Foodie Underground: Bulking Up

ColumnDon’t equate bulk foods with your mother’s pantry.

How much of what we eat is dictated by our parents? Research shows that our food preferences may actually be shaped before we’re even born, but beyond what we eat, our own eating habits and traditions are certainly influenced by our families.

This topic was thrown around recently as it came to my attention, that this week, October 16-22, is National Bulk Foods Week. I grew up in a household that was all bulk foods, all the time. What I wouldn’t have given for some junk food cereal at some point. But instead there was bulk oatmeal and bulk muesli. The stuff childhood food dreams certainly aren’t made of.

Do I buy in bulk now? Yes. Thanks, mom! But I posed the question to the EcoSalon staff, and we came to one conclusion: unlike what we grew up with, we all keep very sparse pantries. This may have nothing to do with bulk food – you can, after all, buy as much or as little as you want – but it highlights a very significant difference between the food culture of our generation and that of our mothers.

Born in an era where abundance was hardly commonplace, and saving was a necessity, the postwar mentality that many of our mothers grew up with certainly influenced what they stored in their own pantries. Stock up when you can, because you never know what will happen tomorrow.

And then came the ’50s and ’60s, Betty Crocker, efficient freezers and canned foods, where if you didn’t want to, you could keep cooking for weeks without ever leaving the kitchen. Fresh daily produce traded out for green beans that never went bad. Hence the casserole that your grandmother always serves at Thanksgiving.

Times have changed, and nowadays, many in our generation are apt to keep a smaller number of options on hand and complement them with fresh bought goods as needed. For example, I am a single urbanite, and if there’s only a cup of quinoa left in my pantry, I don’t need to whip it into a meal for five.

However, that’s precisely where bulk foods come into play.

Forget your visions of quart-sized glass jars filled with rice; buying in bulk is smart and economical, for both the single woman and the family of five. “[B]uying in bulk doesn’t necessarily mean buying large quantities that have to be stored. An advantage of buying in bulk is being able to purchase only the amounts you specifically need, so in that respect it eliminates some of the need for pantry storage,” says Bart McKnight, Bulk Category Manager at Trade Fixtures.

When I think of bulk food – even though I buy it myself – it immediately conjures up images of health food stores and consumers buying brown rice for their kale stir fries. In other words, not your average American eater. Scoff all you want at having another week dedicated to a cause, but National Bulk Foods Week is trying to change just that. You might think that the bulk food aisle is reserved for your local co-op, however, “increasingly we’re seeing bulk foods aisles in mainstream grocery stores, but many shoppers might pass the bulk foods aisles in their stores every day without giving them a second look,” says McKnight.

Although hearing the word “bulk” immediately harks mental images of yogurt-covered almonds in the health food section while my mother filled up bags of grains, we have to start thinking differently about bulk, because as it turns out, buying in this way makes economic and environmental sense.

Think of all the packaging that goes into most products; eliminate that and not only have you made what you’re buying more inexpensive, but you also have a product that transports more easily and cuts down on CO2 emissions from a reduction in paper and cardboard packaging.

It’s time to stop thinking about bulk as if it were your mother’s overloaded pantry and start thinking it as the smart, savvy solution to our modern green foodie needs.

Now go stock up on some quinoa and oatmeal.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: 4nitsirk, Dnak

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.