For every food dollar, the farmer or grower generally makes only about nineteen cents. The majority of our food dollars, 81 cents, goes to processing, packaging, advertising and transport (USDA Economic Research Service). You can save on some of these costs as well as help reduce the EPA-estimated annual amount of 80 million tons of packaging waste by buying from the bulk bins.
Bulk aisles usually offer a wide variety of beans, legumes, nuts, flours, grains, herbs and spices, nut butters, oils, pastas, dried fruits and even snack foods. Without the added costs of advertising and packaging, these staples can be purchased at a much more affordable cost — important as we all see our grocery bills increase lately.
(Recipe for Real Oatmeal and tips on bulk buying after the jump.)
The National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), a business services cooperative representing 109 food co-ops nationwide, offers consumers these tips for bulk buying:
- Don’t be afraid to ask your co-op’s staff questions about the many foods available or the process of bulk-product purchasing.
- Be adventurous. Purchase a small portion of a new food, and return for more if you like it. Bulk-bins are an excellent way to expand your food repertoire.
- Use bulk buying as a reason to better organize your pantry. Buy labels and organize your cupboards to accommodate the types of food you need.
- If you need larger quantities (i.e. a 25-pound bag of millet), ask a staff member if they can arrange a special order
For our family, a trip to the store nearly always includes bulk purchases. A favorite is steel cut oats, which look more like small pellets instead of the rolled oats most of us are familiar with. Steel cut oats are the whole grain version of the oat, with more fiber and nutrients and a nutty flavor.
The coarser cut requires a longer cooking time, but this slow cooker recipe inspired by Alton Brown makes it easy to wake up to a warm, hearty and healthy breakfast — for a fraction of the cost of processed cereals.
Slow Cooker Oatmeal
1 cup steel cut oats
2/3 cup dried cranberries
2/3 cup dried blueberries
2/3 cup dried cherries
4 cups water
1/2 cup half-and-half or cream
Mix all of this together in the slow cooker. Set to low and cook about 8-9 hours. Mix and serve. I like mine with a bit of yogurt on top. It won’t need sugar, the dried fruit adds sweetness and flavor.
Best of all, this recipe is flexible enough to let you explore many different bulk dried fruits and other ingredients for new combinations. Instead of the 2 cups of dried fruits listed here, use a total of two cups combined of dates, figs and walnuts.
Or, perhaps 2-1/2 cups of dried cherries, 1/2 cup almonds and a teaspoon of vanilla extract for Cherry-Almond-Vanilla variation. Dried apples and walnuts with a drizzle of maple syrup and a hint of cinnamon? Sure, why not? At pennies a pound for the oats, it’s easy to experiment.
But, be warned. One look at the variety of flours and you may just be tempted to start baking your own breads, too.