Food Shopping

Going to the supermarket is part of the rhythm of life. A long time ago, we might have hunted or foraged for our food; now we visit stores. At least it’s form of going out, leaving home, braving a wilderness of sorts.

When the pandemic hit in March, I stopped going to supermarkets. I knew they were open and full of shoppers, but I felt that if had the option of staying home, I should take it: I’d be safer, and so would all the people I might otherwise encounter and exchange air with. So I figured out how to get all my groceries delivered.

As unnatural as it might have felt for a person of times past to think of buying food in stores, so it felt unnatural and deflating to me to avoid stores and have food magically arrive at my door. But the whole thing worked out in a way that – to my surprise – moved me closer to some of my goals. To reduce packaging waste and possibly save some money, I had been wanting to buy my food in bulk more often. And to prevent Amazon from taking over my entire life, I had been wanting to reduce my dependence on the grocery chain it acquired in 2017, Whole Foods.

When the pandemic hit, I placed my first few grocery orders through – you guessed it – Whole Foods a.k.a. Amazon. These orders arrived at my door unreasonably fast. But then, for a while, it became impossible to get a delivery slot. So I looked at my other options.

I had been a longtime customer of a produce delivery service called Boston Organics. It’s a small business local to me, and it’s a certified B corporation. I had been getting a box of fruit from them every two weeks. Now I realized I could also get my veggies from them, as well as bread, yogurt, tofu, and basic condiments. I updated my order contents and changed my delivery schedule to once a week. This part was really easy.

With my perishables taken care of, the next things to consider were all the shelf-stable items I wanted to buy in bulk: grains, lentils, nuts, pasta, dried fruit, oil, tinned fish, soymilk.

For grains and lentils, I remembered that I often bought the Bob’s Red Mill brand when I shopped at Whole Foods. So I went to the Bob’s Red Mill website and found I could order directly from them. For many items, there’s an option of ordering a case of small packages that’s eligible for free shipping, or a 20-30 lb. bulk bag that costs $30 shipping. The bulk bag is often cheap enough that you end up saving money over what you’d pay for the equivalent amount of small containers at a supermarket, even with the added shipping cost. I ordered bulk bags of quinoa and bulgur wheat from Bob’s Red Mill. I found another company, Pleasant Hill Grain, that ships grain in large plastic pails. I ordered teff and oatmeal from them. All of a sudden, I had enough grain in my house to last a year.

I ordered at least six months worth of beans from Rancho Gordo in California.

When I had shopped at Whole Foods, I often bought the Eden brand of soymilk, along with some of Eden’s Japanese condiments (rice vinegar, mirin). I went to the Eden website and found I could order a case of soymilk from them directly, free shipping, along with any of their other products.

There was an inexpensive variety of whole wheat Orecchiette pasta that I sometimes bought at Shaw’s. I went to the De Lallo website and found I could easily order a case.

For nuts and dried fruit, my friends recommended Tierra Farm (a B corporation that focuses on organic items) and I also knew about Superior Nut Company because it’s local to me. Between these three companies I ordered enough nuts to last a year or more (I’m freezing them).

I ordered many month’s worth of prunes from a prune company called Sowden Bros. I ordered tinned fish (which I eat occasionally) from Cole’s Trout. I ordered some cooking oils from a small company in the Finger Lakes of NY, Stonybrook WholeHeartedFoods. And I ordered more oil and a bunch of Portuguese specialties from a Portuguese importer that’s located just south of me, Portugalia Marketplace.

What did I discover? I discovered that I could purchase all my non-perishable items in bulk, directly from many of the brands I used to buy at Whole Foods and other stores. Coupled with a delivery service like Boston Organics for my perishable items (fruits, veggies, dairy, etc.) I had a complete solution. I literally never needed to go to the store. And none of this involved Amazon. If you don’t have a company like Boston Organics near you, there might still be CSAs in your area — arguably an even better option as it means buying directly from the farmer.

Of course, a lot of packages are being shipped to me – that’s a lot of cardboard, and a lot of fuel spent bringing the boxes to my door, and a lot of work by couriers who may be putting their own health at risk. I’m not saying this is a perfect solution.

Still, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to buy in bulk, directly from companies I like, eliminating Amazon and Whole Foods almost entirely from my food shopping routine.

The whole solution was only possible because I’m privileged enough to be able to afford these bulk purchases, often from brands that charge an organic premium. Still, I think I’m saving money over what I would have spent going to the store every week or two. And while each box that arrives at my door means fossil fuel was spent on delivery, the contents of the box are going to last me a really long time.

Will I ever step foot in Whole Foods after the pandemic is finally under control? I might. But I won’t need to. And unless they’re willing to sell me a 30 lb. bag of oatmeal at a bulk rate, I’ll be buying that directly from the supplier from now on, thank you very much.

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