Reduce Food Waste by Shopping Salvage Stores

Reader Contribution by Corinne Gompf and Heritage Harvest Farm
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Living in Morrow County, Ohio, I’m close to quite a large Amish community. Now, I’m not talking about the Berlin and Sugarcreek, Holmes County, touristy, foreign-made-replica-souveniors Amish community. I’m talking real, quiet and quaint Amish. They keep to themselves, only slightly acknowledging you as you pass them in their black buggies on day lily-bordered back country roads.

Over the years of living in MoCo, I’ve come to discover all the Amish-run shops: self-serve livestock feed barns, bulk foods, fabrics and furniture shops, and hardware stores. I’ve even become friendly with some of the young women who work the stores (I simply adore Mary at the bulk foods store). It’s taken a few years of regularly shopping these stores, but it’s always nice to walk in and be greeted with a warm smile and a friendly hello that is reserved only for familiar English, such as myself. They’ve gotten to know my children, and always ask about them on the rare occasion I shop alone.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There’s another type of store that’s popping up throughout my Amish community, and in other communities across the state: food salvage stores.

Find a Food Salvage Store

“What in the hey-hey is that?” you might be wondering. Simply put, food salvage stores sell unwanted food, health and beauty, and, sometimes, household items. Chain grocery stores unload their seasonal, outdated, or slightly damaged items at auctions. You wouldn’t believe the pallets of food that are needed to be sold in order for the grocery stores to make room for new items. What a waste! Think about it: after the winter holidays, stores need to make room for Valentines candy, cookies, etc. What do they do with the “old” seasonal items? Send them to these auctions, of course!

Local Amish purchase lots or pallets of these items at a massive discount and have them delivered to their salvage stores in rural MoCo. In turn, the ladies who work at the stores price the items at least 50 percent off their retail price. It’s not uncommon for me to save more than 75 percent (my best savings is 98 percent).

So, what exactly am I buying at these food salvage stores? It’s mostly dry goods, snacks, baking mixes, canned goods, rice, flavored waters, juices, cereal, granola bars, seasonal candy, and the like. I used to buy diapers, formula, and pull-ups there, as well as baby food pouches and toddler snacks (thank goodness those days are over!). Pet food is also a big-savings item, as are specialty items, like imported chocolates and olive oil.

Many times, I find brands that are very expensive at chain grocery stores (I don’t know about you, but I don’t have it in the budget to spend $9 on a bottle of fancy-pantsy organic balsamic vinegar). In fact, I will google an item to find out the regular price if I’m unsure about an unfamiliar product. And I’m always pleasantly surprised that I’m spending a fraction of the price. Then, when I get home, I text my sister a picture of the item, along with my price and the original price, so she can figure out my savings percent (like, she’s a high-ranking actuary in Philadelphia, so her math skills are bangin’!).

Are some of the items I purchase outdated? Sure. I’ve come to accept the phrase “Well, how expired is it?” as part of my shopping vocabulary. But I also buy seasonal items after the holiday is over (especially candy). And sometimes the boxes are crushed in a corner, or the box cutter sliced through the box, but the cereal bag inside is still sealed. And more than once, we’ve been disappointed by bags of totally crushed chips, but I add them to a meatloaf or use them as a coating for fried chicken and, voila, dinner is served.

Have I purchased items that I wouldn’t eat. Also, yes. Sometimes, especially if I take a chance on jars of iffy olive oil, I’ll open them up and they smell rancid. But, I simply use those jars to oil my garden-tool handles. Or, if I bought a box of crackers for 45 cents, and they taste a little off, I feed them to my chickens. No harm done, and they don’t seem to care about expiration dates.

Have I ever gotten sick from eating outdated food? No. Not even once. I make a judgement call on anything expired. Like, this cereal expired a month ago, it’s probably ok. This can of beef stew expired in 2015 (dry heave) … I think I’ll pass. I really look over the labels and dates on food containing dairy, eggs, and meat, and usually do not buy expired products.

Do you ever buy items that don’t have something “wrong” with them? Totally! Think of those seasonal items. The best example I can give is the Olympics, and all of the brands that use its symbol for marketing their products. I found a ton of Olympic-themed peanut butter and cereal for a major discount about a month after the games were over. Or, companies decide to discontinue a product, update their labels, or change packaging; those items need to be removed from the shelves. Not expired, not damaged, just no longer offered to consumers. Again, consider the food waste with non-current labels and packaging.  

Keep in mind that food-salvage stores advertise as-is sales, meaning you won’t get a refund if you are not happy with your purchase. You take responsibility for your purchase. And you are not likely to find the exact inventory every time you shop (which can make shopping there more of an adventure!). Because they are supplied by the auction sales, and not a wholesale distributor, there is a finite supply of certain items. Instead, go with the intention of buying, say salad dressing, but not a specific brand of salad dressing. You’ll find a variety of buttermilk-style dressings, but maybe not your favorite brand. And, if the bottle costs 25 cents, does the brand really matter?

And, because it is truly an Amish-run business, there likely isn’t electricity, so you will need to bring cash or checks because they will not have a credit card reader. Also, there won’t be lights, so I find I use my flashlight app on my phone to help me read labels and look for expiration dates. I’ve seen some shoppers use little handheld flashlights.

Also, don’t be rude. This is kind of a big deal to the Amish. They’ve opened their doors to do business with the English, and this isn’t the time to burst through the doors and zip through the aisles like you might do at a chain grocery store (I’m a busy mom, so I’m guilty of this.). A bit of practice in patience will do you some good. I’ve witnessed some really rude customers (an elderly man was very, very upset that they did not have more raisin-bran cereal), and my heart hurts for anyone who experiences the receiving end.  

So, if you live near an Amish community, chances are there may be a food-salvage store for you to discover. Pick up a local paper, and you’re likely to find an advertisement. Also, word-of-mouth tends to be the best way to find businesses to check out, so ask around. I usually post on my social media page to let my friends know what deals are available, because I know some of them struggle to afford food even a modest budget. Maybe you’ll find a store just like the ones in MoCo, and I hope it helps you save money, too.

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