We had a sad moment recently when our local supermarket shut its doors and was taken over by one of the big supermarket giants. It’s now just a little bit harder to shop for the same variety of products, to source local bread, to buy different deli items, etc etc. Sometimes it feels like the supermarket duopoly is taking over the world.
That got me thinking, and thinking beyond the supermarket. Where else do you go? The farmer’s market is great for fresh produce. There is another option, and that is a bulk foods shop. They are springing up all over the place, and we have been lucky enough to have a co-operative bulk foods shop here in Canberra for many years.
The ANU Food Co-op Shop is on the grounds of the Australian National University on the edge of the city centre. We have been shopping at the Co-op for several years (fairly irregularly, I have to admit), even before it was in its current home at the base of a shiny new building.
It’s a fabulous source of food such as grains, flours, dried fruit, dried beans, nuts, teas, spices, pasta, and more. Bring your own containers and fill them with as much or as little as you like, from a range of mostly organic products with many gluten free options.
I was initially a little nervous that I may not fit the typical customer profile of the Co-op Shop, particularly when I turn up in the midst of the groovy young things looking like a middle aged suburban mum (which is, quite frankly, who I am), and especially when I arrive ready to shop with my matching Tupperware containers. Fortunately I was wearing my fair trade shoes. Actually, those fears were completely baseless, of course I didn’t have to worry because shoppers of all shapes and sizes really are welcome and the friendly staff really are very helpful.
I mostly tend to buy ingredients for my own muesli (see my recipe in this post here), or the interesting flours for baking, and the dried beans and lentils.
The whole point of the Co-op is that it is a co-operative venture rather than a profit driven enterprise, so you reap more benefits when you join in the co-operative community and become a member. Members who volunteer their time working in the shop or cafe receive a discount on their purchases. I have done this a few times over the years, and been given jobs such as sweeping the floor, washing dishes, dusting containers and shelves, or cutting and weighing pieces of pumpkin. All quite pleasant really, and for some strange reason more fun than sweeping my own floor – why is that?
How to shop at a bulk foods store
Here’s how shopping at a bulk foods shop works, and my tips for a smooth process:
- Bring containers. Bring lots of containers, in a variety of sizes, and something to carry them in. Bring more containers than you think you will need, if my experience is anything to go by. Jars, boxes, containers with lids, bags – it doesn’t need to be matching Tupperware, as long as it is food grade and clean.
- At the shop counter there is a set of scales. Weigh your containers and take a note of the weight of the empty container. Then when you fill it with goodies, the staff will know not to charge you for the weight of your container. I find the easiest way to keep a record of this is to bring some masking tape (or any tape, really) and a marker pen, tear off a bit of tape and stick it on your container, then write the weight of the empty container on the tape.
- Have a look around and think about what you are going to buy and which items will best fit into each of your containers. Use your jars or bottles with well fitting lids or seals if you are buying liquids such as tamari or olive oil.
- Fill your containers with the food products. Use the scoops or tongs provided. When you have what you need, write the name of the product on the piece of tape on the container.
- Take your containers to the counter where the staff will weigh them and calculate the cost. Pay for your products, remembering that you will get a discount if you are a working member of the Co-op.
The shop also sells organic fresh fruit and vegetables, a range of household consumables and toiletries, and some grocery items in cans and packets. Some of the pricing of the packaged grocery products appears a little higher than the bigger supermarkets, but you can save if you buy in bulk, plus the working members discount also applies to these products.
Coffee, lunch, and now breakfast at the ANU Food Co-op Shop Cafe
Whether you were in there shopping for organic oats or just walking past, why not enjoy a coffee in the relaxed cafe space within the shop, with its eclectic collection of colourful and weathered furniture? The cafe has everything you need to feel right at home, including crocheted doilies for the tables. You could take a moment to nourish yourself, plus you could feel even more socially responsible about enjoying your coffee, sweet treats and healthy lunch if you participate in the cafe’s suspended coffee or suspended lunch programs.
The cafe has just added breakfast bowls to their menu, which I tried this week with another local food blogger. The cafe makes a different mix of porridge each day and sprinkles it with nuts, grains and dried fruit using the organic produce from the Food Co-op Shop. I tried a gluten and dairy free combination of chia, banana and coconut, which was sweet and creamy and kept me going for hours.
The cafe has the same non-profit focus as the shop, so one of their aims with these breakfast bowls was to provide hearty and sustaining meals to their local community which, because of the cafe’s location, is mostly students.
I spoke to one student who told me she loves coming in to grab a coffee before class. I also noticed a few people dressed for their city office job having breakfast and/or a coffee before going to work. Apparently there is a growing number of workers from nearby office buildings stopping in on their way to work or for a great value lunch. I can see why – where else in the city will you find a hearty and healthy organic bowl of breakfast for $5?
Read more about the ANU Food Co-op Shop and Cafe at their website here.
By the way, if you are still thinking about how the big supermarkets are taking over and what we can do about it, here’s an interesting read by a local food blogger who decided not to shop at the big supermarkets for a year.