Getting Started with Bulk Purchasing of Dry Goods

I recently wrote an article on bulk purchasing that focused on buying things in larger quantities.  Two of the comments pointed out the environmental and local economic benefits of buying dry goods in bulk, however, I had never done this!  Somehow I had decided that that food in bins couldn’t be as clean, or as fresh as packaged goods, and even if it was, it must be more expensive. I challenged my earlier impression and went to check it out, boy was I surprised.

Bulk food bins in the grocery store
Bulk food bins at Whole Foods

Why is bulk food environmentally friendly? First, you can buy only what you need, so there is less waste.  It uses less packaging, so less packaging is made, shipped and thrown away.  Also the food is usually sourced more locally than packaged foods so there tends to be less shipping and it often supports local agriculture.
Where should you go to buy dry goods in bulk?  Jeff suggested that you should go to the local food coop because then you are definitely supporting local agriculture as well.  I fully agree with this,  but it doesn’t look like that’s an option in my area.  Some google searches on “Boston food coop” seem to support the thought that there are not any real food coops in the Boston area (a few that market as coops, but are not what you would picture if you’re from the mid-west for example).   Also, I know that in our area there are farms that grow fruits and vegetables, and some dairy and meat farms,  but we don’t really have wheat or rice in the New England area.   We have CSAs for fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy (which will make a great post later), farmers markets (mostly in the warmer months) and Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in our area. I recently learned that Whole Foods has a strong commitment to sourcing locally when possible,  so I headed over there to start my research.

My 6 month-old was very patient while I spent more than 20 minutes exploring the bulk food section of our local Whole Foods.  He sat in his carseat and paid close attention while I talked to him about everything I was learning.  For starters, Whole Foods has a booklet called “BULK 101: a Simple Guide on how to Prep, Cook and Serve.”   This booklet mentions that the bins are replenished often, so the ingredients are super fresh.   Since I was able to observe that a good number of people were shopping from the bins, I can believe that the turnover is pretty good, relieving one of my earlier concerns.  The booklet is a handy reference guide that tells you a little about each of the foods available in the bulk bins and how to prepare it.  This is a useful thing to keep in the kitchen cupboard, because you won’t have boxes and bags to read for cooking instructions.

Brown rice label on bulk bin in grocery store
Bulk bin label

Each bin is also labeled with cooking instructions, where the food is from and the nutritional information.  I liked that it was all clearly labeled in large print.  (Even if my picture has some glare on it!) This helped me decide which kind of rice to buy.  There were so many choices that I first narrowed it down to rices grown in the US (did you know you could get basmati rice grown in the US?) and then I chose the brown rice with the highest protein content per serving.  

How do you buy the food?  They have containers you can put the food into – in this case there were plastic and paper bags and plastic containers.  You simply scoop the food into the container and then write a label with the “PLU” number on it and stick it on.  I chose to add cooking instructions as well, because I hadn’t yet found the super “Bulk 101” booklet.

You can also choose to bring your own containers, which is definitely more environmentally friendly.  I asked how this would work and I was told that when I arrive at the store I should take my containers to Customer Service.  They would weigh them and put a sticker on them.   Then I would fill them and check out as normal and the checkout staff would know how to handle the transaction.  I’ll definitely do this in the future,  as this is much more environmentally friendly than using the one-time-use bags they have there.  It will also help me have a better handle on how much I’m purchasing while I’m standing at the bins.


I was particularly pleased with the prices.  I expected to pay a premium for the bulk foods.  I’m not sure why, but at some point I got the impression that bulk foods were a luxury item.  I was definitely wrong. The rice I purchased was about the same price per pound as the cheapest brown rice I could find at Market Basket.  The oatmeal was actually much cheaper from the bins than the packages at Whole Foods.   The bin was on sale,  so pound for pound, the quick oats oatmeal was literally half the price of Quaker Oats quick oatmeal.  And the steel cut oats were about $1 per pound cheaper than the steel cut oats I could find on the shelf at Whole Foods.

Overall, I was very happy with my first experience with dry goods bulk shopping and I expect that I’ll be getting most of my dry goods this way going forward.   It takes a little prep work to think about having containers with me, in addition to my cloth bags, but this shouldn’t be an impossible feat (even for me)!

Let me know what you buy from the bulk bins and what local options are in your area for coop food stores.

Happy greening!

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  1. The bulk food isle is much better at the whole foods in Andover. Both my husband and I were pleasantly surprised at the bulk food section there. Much better than the one in Woburn.

  2. Barbara Boehl says

    I’m thinking about starting a bulk store in my area not for sure what I need to start it

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