When More Is Less: The Case for Bulk Buying Food

Yosemite Squirrel photo

Squirrels do it, so why not the rest of us? Stash away some food for later on. It could be argued that the time when humans imitated the behaviour of animal food storers marks the beginnings of civilisation. For agriculture produces more food than can be reasonably eaten in single day, so it's stored to justified the energy invested in its cultivation and harvest.

But it's lesson the western world has forgotten in the age of supermarkets and convenience store. We assume food is constantly on tap, that it will be there whenever we need it. But is that really the case? A three day truck driver strike in Europe in 2008 "meant wholesale food markets in large cities suffered shortages of fresh fish, fruits and vegetables." Referring to a similar three day strike in the UK during 2000, Rob Hopkins writes in the Transition Handbook, that "it became clear that the country was about a day away from food rationing and civil unrest." He mentions the old saying 'civilisation is only three meals deep.'

In a related vein, Northern Australians were recently advised (and then unadvised) to stockpile food so they could self-quarantine in the wake of swine flu pandemic. The implication being that many households would not normally have sufficient reserves to avoid the shops for even a few days.

These examples serve to highlight how tenuous is the food security of western society. But the way we buy food is a far more complex story. It cuts to the heart of many an environment issue -- waste.

Buying small serves of long lasting foodstuffs is not the most efficient use of limited resources. Making bulk purchases has far greater environmental, and fiscal benefits. We jot down a few of these below.

Bulk Liquids photo

A 10 kilogram bag of rice has 20 less bags than the equivalent in 500 gram packages. And it that one bulk bag is probably a compostable cotton sack anyhow, instead of plastic.

Wasted transport fuel is reduced because much more product per container is delivered to the store. Look at the steel drums of honey in the bulk liquids photograph. Imagine the space and weight required to transport that same volume of honey in, say 350 gram sized glass jars.

A household can make many less fossil fuelled trips to the shops if they have reserves of food already at home.

Bulk dry goods photo

If households purchase from bulk supply bins such many organic food co-ops offer, they can select just the right amount for their needs, be it 10 grams or 25 kilograms. Without being shoehorned into arbitrary sizes provided by retail packaging.

They can decant the foodstuffs directly into the storage container they'll use in their kitchen or pantry. No myriad pieces of plastic waste headed for landfill, via municipal kerbside waste collection services, the cost of which would be better served supporting recycling services than running off to the landfill.

Bulk powders photo

Prices to the customer are reduced because the supplier has way less production and handling costs, and more of their goods can be shipped for less weight or space.

And because foodstuffs are transparently priced by weight or volume the buyer can clearly see which food item offers the best value for their money by directly comparing one with another. How many people can work out if 535 grams at $7.65 is better value than 385 grams at $4.60 -- without using a calculator? But it wouldn't matter, what the quantity was, if the price of honey was simply $9.35 a kilogram.

Yes, there is a greater up-front cost, and this does require a different form of household budgeting. But like most environment endeavours a little short term pain results in sustained long term gains. You think the squirrel gets a thrill out of scurrying about getting his winter pantry stocked?

For example, our household of two had to dig deep into the wallet a while back, but we haven't bought any cooking oil, rice, beans, cous cous, quinoa, some flours, honey, toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, shampoo, laundry liquid, toothbrush heads, etc, for the best part of a year.

Yet it not only food 'dry goods' that benefit from thinking carefully about bulk production and storage.

Municipal tap water is another bulk resource. One so much more ecologically preferable to its ridiculous bottled cousin.

Even those who grow their food are forced to consider the implications of bulk food storage. How many zucchinis, strawberries or peas can you eat in one day?

Preserving, making jams, pickling, smoking, drying, freezing, filling up root cellars are all other examples of how we have learnt to harness the harvest bounty that's excess to our immediate needs.

So if you'd like to reduce the time, money, energy, packaging, etc, wasted in our current packaged food system, seek out your local food co-op. If you have none nearby consider setting up your own community-oriented one, by reaching out to friends and neighbours. The same suppliers who deliver to the co-ops will happily supply you too, if your combined purchase pass their order threshold.

If all your neighbours and friends bought in bulk, an unexpected consequence might be that a generosity of spirit might return to our communities.

Take, for example, the behavioural study undertaken by Mark Elgar of Cambridge University, cited in the book Animal Behavior. He observed that when a slice of bread of bread was made available to a sparrow they proceeded to quietly eat it on their own. But when thr same amount of bread of bread was crumbled, the first bird to arrive would, on finding more than he could manage on his own, whistle for its pals to come enjoy the feast. When we have a perceived abundance (such as bulk stores of food) we are more likely to be gracious and share, than when we have a condensed package of sustenance.

Here are some resources on food co-ops to get you started:

LocalHarvest on food co-ops
The Coop Directory Service
Organic Consumers Association on food co-ops
USA Food Co-ops List
Park Slope Food Coop, New York
Sustainable Table

Ontario Natural Food Co-op, Canada
UK Soil Association's guide to local food co-operatives (PDF)
True Food Community Co-operative, Reading, UK.
Sustainweb's Food Co-ops and Buying Groups
Local Food Networks UK
Alfalfa House and Australian Food Co-ops
More Bulk Buying and Food Co-ops
How to Go Green: In the Kitchen
Happy Birthday Alfalfa House
TreeHugger Forums CSA/Organic Guide
Photos: Warren McLaren / INOV8

When More Is Less: The Case for Bulk Buying Food
Squirrels do it, so why not the rest of us? Stash away some food for later on. It could be argued that the time when humans imitated the behaviour of animal food storers marks the beginnings of civilisation. For agriculture produces more food than can

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