The bulk aisle in the Willy Street Co-op — east- or west-side location — can be daunting for the uninitiated. With bins and buckets, scoops and scales, the co-op offers beans, spices, grains, seeds, shampoos, oils and much more.
Bulk purchasing is popular, too. Between the store’s two locations, the co-op sells more than 70 pounds of rolled oats, 40 pounds of grind-your-own peanut butter and 20 pounds of unbleached white flour per day.
Bulk purchasing is not a new concept, of course. Before the advent of pre-processed and pre-packaged food in the 1950s, much of America still ground its own flour and bought meat at a butcher shop.
But cooperatives like Willy Street pioneered a resurgence in bulk purchasing in the 1960s and ’70s. Willy Street Co-op has been selling food in bulk ever since it opened as a buying club in 1974. According to Liz Hawley, the co-op’s education and outreach coordinator, offering bulk purchasing is as core to the store’s identity as selling local and organic produce.
“Bulk products are almost always less expensive than packaged versions,” says Hawley. “People like that they can purchase only what they need and use their container of choice, so there’s a positive environmental benefit as well.”
Lydia Zepeda, UW-Madison professor at the School of Human Ecology and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, agrees, adding that cutting out the processing and packaging middlemen also gives farmers a better price for their product.
“[Consumers] aren’t forced to buy too much or too little based on whatever the marketing research has determined is the standard size,” says Zepeda. But she also notes a downside. Buying in bulk usually means that “the consumer has to have some knowledge of food. This isn’t for someone without cooking skills. They need to know how much to buy. There’s not going to be any instructions on those bulk bins.” And that, she notes, can be intimidating for some people.
Willy Street, at least, has a proactive approach to this difficulty. It offers a free bulk cooking guide and a free bulk buying class for its members. And these days, instructions on cooking a cup of pearled barley are only a Google away.
Zepeda adds that confidence in the kitchen is probably the main limiting factor in the growth of bulk.
“Clearly a lot of people do like convenience,” says Zepeda. “As popular as cooking shows are, a lot of people really don’t cook, or don’t know how to cook, and so that is definitely going to be an impediment.”
Even so, Zepeda says that buying in bulk is gaining in popularity every year. Grocery stores are expanding their bulk selections and a broader range of stores are offering the option. Locally, they’re in almost every grocery store, from Copps to Metcalfe’s to Hy-Vee, as well as Whole Foods. And high-end specialty shop Vom Fass sells its oils, vinegars and wines mainly in bulk as well.
Environmentally, this trend couldn’t come too soon — according to a 2010 EPA study, containers and packaging constitute 30% of municipal solid waste.
Zepeda’s recommendations for the bulk buying novice: In addition to purchasing as many goods as possible in bulk, bring your own containers to the bulk area of the store, and develop expertise in planning meals.
“This is our great legacy, the garbage we will leave,” says Zepeda. “If they can’t compost it, it’s going to be there pretty much forever.”