The unpackaged life
By Kim Card
The Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh once told a questioning student: “Choose one thing and do it deeply, and you will do it all.” The student was unsure of how to react to all the issues plaguing the world, and Hanh’s response was as powerful as it was simple, focus on one issue where you can make a real difference.
On the eve of my last birthday I thought of Hanh’s words and asked myself, what is my one thing? Food, I answered myself. And I need to do it more deeply than ever before.
I’ve been vegan for around 15 years—for reasons ranging from animal activism and environmental concerns to human rights and health—and lately I have been getting more involved in the food-sovereignty movement. But still, it was time to do more. And so, that night before my birthday, I decided to try and go a year without consuming any packaged food or beverages.
I awoke without a single thing prepared.
This is not entirely true though. I live in a household of people with many of the same values in procuring food. Our pantry is full of buckets of grains and beans, as well as jugs of vinegars and oils. Our spice rack is filled with bulk spices, which we get at the co-op. We have another shelf full of containers individually stocked with things like pasta, coffee and teas. The packaged items are mostly drinks, “milk,” and condiments—lots of condiments.
When I set up my guidelines for this experiment, I didn’t want to create easy outs. I work at People’s Food Co-op in Portland, Ore., and we have nearly every thing you can imagine in bulk, or what would appear to be package-free. Some of the bulk items go from the containers they are received in, and then end up in the bins. There are actually some times when we have to open several bags to fill our bin. So one of the major “rules” for me is that the item has to come in a container bigger than it is sold in. I also like to know if the containers they are delivered in are reusable. Many come in buckets or jars that have deposits and get picked up when the person makes their next delivery. Those are my favorite!
Condiments are the food items I did not take into account much until I made my first scramble at home and realized I couldn’t use my favorite locally made hot sauce. We carry one in bulk at the co-op, but it’s just not the same, so I will make my own when tomatoes and peppers come into season. I have learned how to make coconut milk from shredded coconut; however, curry and hot chili paste are on my “learn how to make” list. I am learning to make things like mustard and hot sauce, but many of the things that I want to make aren’t in season yet. It doesn’t make sense to me to use a produce item that has been shipped hundreds of miles just so I can make Tabasco sauce. I have some dried hot peppers from a local farmer, and that works for now. It’s safe to say the fridge at home looks a little different than it did just four months ago.
Baked goods and other items that come in large tote containers continue to be a challenge at the co-op; bakers and chocolate makers wrap them in plastic wrap or plastic clamshell containers. Most pick up the clamshells and reuse them, but it is so much plastic that I choose not to purchase them.
As far as beverages go, I previously didn’t buy a whole lot of beverages that come in a bottle or can. I long ago switched to tap water, and I’m learning to make my own sodas. I only buy beer that is brewed by Captured By Porches, a small company that uses flip-top bottles, which go right back to them in the wooden boxes that they created. Captured By Porches also makes a kombucha in the same flip-top bottles, and though I do drink a great deal of tea, I now carry a tea infuser with me. When I go out for tea, I make sure the cafés don’t use disposable tea bags. I’ve gotten fairly good at juicing my own oranges and grapefruit, and if I go out for an adult beverage with friends, it’s draught beer for me.
One of the major reasons that I decided to change my eating and shopping habits is that I really don’t have to go anywhere else to shop besides where I work. This puts me in an extremely privileged situation, and I feel that I have a responsibility to take advantage of that privilege. Another reason for embarking on this adventure is that I am tired of the idea that we will consume our way out of the environmental nightmare we find ourselves in; I didn’t want to have to buy things to make this experiment happen.
So far the only things I have purchased are a lidded tea infuser (so I can take it with me from home to work), a Pyrex dish with a lid that actually fits for my lunch and to-go items (most of the time my lunch ends up in a mason jar anyway), a couple of cloth bags for produce, and a tortilla press. That’s it. (I’ve long been in the habit of having my own jar/bottle for water, and I keep a traveling coffee mug with me.)
Going out to eat is the most challenging part. I end up asking a great deal of questions. It can sometimes feel like an extreme version of the show Portlandia. It requires being willing to have a lot of conversations, and always carrying containers for take-out or leftovers. Once I asked a local pizza place if they would let me bring in the box from a pizza ordered by another housemate. Low and behold, the place was excited about it.
I am also the person who most often makes the burrito run to our favorite food cart. One of the first times I was craving a burrito, two other people wanted one too, so I found a big bowl and they happily loaded them up in the bowl without foil or anything. Even so, I have since given up burritos for burrito bowls or tacos when the carts make there own tortillas. As I’ve found, more and more places are happy to use your container; if they get caught though they can get in trouble with the health department, so I try to keep it discrete. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a Portland container where we paid a deposit at one cart and could return it to another cart to be reused?
Bread is somewhat difficult, but I can usually get it from the farmers market without a bag. I have been able to go to artisan bakeries and just wrap the loaf of bread in a flour towel. Many times it is even still warm from the oven.
I recognize that if I didn’t live in Portland and have People’s to shop at then this experiment would look very different. I’ve gone to some other stores like Fred Meyer, and though they have bulk sections, bringing my own containers can be difficult. I bring old plastic bags; however, if I bring my jars or cloth bags that weigh anywhere from .06 pound to over a pound, the price difference can add up. When I asked, the grocers told me that they didn’t have a way to subtract the tare weight at the register. Since I have shopped at co-ops for so long, I didn’t think about corporate stores not having an option for entering the tare weight at the register.
If you don’t live near a food co-op, most towns these days have some sort of buying club, and if not, you could start one. Another great option is to see if your neighbors want to go in on a few staple foods together; say, buy 25 pounds of brown rice or black beans together.
If none of these options work for you, start with where you are at. Maybe it is making your own nut milk or hemp milk. Maybe pick a couple of items you find yourself buying often and decide to buy those items in bulk, or make them yourself.
The most important tip I have is to create a system. I have a shopping bag that I put my containers in as I empty them. Then everything ends up at the store with me. Invest in some cloth bags for things you buy often, like nuts or beans. Perhaps you drink cow or goat milk—buy it in glass containers that can be returned to the dairy to be used again.
Now halfway through this year-long challenge, I can already feel such a difference that I believe few packaged foods will ever come back into my diet. My body has felt better with fewer cookies and chips consumed. And I can actually feel a difference not consuming the chemicals that go into packaged foods.
I have saved easily $150 per month. And as I continue learning how to make more things, I can see the savings increasing. I am also connecting with some amazing people returning to artisan crafts; we are sharing skills that build community knowledge by telling stories of how people once crafted food and household items, like bread and tortillas and wool and soap.
The greatest effect so far is knowing that more of my money spent on food actually goes to the farmers who grew my food (and not Monsanto) as well as the people who produced it. And that brings me my greatest peace of mind. That’s my one thing.
Tips to Lead the Unpackaged Life
• Plan your meals out a couple days.
• Talk to people selling goods at the farmers market. Many are willing to use your own container or have you bring back jars for them to reuse.
• Pick a few things in your cupboards already, and find out just how easy it is to make them yourself, like mustard or coconut milk.
• Understand that labels are important. A shelf full of different white powdery things without numbers can be frustrating on baking day.
• Have fun and be creative.
Favorite Recipe: Hazelnut milk (with nuts from the Pacific Northwest)
1 cup hazelnuts, soak for 8 hours
3 1/2 to 4 cups water (determines milk thickness)
2 to 3 dates
Slash of vanilla extract (optional)
Dash of salt
Toss all in a blender. Strain through cheesecloth or nut milk bag. Label jar and refrigerate. (Should stay fresh a few days.)