I’m back from a full day of grocery shopping and exploring non-plastic items. I went to three stores today as well as the farmers’ market and a small cheese shop. I have good news to report almost everywhere, except at the bank. There, the news is scary. See that shopping cart in the photo? Those two bags of groceries cost me $98. (falls over in dead faint…) There’s so much to tell that I’m gonna spread this over two days. Because who doesn’t want to talk about food prices and plastic, ad nauseum? I do, I do!!
Usually I don’t grocery shop much on alternate weeks because we’re out of ready cash. In pay weeks I do a Big Shopping, and in off weeks, a Little Shopping. Little Shopping can mean a trip to the farmers’ market, plus stops for milk and bread. Big Shopping has meant, prior to the Plastic Purge, cutting of coupons, reading of sales circulars, schlepping around town to various stores, a triumphant return home with about 20 bags full of BOGOs, rebate items, sale items and so on, with about 50 percent savings at each location. Then we coast on this food til the next payday. This isn’t how the financial planners would have us do it, but this is how we do it; it’s imperfect, but does the trick, and the savings has really helped us cut back on debt. Cutting out the plastic wasn’t really in the mix — buying local and organic items was higher up the priority list than plastic packaging.
So, shopping: Snacky things are always on the list for my family — I have two adult daughters at home who work fulltime and frequently need to grab and go — coffee on the run, a granola bar and a piece of fruit. When they get home, they also snack. So does The Boy, who is hitting a growth streak and suddenly wants to eat everything. Snacks, besides fruit and cheese and nuts, are always in demand. As for me, I have a sweet tooth. What’s out there for a sweetie like me who wants candy or cookies — without plastic?
I bake most of our cookies, cakes and pies, but today I purchased a tin of Danish butter cookies. The tin is reusable until the End of Time, and there’s no plastic. Sometimes these tins will have an Ambient Plastic wrap around the edge but this one didn’t. Yay! I was also happy to put an Almond Roca tin in the cart, a roll of Mentos (paper and foil), a paper box of Good-n-Plenty, and two kinds of chocolate bars. Hershey’s — the larger size is paper and foil, but most smaller sizes as well as minis are wrapped in plastic, and possibly packed inside a plastic bag, too. Cadbury and Toblerone bars are also in paper, foil or cardboard. There are a number of exotic chocolate bars that are packaged in paper and foil, if you can spare $4 to spend on a candy bar. I’m trying to keep my shopping as mainstream as possible, if I can — thus, a large Hershey’s, at about $2, and not plastic wrapped, works for me. (Another challenge would be to eat only fair trade foods, in which case Hershey’s would lose out big-time and the other exotics would win a big gold star.)
I’m sorry to say that hard candy, Altoids, and any kind of gum except possibly Tiny Chicklets are out of the question, in terms of avoiding plastic. Altoids is in a tin, then taped shut with shrink-wrap — feh! I am still unable to find any kind of health or snack bar (granola, cereal, protein, etc) that isn’t packaged up like a fly swathed in a spider web. Potato chips, aside from Boulder Canyon and Sun Chips, continue to disappoint me in their packaging, even the most wholesome, organic, flax-seed-studded crunchy thing. Nope. All wrapped in plastic. Since I have yet to find tortilla chips in anything but plastic, I will try using Sun Chips as a base for nachos and tacos later this month. The original variety will work well enough.
I did discover a gem in the cracker aisle — an old friend, the Wasa Crispbread. In several varieties, with a low price point, Wasa is widely available and very tasty. It’s wrapped in paper (though there is a variety in plastic — avoid!), and one could put this into a Tupperware bin of some sort to keep them crispy longer. These are wonderful with cheese or as a pizza base. Every other cracker box (I poked my finger into some and shook and rattled others) has a plastic bag inside the box. Friends, we’re talking about 30 different kinds of crackers at four different stores. Wasa is the only one I could find without plastic. Not even matzos are exempt from plastic, and that’s just not kosher, in my book. A reader mentioned that Grape-Nuts comes loose in a box, a la cat kibble, but I tried several sizes and brands (faux Grape-Nuts are terrible, by the way). All had a plastic bag inside the box. Bah!
I will add that I bought Triscuits, despite the plastic bag inside (I poked my finger in to be sure). But Triscuits has an interesting campaign going on now, encouraging home vegetable growing, and includes a packet of basil seeds in the cardboard of the box. I thought it was worth buying that to explore the green steps Nabisco is taking. Check out the link to the Plant a Seed, Grow a Movement Web site.
Snackwise, I was able to buy sunflower seeds in bulk (raw, so I’ll have to brine and toast them myself for Mr. Husband’s softball nights and spitting pleasure) and pretzels in bulk. I found plenty of bulk dried fruits, nuts, yogurt-covered pretzels, raisins, sesame twigs, and carob or chocolate covered fruit and nuts. I will definitely be back with my own containers for a dip into the bulk bins at Alameda Natural Grocery as well as those at Nob Hill last week. Another plus at ANG is the bulk cereals: Everyone with bins has bulk granola, and I make it myself, so who cares about the bulk granola? But I love my cereal, 24/7, so I was thrilled to discover organic corn flakes and a kind of oat Os (a la Cheerios) at ANG. I brought my own containers to fill and it was easy to do. I wrote down the bin numbers in a notebook frm my purse for check-out. I have already tried the corn flakes, and they blow Kellogg’s away. Much crisper, and they stand up to the milk. Yum!
Speaking of milk, I plunged in and bought the half-gallon of Strauss milk in the glass bottle. True, it has a plastic cap that can be recycled, and there was a $2.50 deposit on the bottle. But at $4.29 for a half-gallon of organic whole milk, from a local dairy, in a glass bottle, with cash back when I return the bottle — this is a sweet purchase. And it’s delicious on the organic corn flakes. I also bought the Strauss half and half, a pint for $2.19, with a $2.50 deposit. I usually pay about $2 for a quart in a general grocery store. This is one change I can commit to — milk in glass bottles. Yes!
Not only that, but I took another reader’s suggestion and sought out St. Benoit yogurt. This comes in plain or honey flavors and is a quart jar full of yogurty goodness. It set me back about $6 for 30 oz., which is more than I would have paid for a dozen Yoplaits, but with one glass jar I can reuse or recycle, instead of a dozen plastic tubs. This was also from ANG. Another highlight from Alameda Natural Grocery: I found ketchup in glass bottles, several varieties. Can’t wait to try it. Got that smoked paprika I was looking for, for when I make my own ketchup this summer with all my homegrown tomatoes, and the spice is in a little tin. I love that!
Other items in bottles purchased today include wine (but why must wines have that stupid plastic wrap over the cork? It’s not lead, it’s plastic.); vodka (glass bottles, yes, metal caps, yes, but a little plastic built-in jigger! What if I want to pour a large tot? Can’t I be the judge of my drink strength?), and locally made vermouth (Gallo, with a metal cap and no plastic). Juice in glass bottles tends to be pricier, so I’ll buy less. And juice is not all that good for you — it’s just sugar, whether you buy the HFCS kind or pure juice (fructose is still sugar). So it’s better for our health if I don’t buy much juice. I just got one quart today, Santa Cruz lemonade, made in Chico, not Santa Cruz.
I found fruit in glass at two locations: the store brand at CVS, where for $1 a jar, you get peaches, fruit cocktail or apple slices in light syrup, and at Lucky I got a jar of mandarin orange slices, about $2 for the jar, same amount as you’d get in a $1 can. I also swooped on some grapefruit segments in a glass jar. These are all great in salads, over cottage cheese, in a lunch box, etc. I like being able to see the fruit, and I appreciate that it’s in a better quality package than plastic — but the downside is that glass is heavier and weighs more to ship. That could add to extra fuel to ship, making the food miles for a glass product greater for a glass item then a plastic, canned or paper-wrapped similar item. (Read up on food miles if you’re unfamiliar with the term — it’s an important part of my selection of locally grown and produced foods.)
As I said, I have lots more to chat about, re groceries, and will continue tomorrow. My purpose here isn’t to tediously outline everything we buy and eat, but to show what is and isn’t available without plastic, and how to decide what’s a better buy. More to come in the Plastic Purge — tomorrow, cleaning supplies, bathroom items, and some surprise discoveries, plus fun at the farmers’ market! Woot!
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward.
Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others.
Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.
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