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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Bulk Food

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Since the birth of her daughter Nina ten months ago, commentator Bonnie Auslander has been spending a lot of her time doing household food shopping. The making of lists, the checking of shelves, and the buying of products has her remembering the foods of her childhood, and what they came in.

AUSLANDER: In the pantry of my kitchen memories stands a girl with yellow shoes and purple umbrella. Nearby is her California cousin, the Sun Maid raisin maiden. And on the shelf above, a Quaker with rosy cheeks and a bold bicep and mallet. These containers of my childhood were familiar and comforting. I didn't worry if I saw the Morton Salt Girl in the garbage; she'd be back. Because whenever packages were empty, you threw them away and got new ones.

Thirty years later, I met the environmentalist who became my husband. No packaging in his kitchen. No pretty boxes. The salt was in a plastic yogurt container, reused so many times the colors had faded. The flower and sugar and granola were piled on the shelf in plastic bags, like sleeping puppies. Empty egg cartons were stacked high, waiting to be filled again. This man lived to buy in bulk. Not shopper's club kind of bulk, but the bulk of a food co-op, with its musty bins and dubious oils oozing onto the floor. With its spaced-out cashier who know the value of everything but the price of nothing.

At first, I was intrigued. There was something charming about this world without names, where the thing itself takes center stage, not the container it's in. It was only when I tried to bake some cookies in this kitchen that it got frustrating. "What kind of flour is this?" I asked. He opened the dusty bag and rubbed a pinch between his fingers. "It's whole wheat," he said, "but I'm not sure if it's bread flour or pastry flour." "You don't know?"

Then it hit me. It didn't matter, since the semi-sweet chips, too, had been bought in bulk. And that meant I didn't have the trusty back-of-the-package cookie recipe to follow. After we moved in together, I adjusted to co-op shopping. It helps if I think of it as a scientific expedition. Before you leave, gather your supplies. The maple syrup jar and olive oil cruet, the cloth sacks that moot the famous question, "Paper or plastic?" At the store, write down the product number and cost of every item, and don't forget to record the weight of those empty jars and bottles before they're filled.

In theory, I agree with bulk shopping's underlying premise of reduce, reuse, recycle. But inside, I mourn for the packaging of my youth. I didn't know how attached I was to containers, how much labels comfort me, until I tried living without them. To my chagrin, I find I've bought the Madison Avenue pitch: Brand is more important than product, and good things come in packages.

Given the state of the planet, I know my nostalgia for my childhood kitchen needs to become a thing of the past. My daughter won't have this problem. She won't pine for unnecessary packaging or be loyal to brands based on cute labels. I look around our kitchen to see what she'll remember. Grains in bags, flour in canisters. But what's that on the corner, behind the jar of lentils? Ah -- it's a little girl in yellow shoes holding a purple umbrella.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives with her husband John and daughter Nina in Ithaca, New York.

(Music up and under: Arvo Part, "Spiegel Im Spiegel")

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity: www.wajones.org; the Ford Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

(Music up and under: Arvo Part, "Spiegel Im Spiegel")

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: How environmental degradation puts people at greater risk when the Earth quakes. The El Salvador story is ahead. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Idaho, "In The Desert")


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood




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