We all have a taste for good food, but quality groceries can come at a high price. Whet your appetite with this money-saving advice: Purchasing bulk food is a highly effective way to cut expenses and eat locally. You may already shop the bulk department of your co-op or grocery store, but cutting out the storefront altogether can offer even more financial, environmental and gastronomical benefits. Besides making your food shopping easier and less frequent, bulk groceries are often of higher quality than packaged supermarket products. And the money savings will wow you: See our Estimated Savings From Buying in Bulk chart for specific savings on 20 items.
If you choose to eat organic, the savings from buying in bulk can be even more staggering: A 2012 study by the Food Industry Leadership Center at Portland State University found that consumers saved an average of 89 percent compared with supermarket costs when they bought large quantities of certain organic foodstuffs, including grains, beans and spices (read more in the 2012 Bulk Foods Study).
Buying food in bulk may seem intimidating if you don’t know beans about it. We’ll walk you through the key steps of buying in bulk on your own from local farmers and, for even greater savings on more items, joining a food-buying club.
Buying clubs are groups of individuals and families who merge their grocery lists to buy food in big quantities at close-to-wholesale prices. Clubs make a collective purchase once or twice per month, usually through a single wholesaler, nabbing substantial savings on large-quantity purchases of everything from toothpaste to whole grains. As our chart shows, you can routinely save as much as 50 percent. Food-buying clubs also build community — members get to know each other while coordinating orders and volunteering time to divide the food.
Purchasing bulk food through a club requires thoughtful planning. You’ll need enough jars, bins and tubs to pick up and store your portion of brown rice, wheat, nuts and more. A chest freezer is a good investment to prevent large purchases of butter, meat, flour and nuts from spoiling. Some clubs ask their members to chip in on shared freezers, a scale for dividing orders, and even a grain mill for grinding fresh flours.
Buying-club households usually waste less food because their cooking habits become grounded in a pantry mentality: Meal planning begins with the goods already stocked at home. Avoid purchasing unfamiliar foodstuffs until you’re sure you’ll eat them. Try a small package from the grocery store first, so you don’t get stuck with a 10-pound bag of hull-intact buckwheat that needs to be ground twice to become a usable flour you end up not liking much. Keep track of what your family actually eats, too, and which foods linger on your pantry shelves despite your best culinary inventions.
Hundreds of food-buying clubs are scattered all across North America. The staff at your local food co-op will probably be aware of any clubs in your area. If you can’t find one nearby, cook one up by following these steps. (If your club is looking for new members, please add it to the new Food-Buying Club Directory Google map we’ve created so others can find you. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Recruit members. Many clubs have at least 20 members because some wholesale food distributors require minimum orders of $500 or more. The bigger the group, the greater the savings, because large orders lead to volume discounts and reduced shipping costs. You can recruit members from among your friends, relatives and groups you’re active in. Tack up a notice in the break room at work. Maybe schedule a brown-bag lunch meeting to discuss the benefits of buying in bulk and how a club might work. How often will you order? Will you limit the types of goods purchased? Can members share (or “split”) cases and bags? If so, who will coordinate that step? When and where will your club take deliveries?
Select a vendor. You’ll want to choose companies that don’t limit their sales to commercial accounts when selecting a vendor for your club. See Resources, later in this article, for companies that sell to buying clubs, or contact an existing buying club for vendor recommendations.
You can also strengthen your area’s food system by buying some items directly from local producers.
Set up an ordering strategy. The Web has made compiling orders more convenient than ever for food-buying clubs. You can place an order with a credit card, and schedule a drop date and location entirely online. A few national distributors use e-commerce software that tallies totals in real time as members add items to a club-specific shopping cart, making it easy to see when minimums are met.
Most food-buying clubs have one or two point persons who take the lead in sending reminders, placing orders and scheduling distribution. Your club may decide to reward these individuals with a higher markdown. Distributors generally won’t ship partial cases, so holding monthly meetings is a good way for members to decide on splits. The savings are huge on a 25-pound bag of organic black beans — more than $2 per pound when compared with a 1-pound package — but unless your family truly loves a lot of legumes, dividing that bag with at least one other household will make the purchase more feasible.
Secure a drop-off location. A club can receive bulk food shipments at a member’s garage or possibly at a member’s workplace. Someone will need to be present to accept the goods and check the delivery against the original order for mistakes and out-of-stock items. Keep in mind that delivery locations without refrigeration will limit ordering options.
Develop a distribution scheme. The cheaper prices your club receives for bulk food are often subsidized by volunteers who split the orders — they open up the bags and weigh, package and label the contents based on each member’s order sheet. Distribution helpers should receive deeper discounts because they volunteer their time, or the job should rotate through the club so everyone takes a fair turn. Coordinating this splitting process may be more trouble than the savings are worth to your group. Some clubs forgo splits, so members must choose between smaller bags at a reduced discount or larger bags requiring proper long-term storage at home.
Pay the bills. Perhaps the busiest club member, the treasurer figures splits, sales taxes and discounts, and ensures that all members pay their share. Some clubs rotate this task among members. Calculating splits is much easier when you use a spreadsheet, or you can register for the free club-specific software offered at FoodClub.org.
Now that you’ve learned how to save money on food by starting your own buying club, you’ll need some tips for keeping those volume purchases at optimal freshness and nutritional value until they end up on your plate. In addition to the following advice, Save Money on Groceries has more suggestions on storing sizable amounts of food.
Dry goods. Foodstuffs that don’t contain liquid are among the easiest items to store. Distributors offer dry goods — sometimes including rare varieties of beans, rice and grains — in bags weighing anywhere from 1 to 50 pounds. The savings can be substantial, particularly on large bags of organic dry goods: A 50-pound sack of wheat berries costs less than 50 cents per pound, while a 5-pound bag of organic whole-wheat flour at the supermarket runs as much as $1.80 per pound — nearly four times more!
Store dried beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry environment away from direct sunlight, and they’ll last well over a year. Nuts will keep in a refrigerator or freezer for up to two years.
Grains are a staple in almost every larder, but they’re challenging for long-term storage because of meal moths, weevils and other pests. One way to break the life cycle of weevils is to freeze grains for at least a week before storing them in a dry, dark environment at 60 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. Grains can be stored in a freezer indefinitely. When freezer space isn’t available, store grains in 5-gallon plastic buckets with tight lids. Two 5-gallon buckets will easily hold 50 pounds of wheat berries. The buckets stack nicely and can be picked up at low — sometimes even no — cost from bakeries and fast-food restaurants.
Produce. Mouthwatering, ripe produce is a lot cheaper if purchased in season from local growers. A bushel of conventional green peppers costs about 80 cents per pound at a farmers market in August, while a handful of peppers will be priced at $2 per pound at a grocery store in February. True, freezing or canning all of that fresh produce will take some time, but the job won’t seem onerous if you preserve small batches several times a week or organize a canning bee with friends.
Crops need to be matched with their preferred storage conditions, because some fruits and vegetables like cold and moist settings while others prefer warm and dry ones. Find detailed advice for storing crops in Food Storage: 20 Crops That Keep and How to Store Them.
The simplest way to squirrel away your stockpile of potatoes, carrots and other root crops is to keep them in the ground under a thick blanket of mulch, in a trench silo or pit beneath a layer of soil, or inside a buried garbage can. Find instructions for making five easy cellars in Outdoor Root Cellars. Store winter squash and onions inside your garage, in a basement — even in a cool bedroom.
Canning is the traditional preservation method for most fruits and vegetables. To learn how to can, refer to the Home Canning Guide. Another way to lock in taste and nutrition is by blanching and freezing (check out Freezing Vegetables From Your Garden). Most fruits and vegetables freeze well for up to 18 months.
Use energy from the sun to preserve fresh produce with a solar food dehydrator. Dehydrating with a solar (or electric) food dryer locks in peak flavor and nutrients while removing the moisture that causes fruits and vegetables to spoil. Store dried produce in jars or bags. Learn how to build a simple food dryer in A Solar Food Dryer from Cardboard Boxes. (Watch for plans to build a state-of-the-art sun-powered food dehydrator in our June/July 2014 issue. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
Meat. The priciest line item in a non-vegetarian budget is usually meat. Buying beef and pork in bulk results in substantial savings, particularly on premium cuts. If you buy half a cow directly from a farmer, your take-home cuts can include roughly 17 pounds of strip and tenderloin steaks at about $3.97 per pound. The savings are more than 63 percent when compared with 17 pounds of the same cuts purchased from a conventional grocery store at $11.00 per pound. And that’s just for conventional beef — don’t miss reviewing the savings from buying grass-fed and organic meat in large quantity in the Estimated Savings From Buying in Bulk chart.
Buying meat in volume is a great way to build relationships with local farmers, too. Ask a butcher — maybe one at a local food co-op — where to buy hormone-free pastured animals from a reputable producer, or locate names via the pastured producers listings for your state at American Grassfed, Eat Wild and LocalHarvest.
Figure out how to store your portion of the animal before you buy. One cubic foot of freezer space holds 30 to 35 pounds of beef. After subtracting processing waste, a 1,000-pound cow yields about 450 pounds of meat from the whole animal, 225 pounds from a side (half a cow), or 110 pounds from a quarter. A 250-pound hog, slaughtered and dressed, produces about 144 pounds of cuts from the whole animal, or 72 pounds from a half.
Butchers and meat processors typically freeze cuts inside vacuum packs or wrapped in butcher paper. Freezing makes buying in bulk convenient, and fresh-frozen beef and pork are safe to eat indefinitely, although the quality begins to suffer after six months to a year.
Now that you’re stocked up with tips on how to save money on food, just remember: Plan your household’s bulk purchases carefully, figure out how you’ll store the food, and take pride in keeping your belly full for less.
Wholesale Distributors Serving Buying Clubs
Associated Buyers (Northeast)
Azure Standard (Entire U.S.)
Co-Op Partners Warehouse (Upper Midwest)
Frontier Natural Products Co-Op (Entire U.S.)
Global Organic Specialty Source Inc. (Southeast)
Hummingbird Wholesale (Pacific Northwest)
UnitedBuyingClubs.com (Entire U.S.)
Organic Bulk Foods
Find Local Farmers
Rebecca Martin is an Associate Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, where her beats include DIY and Green Transportation. She's an avid cyclist and has never met a vegetable she didn't like. You can find her on Google+.
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