I’m at my parents’ house today, and one of the best things ever (besides delicious food that I don’t have to cook) is blogging with a friend:
In other news, over at Re-Nest.com today is a post about In.gredients, an Austin, TX based micro-grocery store that privileges sustainability and follows in the footsteps of UK’s Unpackaged by encouraging customers to bring in their own containers to hold groceries such as grain, beans, flour and eggs.
In.gredient’s system (which they refer to as ‘precycling’) has the customer bring in their own containers, weigh it for tare, fill it with their food of choice, weigh again and pay for the difference in weight of their filled container. Although the bulk bin section at conventional supermarkets (candy, usually, unless it’s Whole Foods or nutritional stores) is nothing new, customers at these ‘normal’ stores are discouraged from bringing in their own containers and must use disposable plastic bags and twist ties. Even though it may seem novel to a generation raised to abhor non-boxed food (did anyone ever eat bagged Malt-O-Meal cereal?), In.gredients points out that bringing one’s own containers to the store is nothing new. In the past, food bought in markets was commonly taken home in burlap sacks and baskets, a tradition that continues in some mostly third world and developing countries where waste is sacrilegious. It’s something that I can definitely get behind, as I really like the idea of bulk bins, but I’ll admit that there’s something disconcerting about the system as is. Perhaps it’s the idea that the food is sitting out in bins that aren’t air-tight or that people’s hands could possibly have wandered through my rice that gets to me. I also hate getting home and have to dump the contents of my saggy, unstructured plastic baggie into yet another container, only to trash the now dirty plastic bag. It’s great, though, to have the option of buying as much or as little as you want, which allows me to try small quantities of dry goods such as nutritional yeast or steel cut oats (which I still haven’t finished). And if I’m to be completely honest, buying from the bulk bins also includes the added benefit of allowing me to share self-important, do-gooder smiles with my fellow bin-ers.
The BYOContainer system is appealing for these reasons (although perhaps not the open air, handled part), and it’s a wonder that it hasn’t caught on as quickly as one would imagine, given Unpackaged’s success with the 20-30 yuppie green crowd in London and the lowered cost of not providing plastic bags. It does, however, seem more labor intensive as I’d imagine that all that weighing and bin filling must require more attention than individually packaged and barcoded items. Sanitary issues that arise from customers who bring in improperly cleaned containers may also factor in, and it would certainly turn me off my egg-buying if I glanced over and saw caked on cheese stains in my neighbor’s Weck jar.
But let’s address the issue that In.gredients is not completely packaging free. Even though the brand’s mission is to support local business and agriculture, these grains and eggs and beers do have to arrive to the store in some kind of packaging and it’s doubtful that their register paper or disinfectant will arrive unpackaged. I may be nitpicking, but to make a claim that one is zero-packaging is pretty loaded. Sure enough, the company acknowledges that, at the core, grocery stores are all about convenience, and it’s not always convenient to haul 30 jars to the store. To this end, they plan on providing compostable containers and point out that there are certain foods, such as meat, which must be packaged for food safety.
This topic is especially timely for me as I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s impressive book An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and finding myself questioning the way I’ve been eating. I’ve been thinking about the implications of what we eat and how we eat it, and packaging is an important part of the equation. While it’s hard to imagine that In.gredients will completely live up to its lofty goals of being a completely sustainable marketplace, it’s heartening to see that there are alternatives to the processed food-laden big boxes and corporate supermarkets and I believe that fundamentally, this shift in approach (embracing and accommodating customer-provided packaging vs. forbidding it) is a step forward, rather than sideways.
P.S. I can’t say enough good things about An Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It’s imaginative and tackles many contemporary issues about food culture, from sustainable farming to foraging and the eternal vegetarian/carnivore debate. He makes intelligent points for both sides of each issue and I can’t help but admire someone willing to take on the ethical challenge of slaughtering one’s food and the awareness of species that it implies. It’s really a love-letter to the food chain that brings everything I learned in last year’s ecology class to bear. Please, read it.
P.P.S. Here’s author Michael Pollan, talking about food chains: