times having them saved me over the past year. When I needed a cheap meal – beans and rice. When I needed a meal that could last the whole weekend – homemade chili. When I needed a meal to take to a potluck – a simple pot of beans.

Trying to rationalize our bean purchase has got me thinking about the pros and cons of shopping the bulk bins versus shopping the bulk stores (i.e. Sam’s Club, Costco, BJ’s, etc.) and here’s what I’ve come up with:

Shopping Bulk Bins

Pros: You can buy only the amount you need, thus reducing food waste. The prices are usually cheaper than the same item packaged on the shelf. You can bring your own container in most stores, which keeps a plastic bag out of landfill.

Cons: Some areas have a very limited number of stores that offer bulk bins and the selection in those bins can be limited as well. In our area, we have only one store with a bulk aisle. Freshness can be an issue if the bins are not properly rotated. Just recently we bought a ¼ pound of almonds that started to mold within a week. Forgetting to bring a bag can present a dilemma. Though we keep some in the car, we rarely remember to bring them in and Angie often has to run back out to get them. Not everything is cheaper, especially if the store is having a sale on items like granola, cereal, and rice.

Shopping Warehouse Stores

Pros: You can find a warehouse store almost anywhere in the US. They are huge and filled with a variety of both grocery and household goods. For items you use all the time, buying a large quantity can save trips to the store (reducing gas usage and time spent away from other pursuits) and money. And if you go on the weekend, you can sample your way to a free lunch (sorry, I just had to throw that in).

Cons: The membership fee! We are included on Angie’s parents’ business account, so our annual membership is free. If we had to pay though, I wouldn’t be writing this because we would not be shopping at Sam’s. (Yes, we really are that cheap!) The package sizes are huge. It took 13 months to work our way through the pinto beans and we’re still only half way through the box of rice. With such large quantities, food waste can become an issue, as items can go bad (or you might simply get tired of eating it) before you reach the bottom of the bag. Not to mention storage! We live in a 1-bedroom apartment with fairly few kitchen items and yet, it’s still hard to find a place to keep 10 pounds of beans. Not everything is cheaper, especially condiments and canned goods. While there are some bulk pantry staples, like flour and rice, there are a lot more processed foods at warehouse stores. And then there’s the packaging. Some items are double or triple layered in packaging, most of which cannot be recycled.

You might be wondering, what do we buy at Sam’s? Mostly, we buy coffee supplies for my mom. We buy generic Zyrtec (though it’s actually cheaper at Walmart, they never seem to have any in stock). We buy Crunchmaster multi-seed crackers and Nature’s Bakery fig bars because they are delicious and you get 4 times as many for half the price of the grocery store. We buy vinegar and occasionally, rice and beans.

Deciding where to shop is as personal as deciding what to shop for. We’re not all the same, and that’s okay. Our priority is equal parts saving money and saving the environment, which means that we spend a good bit of time weighing out options like this all the time – often while we’re standing in the store. Sometimes the bulk bins win and sometimes it’s the box of oats from the shelf. Yes, this means that we’re not 100% zero waste when it comes to packaging, but we do try to limit our package purchases where we can to items that can be reused or recycled.

So which side wins the bean debate? At this point, I’m leaning toward the bulk bin. Though the cost per pound is 19 cents higher, I can buy a smaller quantity (say 3 or 4 pounds) which will easily fit into my jars. And, for as much as I hate to say it, should a “bean emergency” ever arise and I find myself without this particular meal option, we do live next door to a grocery store.

Do you shop in bulk? Do you prefer bulk bins or bulk stores? What are your favorite things to buy from each? Does having too much food stuff make you feel cluttered?

Poverty & Privilege – Reflections on my Trip to North Carolina

A few weeks ago, my mom and I traveled to North Carolina to spend some time with family. It has been about a decade since I visited and four years since my mom was there. The landscape has changed, and the people are older, but the mentality remains the same.

I know I will never be able to adequately explain their way of life – trust me, I tried to explain it to Angie in our daily phone conversations and I barely hit the highlights – but here goes. Nearly all of my family on my mother’s side (except for my mother) live within spitting distance of one another on a 38-acre tract that was once my grandparents’ farm. If the word compound didn’t carry such a negative connotation, I might call it that.

A rough map of my family homestead.

The arrangement is equal parts communal living and family feud. Everyone sits down to Sunday dinner together but during the week, most can’t stand the sight of one another. It’s a deep-rooted hatred that goes back generations and because of it, cynicism and antagonism pervade almost every single conversation.

Like this one…which has been abbreviated in the interest of time…

“How’d you get here?” asked my cousin upon seeing me for the first time since we were both in high school. No hello. No how are you doing. Not even a smile as he spoke.

A’s first cake.

“We flew into Raleigh and rented a car,” I answered before turning my attention back to the cake my aunt was proudly showing me. One of the kids had baked it. It was her first one and she wanted me to take a picture.

“Must be nice to be so wealthy!” my cousin said, loud enough to be embarrassing. “Me, I live paycheck to paycheck. My family has never even been to the mountains.”

What do you say to this? I decided saying nothing was the best response, and I excused myself and went outside. Within about a minute, he followed.

“You’re not married?”

“No,” I answered.

“Why not? Just couldn’t find a good man?” he asked, trying to bait me.

After a few minutes on this line of questioning, I excused myself once more to go back inside. It had already been a week of all too many similar conversations and I was tired. But escape eluded me again, as he followed me.

“I bet you live in a big ole ranch house, don’t you?” he asked, continuing his interrogation.

“No, we live in an apartment.”

“An apartment! That’s no place for animals. How many cats you got? I picture you as a cat person.”

“One,” I replied as he pulled up a chair next to me.

“Why didn’t you bring your ‘friend’ with you?” he whispered, leaning closer and grinning, as if he was sharing a secret that he’d been waiting for just the right moment to reveal.

I paused for a moment, suddenly understanding why people might not like one another here. “Because I didn’t want to,” I said matter-of-factly. He started to laugh as if what I said had just exposed a rift in my storybook relationship. The truth – I hated being away from Angie but there was simply no way I was going to bring her into this hostile territory where “different” is unacceptable and “gay” is completely intolerable. “I would never expose her to this,” I added, gesturing to the room full of people.

It was about that moment that my mom turned from her own conversation. “Oh, Angie would never survive here,” she said. “She’s a quiet person and this noise and people running in and out all day long would drive her nuts. They’re practically inseparable otherwise. Always going somewhere and doing something fun. Have you shown them a picture of Angie?”

God love my mom! She had no idea what was going on and no idea how her interjection saved my day. With that one comment, she threw my cousin so off balance that it was he who started looking for an escape this time. In the end, I passed around a picture on my phone and chatted for a brief second with other folks in the room about our travels. My cousin, once he recovered, moved on to talk about someone else – this time it was our “rich” uncle who drew the short straw.

I wish there was a moral to this story but there really isn’t. People are mean sometimes, and they are unhappy for all sorts of reasons. Sadly, money seems to be at the heart of much of this unhappiness. The area where my family lives in North Carolina has a population of 2,026 and a poverty rate of 29%, which is more than twice the national poverty rate for the US. The median household income is $24,400 and jobs are on the decline. Of all the people living in our family commune, only 7 are employed; 5 of whom are under age 25. A few earn money through odd jobs, mostly construction, babysitting, and selling produce at the Farmer’s Market, but the vast majority have never had a job. Many receive government assistance. Some even claim to be modern day Robin Hoods. Had I grown up there, I might feel the same sense of defeat and envy that my cousins do. I might treat “outsiders” the same way I was treated and see “different” as a threat to my own way of life. I’d like to think not but I honestly don’t know what I would be like. I was privileged to have different opportunities.

We read a lot about acknowledging privilege these days and it’s easy to think that only white, heterosexual, males have it. They do not. Societal privilege exists as a result of the conditions a person is born into. Because my mother chose to leave home 50 years ago, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, went to a good school that provided me with plenty of academic challenges, and ultimately received a full scholarship to go to college. It is because of those opportunities that I landed a job making more in my first year than my parents were making after 25 years in the workforce. And it because of my privilege that I could choose to leave all that behind to live like I’m broke and do only the things I love to do. I am privileged, and I try hard not to take that for granted. I am grateful every day that I have always had choices.

Acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean that we have the right to look down on other people. The only difference between my cousin and me is the place where we were raised. We are the same age, from the same family. We’ve both had challenges in our lives but the opportunities, the resources, and the support systems available for each of us was vastly different, as was our exposure to different ways of life.

I won’t lie, I still want to smack him for assuming our different upbringings made me a snotty brat. His actions were mean-spirited and cheated us both out of the chance to get to know one another as adults. I won’t pretend to understand him. I don’t. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, any more than I know where to begin to understand this sad dynamic of hatred and distrust within my own family. Another cousin from Atlanta also made the trip along with us. He grew up on the farm (when it was still a farm) and is one of only a few of us to go to college. He told me after his visit, “It’s a different world there. A different economic system. A different social structure. A different everything. I may never understand it, but every time I go back, I realize just how fortunate I am.” I can’t help but agree.

My mom and aunt enjoying lunch out.

I’m glad my mom had the chance to visit with her sisters and brothers. I’m glad we shared the journey together. With my mom’s health always in question, we may never make this trip again, and the way I feel right now, I might be okay with that. Later though, I may change my mind. After all, for better or worse, these people are my family and the few who were inhospitable should not get to overshadow the many who were welcoming.

I am hugely grateful to my aunt for cooking many of our meals and sharing with me a great collection of recipes she has collected over her lifetime and to my oldest cousin for giving me an insider’s tour of a working homestead. Also the primary caregiver for his aging mother and an outsider himself, my oldest cousin and I connected over our similar lives and our love of doing things for ourselves (though, with poultry, livestock, a 2-acre garden, and his own wine-making operation, he has me beat by miles!). And I want to send a special shout-out to my youngest first cousin who just turned 13. He was a very good host during our visit, offering us sodas, and carrying on a very fun conversation about life, love, and video games.