Better Me, Better World: Year in Review

Tomorrow starts a brand new year, with 365 exciting opportunities to do something you’ve never done before. How cool is that?? I know I’m pretty happy about it. I’m happy to start something new but I’m also happy to post the results of our year long Better Me, Better World project. We had two goals this year – to live simply and strive toward zero food waste. Here’s how we did on both:

Better Me Goal: Live simply. Prove that we can live a happy, healthy, and prosperous life with less.

Yard Sale Puzzles

Last January, we set a budget and for the most part, we stuck to it. There were some splurges along the way, mostly at yard sales and the Farmer’s Market, but we had no extravagant expenditures. Even when I had to get a new cell phone, I bought one that was two generations old and on sale. Our vacations were cheap. Our fun dates out were frugal. Our fun days staying in were also filled with cheap activities – knitting, coloring, putting together yard-sale puzzles, watching free documentaries, and reading. This year, we read 52 books between the two of us.

Frugal living allowed us to save $7,166 toward retirement, travel, and emergencies. Our net pay from my job was $29,778.72 this year. We received another $3,557.32 from side hustles, gifts, and proceeds from our decluttering efforts. While I know saving 22% of one’s income is something to be proud of, I still feel conflicted when it comes to money. This is something I plan to work on in 2019.

Another of our Better Me goals was to eat a mostly plant-based diet, with no more than 10% of meals containing meat. I’m pleased to say that only 8.8% of the meals we consumed in 2018 contained meat. We had a total of 322 completely meatless days. As the year went on, we made a few other adjustments to our diet. We started taking a harder look at ingredients and buying more organic, non-GMO products when possible. (Our rule of thumb on fresh produce is that saving a fruit or veggie from becoming waste trumps where it comes from. In other words, dumpster finds don’t have to be organic or non-GMO.)

Hiking in Lafayette, TN

We (or rather I) attempted to be more active. Angie already does some sort of stretchy resistance band/jumping around the room routine 2-3 mornings per week. My thoughts are with her, but my body is usually sitting at my desk. To trick me into exercising, Angie would often tell me that we were going to walk to the dumpster or the thrift store or go to the park for a picnic (followed by a walk). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being outdoors. I enjoy hiking and paddling (both of which we did this year) but if you call it exercise, my brain refuses to allow my body to participate. If you call it play, we’re all in though. And if you call it yard work or gardening, I will stay outside all day – hauling compost or raking leaves or pruning plants – until my muscles are as sore as any athlete. With that being said, we did try to take more walks this year. I’m not sure how far we walked/hiked though. We were up to 110 miles at the beginning of August when my fake Fitbit died. I have yet to replace it.

Self-score: A-

I always think there’s room for improvement when it comes to living more simply. There were times this year that we used our wallet instead of our brain to solve a problem and in every single one of those cases, the problem got worse. For example, we spent $160 on 2 pair of barefoot running shoes because we read that it was a “more natural” way to walk and would reduce stress on our feet. Within just a few weeks, I went from sore, tired feet after a long walk to full-blown plantar fasciitis. It was awful! Then there was the matter of the folding kayaks. We thought owning a kayak again would get us out on the water more often. The first time I tried to fold my origami kayak, I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. It took 4 people 30 minutes of wrestling with plastic to get it set up, only to have it collapse inward in the water. We ended up selling both pair of shoes and both kayaks at a slight loss. The better path would have been the $25 super comfortable hiking boots I ultimately bought on sale at Academy and renting a kayak for the afternoon.

Better World Goal: Zero-food-waste. Prove that one couple can have an impact in reducing global food waste.

Volunteering with SoSA

When we first set this goal, our plan was to simply continue our food rescue efforts (aka dumpster diving) at the grocery next door, possibly interviewing other dumpster divers and talking with management about their food waste policies, but their remodel in the spring shut down the store for 3 months and for a while thereafter, it seemed as if the amount of food being tossed out was improving. Not to be deterred, we opted to go in a different direction and help reduce food waste through volunteer work. In April, we worked with Compost Nashville to direct food waste into its proper receptacle at VegFest. From May through July, we worked with Society of St. Andrew to glean the Nashville Farmer’s Market after market day. Through our efforts, we rescued and donated 133 pounds of produce to our charity of choice, the Nashville Rescue Mission. Overall, SoSA volunteers gleaned 11,520 pounds of food from farmers’ markets in Tennessee during the 2018 summer and fall season.

Throughout the year, we did keep an eye on the dumpster next door. Our total dumpster haul for the year was 348.11 pounds. The majority of this was comprised of fresh produce, breads, and 3 spiral-sliced hams. We shared our finds with 10 individuals. A few non-perishable items were placed in the Blessing Box, a brand-new free pantry outside of the Baptist church down the street.

We also had the opportunity to talk with a few key folks in our community about food waste this year. During Grit, Grace, Grub, a culinary scavenger hunt hosted by our city’s Chamber of Commerce, we spoke at length to the manager of one of the local chain restaurants involved. She was impressed with our project and even brainstormed a few ideas with us on how she could reduce food waste. Our biggest success though was when we were contacted by the executive chef of a full-service 76-suite independent living (55+) community that was just opening an hour north of us. His board wanted buffet style meals served 3 times a day and as a new facility, he was concerned about the potential for food waste, since full occupancy could take at least a year to achieve. He had been told that donating cooked food was illegal and he wanted to know what his options were for reducing food waste. We talked to him about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996 and he presented our information to his board. The facility now donates their food overages to the local homeless shelter and battered women’s shelter.

At home, we continued to plan our meals and source local foods first and reduced-to-clear items second. We scored well with both, and with our tiny garden, which produced cowpeas, squash, tomatoes, blackberries, snack peppers, jalapenos, radishes, cilantro, and green beans this year.

We also increased our composting efforts, adding a new finishing composter (made completely out of rescued materials) for year-round composting. In total, we turned 115 gallons of food and yard scraps into dirt for the garden. Though we did not have a zero-waste year, we did manage to reduce our food waste to only 15.73 pounds for the year (for our family of two). About ¼ of this waste came from a problem with our refrigerator/freezer door that defrosted several items before we knew it. Maintenance replaced the fridge and we salvaged what we could, but I was afraid to eat the meatless meatballs and bay scallops after they had been thawed.

Self-score: A

I think we could have done a little better on our food waste but I’m not going to complain too much about having less than 8 pounds of waste apiece. (The average American wastes 250 pounds of food per year.)

How was your year? Did you reach or exceed your goals?

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?