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?

Love Thy Neighbor (if not their lunch)

You just got to love friends! They are the only people in the world who can give you crap about something one minute, only to turn around and bring you a steaming hot mug of your favorite tea the next. We disagree, we debate, yet in the end, we still love each other. Ah, yes, friends!

Like me, many of my friends are LGBT. I write grants for a LGBT organization (sometimes two, actually) and have come to know a lot of great folks through that work. When it comes to equality, acceptance, and living free from hate and harm, we all agree with each other 100%. Those things should be a given for all people. When it comes to other things though, like lunch, we tend to disagree a bit.

Angie and I ate lunch at Chick-Fil-A. I will be the first to stand at the front of the room and confess – when it comes to Chick-Fil-A, I am an addict. I loved them before we adopted a plant-based diet. Back then it was their Original Chicken Sandwich that I couldn’t get enough of. Now, it’s that darn Superfood Salad. Sure, I can make it at home, but occasionally we do enjoy eating a bite outside our house, and this is just one of those bites I crave. Along with the Ice-Dream. It’s the only ice cream cone in town that does not make my stomach hurt. Even the dairy-free options at Baskin-Robbins are out. And the Ice-Dream is cheap! I just got a cone for 59 cents!

Some of our friends always have a heart-attack when we post anything about Chick-Fil-A. They don’t like gay people. They are all conservative Christians. They donate money to anti-gay causes so buying from them means you support them too! I’ve heard it all and the message doesn’t fall on deaf ears. The problem I have is this – why must everything in life be a battle of us versus them?? If we ourselves want to be included, why do we feel the need to exclude other people? Doesn’t equality cover everyone?

This dilemma of mine goes beyond the doors of Chick-Fil-A though. I’ve come to the point where I’m seriously considering asking Mark Zuckerberg why, with all the other innovations Facebook has come up with, can we not have a better set of filters for our news feed? The stuff I want to see – Linda’s local adventures, Bev’s baseball games, Sue’s outings with her granddaughter, and the fun Melissa and her husband are having running a campground in the Ozarks – gets buried by stuff I could care less about.

Facebook is a platform for social interaction and I get it, some of my friends and family are super passionate about their politics. That’s all well and good, but maybe come at it from a different angle. If you want the rest of us to see your side, introduce us to your candidate. We can’t see the good he or she is doing in the world if all we see instead are the negative campaigns bashing the competition. If I had to go to the polls today, I wouldn’t. When Republicans are calling Democrats “liberal hate-mongers” and Democrats are calling Republicans “gun-toting Nationalists”, I don’t want to stand on either side. I care about this country, I really do, but I care about my own sanity even more.

I’m tired of the meanness. I just can’t do hate. Trust me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. And it especially doesn’t work in a minimalist paradigm. We’re supposed to rid our lives of anything that creates clutter – mental, physical, or otherwise – and hate is clutter. It takes up so much room in your heart and mind that there’s no space for anything else.

The world is not going to change on its own but screaming about the way things “should be” isn’t going to create that change either. For me, I simply want to model the behaviors I would like to see in others – love, kindness, and acceptance (or tolerance, if acceptance is too hard). More importantly though, I want to protect myself from negativity, since prolonged exposure can seriously undermine even the best attempts at being positive.

So, what does this mean exactly? It means that I’m going to love my friends, even though they will never know the absolute deliciousness of a waffle-cut fry. I’m going to love them whether they identify as a donkey, an elephant, a lone wolf, or a unicorn. I’m going to love them regardless of who they love, what church they go to, what they eat for breakfast, how many cats or dogs they have, what teams they support (Go Texans!) and I’m going to continue to hope for positive change in the world (and a better filter on Facebook).