Western North Carolina’s food cooperatives have adapted to the pandemic paradigm in many ways: changing floor layouts, increasing staff, sanitizing surfaces. Some changes have been challenging, says Robin Dreyer, but one has been very positive: “What has gone up dramatically is the amount of food we sell.”
Dreyer, a member of the Ten Thousand Things cooperative in Burnsville, says the co-op’s roughly 120 member families have been cooking more at home. As a consequence, the store has moved more food than ever over the past year, particularly from its popular bulk bins. By Dreyer’s estimate, some 20% of all purchases are in bulk.
“Some of our bulk foods (like rice, bulgar wheat and quinoa) are in tubs with lids with scoops, and the customers weigh and price them,” Dreyer says. “We consider it safe, since 100% of the food in bins will be cooked before it’s eaten.”
The bulk approach to food sales can be easier on the wallet, but it’s also easier on the planet. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that over 28% of the country’s municipal solid waste in 2018 — roughly 82.2 million tons — came from packaging and containers. Bulk sections, where customers bring their own containers, can cut substantial plastic waste from the shopping experience.
Yet concerns over coronavirus transmission have led some co-ops to change how they offer bulk products or even stop them altogether. Xpress reached out to several co-op managers throughout WNC to see how different stores were handling the situation.
At Madison Natural Foods in Marshall, customers can continue to shop from gravity bins, where food drops into a container from a larger store. But scoop bins became an early casualty of the pandemic, says Jon Svendsen, who owns the store with his wife, Emily.
“Customers have to open the bins, lean over them and do a lot of handling,” Jon Svendsen says. “They’re more difficult to clean than the gravity bins, and customers stand over them — maybe breathe into them.
“We prefer to do bulk sales, where the customers can bring their own containers, but now, it’s a lot of bag and weigh,” Svendsen continues. “I just got done bagging up 25 pounds of cornmeal, and ordinarily, I’d put it in the bin. It’s a real downside to use plastic bags.”
The Hendersonville Community Co-op in Hendersonville has similarly changed its bulk setup. Customers can still purchase foods from gravity bins, explains store spokesperson Gretchen Schott, but a staff member clad in personal protective equipment must physically pour the items into a container. A few goods remain in scoop bins, but most are prepackaged, she says. Nevertheless, sales have been steady.
“We are doing the best we can to keep customers and staff safe,” Schott said. “We certainly haven’t had any drop in business.”
A joint statement issued on Feb. 18 by the federal Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “There is no credible evidence of food or food packaging associated with or as a likely source of viral transmission of [the virus that causes COVID-19].”
Recent guidance and research continue to diminish the role that surface contamination plays in the transmission of the coronavirus, says Steve Smith, Henderson County’s health director. He’s not aware of any documented instance where a person’s coronavirus infection could be traced to a contaminated surface.
More worrisome is the potential for airborne COVID-19 transmission if shoppers fail to maintain proper social distancing while crowded around the bulk food section of a grocery store. Neither the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services nor the Henderson County Department of Public Health has issued any guidance specifically for bulk food purchases, though grocery stores are required to post signage reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart from other shoppers and employees.
Mason Gardner, spokesperson for the Toe River Health District that serves Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties, says grocers are acting out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety of customers.
“When this thing started, we didn’t know what it was or how it was transmitted. People did what they could to protect customers,” Gardner says. “They didn’t want to be shut down and they wanted to be on the lookout for everyone.”
Gardner said that current recommendations include changing utensils regularly, disinfecting surfaces and using gloves to prevent viral spread. “Even when the chance of transmission is low, we all want to cut down any chance of transmission,” he says.
Fill ‘er up
Meanwhile, some area stores are embracing the bulk ethos. To the Brim Refill in Asheville and Fill-More in Burnsville both opened in 2020 with the goal of reducing plastic waste. Customers can bring their own containers and refill on all kinds of cleaning supplies.
“Plastic waste has become more of a concern as people get takeout food, and small refill stations have had to close down during the pandemic,” said Shelby Emerson, owner of To the Brim. “Since I have a small business, I can know what people are touching and sanitize after each person. I’m launching curbside service, too, so customers can have contactless shopping.”
The French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville initially closed its bulk products room when the pandemic hit, says General Manager Bobby Sullivan. The store had to add staff to mind the front door and moved to full service for bulk food products. “We had a triple shock when Earth Fare closed and people started panic buying,” he adds.
The co-op opened up its bulk foods room again at the end of January, still with some cautionary measures in place. “We put plexiglass up so people can come into the room and see everything, but we get it for them,” Sullivan says. Customers are allowed to bring their own containers, and the store also offers biodegradable or compostable bags for bulk orders.
“We have been creative and collaborative with staff to improve all systems,” Sullivan says. “The pandemic has highlighted the strengths of cooperatives, because we can change what we do as we need to do it.”
With additional reporting by Molly Horak.
Updated at 4:41 p.m. on May 11 to reflect the correct title and affiliation for Mason Gardner.