(Besides the Grocery Store)
While bulk bins and natural food stores can be an amazing way to acquire Zero Waste or low waste food, they aren’t the only way. Since our family has to drive for over an hour to get to the nearest store with bulk bins (you can read more about our grocery shopping methods here), finding some creative alternatives has been really important to us. Whether your community has access to a store with bulk bins or not, there are lots of opportunities to cast a wider net, support the local economy, and reach your zero waste goals, all at the same time. Read on for my list of nine places to find Zero Waste Food.
1. The Farmer’s Market: Most communities now have a farmer’s market for at least part of the year, and in warmer climates, they may run year-round. It’s also becoming more common for northern communities to host smaller Winter Markets indoors during the snowy months.
To get the most out of farmer’s market shopping, remember that availability is seasonal, so the selection will vary from week to week and month to month. If one week there is an ample supply of something you use a lot of (such as tomatoes or zucchini) see if you can buy some extra to can or freeze for the less productive months (just don’t clean the vendor out).
Also, remember that farmer’s markets offer much more than produce: you may also be able to find baked goods, home-canned goods, eggs, honey, milk, cheese, and more. I’ve even found prepared meals to take home and put in the freezer--all with zero plastic and often-compostable packaging.
To find a farmer’s market in your area, I find a simple internet search is probably your best bet. There are “farmer’s market search” apps and websites out there but their accuracy can be hit or miss (I imagine it would be really hard to keep the information up-to-date. If someone knows of a good app or site, please let me know in the comments so I can amend this post). When you get to the market, don’t forget to bring your Zero Waste Shopping Kit.
2. CSAs: Many farms now have CSA programs. A CSA (Community Support Agriculture) share allows you to purchase a share in a farm’s production for the growing season. Some CSAs consist of a single farm and some may be a cooperative of multiple farms. You pay for your share and then receive a box of produce for a set number of weeks. It’s like the farmer’s market, except you don’t have to do the shopping!
Our CSA is a cooperative type with optional “add-ons”. In addition to a large vegetable share, we also get local eggs, bread, and coffee with our weekly share. The total cost with all of our add-ons is $40/week, which is pretty amazing considering we’re getting several pounds of produce plus the add-ons listed above!
CSAs are a win-win for farmers and consumers. Small farmers end up with guaranteed income and support, while consumers get local, often organic produce at a great price. Even if you don't think you have a CSA program near you, I encourage you to look into it. Many CSA programs deliver regionally, with drop-off points at designated locations and times.
If you get more of something than you can readily use in your CSA, you can always can it, freeze it, or share the surplus with another family.
3. Pick Your Own Farms: Visiting Pick Your Own (aka U-Pick) farms may be my favorite thing to do in the whole world. I have fond memories of visiting berry farms and orchards with my family as a kid, and now each year we take multiple trips to different farms so we can pick whatever is in season. Usually the prices are great (in Louisiana we once picked over 25lbs of Satsuma oranges for less than $.30/lb) and it’s just a lot of fun. Generally, the kids eat more than they put in the buckets!
Our Zero Waste strategy at the U-Pick farm is to pick enough so that we have plenty to eat fresh for a few days, as well as lots of extras to make into pies, jam, can whole, or freeze for smoothies and future baked goods. Once again, we acquire lots of produce without the plastic and we also stock our freezer for the winter months.
Pickyourown.org lists U-Pick farms by state and region. However, the site is not always up to date (I imagine it is quite the undertaking to keep things current) so a simple internet search would probably do the trick here as well.
4. Direct from the Farm: This is similar but not quite the same as doing a CSA or U-Pick excursion. Many small farms have their own storefront or onsite market stand that is open on certain days or times during the week where people can shop their goods. Depending on the farm, you may be able to find everything from vegetables to jams to eggs or dairy. Some farms even have a website set up so you can purchase directly online or by email. If your family eats meat, this can be a good way to find locally sourced, organic meat at a good price. These types of farms are a little bit harder to find than CSAs and Farmer’s markets, but I feel like it is becoming more common. Once again, availability will be seasonal so have a strategy to preserve any extras for the off-season.
5. The Roadside Stand: Ephemeral, elusive, and found only by happenstance, the roadside farm stand is found at the intersection of food and serendipity. Seriously though, if you come across a roadside stand, stop and see what they’re offering! You may find something amazing that you need right now or can preserve for later. While farmstands do seem to pop up like dandelions during the warmer months, there are some areas where it is common to find roadside stands year-round. You can often find farm-fresh food that is not packaged in plastic, and discover some really interesting food finds along the way.
6. Grow Your Own: This one takes a little more time and investment than strolling the farmer’s market or picking up your CSA, but if you can, growing even a couple of pots of vegetables can go a long way. During the growing season, you can supplement your supplies with items from your garden, and if you have a surplus, you can preserve extras for the future. If your family eats eggs and you have space (and local ordinances allow) consider getting backyard chickens. The eggs are fresh, delicious, and you’ll know that your birds are being treated well. Plus, chickens LOVE scraps like vegetable peelings and they are great natural pest control.
7. Foraging and gathering: It probably goes without saying, but if you’re going to forage, make sure you do your research and find someone experienced to go with you the first time (i.e. try not to eat anything poisonous). Also, make sure to follow local laws and regulations regarding where you can and can’t forage. While foraging can be a fun and interesting way to gather berries, mushrooms, and other wild goods, it’s possible to inadvertently do harm by disturbing animals' homes/food sources and trampling plants. Falling Fruit is a collaborative website where foragers and freegans can share places to gather many different plant foods in both urban and wild areas.
8. Local Specialty Shops: Bakeries, herbal supply shops, corner markets, and other local specialty stores are wonderful places to source local and zero waste foods. Each community is different, and you may just be surprised at the variety of stores that exist in your area. While it may be too time-consuming to visit multiple stores each week, it is worth exploring whether your local sellers offer any goods it would be worth stocking up on once a month. Again, this can be a great way to get local items and support local food suppliers & makers.
9. Network & Barter: You never know what you might be able to get by talking to the right people! I had an entire jug of local, raw honey just given to me through some family connections. While we’re not always so lucky to have jugs of honey fall into our laps, we can reach out to our wider community to share our knowledge and resources. Many communities have “Buy Local” Facebook groups or groups of a similar name dedicated to connecting local food growers and makers with individuals needing those goods. You can also reach out to your existing social circle. Maybe you have an absolute brown thumb but you bake amazing pies. See if there is a friend who would be willing to trade some extra tomatoes or zucchini for some home baked goods. Not only do practices like these help all of us source Zero Waste food in creative ways, they also expand and strengthen our community ties.
While it’s unlikely that most of us will be able to eliminate trips to the traditional grocery store completely, using some of these creative and seasonal strategies can help us source food more locally and with less waste, including some of the “upstream” waste involved with packing and transporting food to traditional stores.
If you’re looking for more information to get started with gardening or canning your surplus food, be sure to check out my post on the 6 Essential DIY Skills for Zero Waste Living.