I have always enjoyed wandering around to find the right place to shop. “Right” can mean many things and different things at different times to me. Usually good quality, good price, kind staff. My mom used to have a place where she bought some vegetables, another place for others, a place for the bread, etc. and I grew up seeing that as normal. Every time I land in a new country, city, neighborhood, finding my “right” places to shop is always an enjoyable endeavor.
For the past few years, I have added a few more elements to my definition of “right”. None, minimum or reusable packaging? Locally produced/grown? Seasonal when it comes to produce? Small business? Less intermediaries in the production chain? Products with little ingredients that I know what they are? I do not always shop in the places that meet all these criteria of “right”. Time, budget and mood are not always in my favor to walk for long, bike or reach that enjoyable store and kind seller. I try to be consistent and coherent but, I cannot always.
Below are my go-to places that I frequent and enjoy shopping at, places whose products I love, where owners and staff love and care for their products and customers and also for the environment. New York is big, so these are only my places in/around my neighborhood of East Williamsburg, in the North of Brooklyn.
My first three go-to options, in order, are: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), food cooperatives and farmers’ markets.
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
CSAs are popular, affordable and generally easily accessible in NYC. It means buying local, seasonable food directly from the farmer. What you sign-up for is a share from the farmer, which consists of a box of vegetables and whatever adds-on available you choose (I add eggs and sometimes fruit but my CSA offers mushrooms, oysters, pasta and other goods some seasons, from other local providers). I pick-up my box every week or every other week (if I sign-up for a half-share). I am lucky the pick-ups are at the community garden around the corner from my place on Saturdays. Very convenient. The produce is fresh and delicious. I love the ritual of coming home with my box, opening it and storing everything. I have Mara’s food storage article ready on my kitchen table every Saturday morning, and I love caring for every single green leaf, root and vegetable to make sure it is kept fresh and is not wasted. CSAs usually run for the Spring-Autumn season. Mine has winter shares this year for the first time in years, and I am happy! I love that I often discover new vegetables and roots that I had never seen or eaten before, like those delicious parsnips I roasted a few weeks ago. CSAs require you to do a volunteer shift during the season, to unload the boxes from the truck coming from the farm, distribute the boxes, or tidying up the place once the shift is over. Before the pandemic the produce came loose for you to pick-up and you could return egg cartons to be reused by the farm. Now it comes pre-packed in a box, although with very little or no waste/disposable packaging, and I cannot return the egg cartons. My CSA is the East Williamsburg CSA and Heart Rooms Farm is where my vegetables and eggs come from. There are many other options around the city to check-out, for those living in other neighborhoods. Check out the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition here.
- Food cooperatives
Mara already shared with us what food cooperatives are and published an interview with “La Carotte et le Lapin”, a participative grocery store in Burdeaux she is a member of. I am a member of the Bushwick Food Cooperative. Unfortunately, there was a fire a couple of years ago and it has been closed since then. I loved the produce they had, all the nuts, grains, spices, teas and more they offered in bulk (including oil, vinegar and castile soap!). I loved that you could use your own bags and containers and also bring your extra plastic bags and containers for others to use when shopping. This food co-op allowed non-members to shop there, for higher prices. Other food co-ops are more strict, and they only allow members to shop. Although the co-op is planning to re-open, it is taking long, it is uncertain if it will happen and, unfortunately, there is only a very small group of owners (I am not one of them) who are committed and actively working on the re-opening. There is a food co-op open to all for shopping, in the East Village in Manhattan, called the 4th Street Food Co-op , which remains open to the public for in-person shopping, that I love. It offers oil, vinegar and also castile soap in bulk (have I already shared that I use castile soap for my laundry, dishwashing and more?), among other things, and they still let you use your bags and containers. The place, however, iis a bit far away from my home. There are many food cooperatives in town. Unfortunately, none is close enough for me now to commit to do the shifts and volunteer time and be worth the trip when I need to shop, but it is definitely always an option worth exploring.
- Farmers’ markets
Farmers’ markets are also a great source for vegetables and fruits. It is also a great way to support your local farmers and eat seasonally. I find these more expensive than the CSA or food co-ops, but they often offer a good variety of produce and you can also find other products, such as bread, honey and maple syrup, meat and fish, flowers. There are many farmers’ markets in the city, in different neighborhoods on different days of the week. GROW NYC offers all the information on locations, days, schedules. My farmers’ market is the McCarren Park Greenmarket in Williamsburg, on Saturdays. It is again open after a few months closed due to COVID-19.
When these are not an option or when I do not find what I want there, the following are my favorite places:
- Precycle (Bushwick, Brooklyn)
Precycle is my go-to place for grains, pasta, nuts, spices, herbs, teas, olive oil, vinegars, honey, maple syrup, liquid soap, baking soda, yeast, flours, you name it, all in bulk! They also have vegetables, fruit, dairy products, soaps and other cleaning and beauty products, and much more. They closed the store for in-person shopping after the outbreak of COVID-19 and for the past few months they offer delivery and pick-ups. This means you cannot use your bags and containers anymore, but they package their dry products in compostable paper and they accept the glass containers in return when they need to package something in those, like oil, vinegar, honey or some ground spices. It is a beautiful truly zero-waste place. Precycle is a 15-minute bike ride from my home, and it is always nice to get out there. Definitely a place to visit once they open the store, and also to order a pick-up. A perfect excuse to ride the subway or bike to Bushwick and have a walk to see the neighborhood graffities.
- Cobblestone Pantry (East Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
Cobblestone Pantry is a new store in my neighborhood that opened just a few months ago. They sell all kinds of grains, nuts, spices and teas in bulk and I found all the staple ingredients of Chef Ottolenghi! Anyone else has been using his cookbook Simple as THE recipe book during the confinement period of the pandemic? It has brought me so much joy… And I am so excited this place has opened so close to me! It is open to the public for in-person shopping and they accept you bringing your own bags and containers to shop.
- The Meat Hook (East Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
Even though I am trying to eat less animal products and particularly meat, I still eat some. My goal for now is to eat less of it, not to give it up completely. The Meat Hook is a heaven store for meat and dairy products (eggs, yogurt, cheese, butter, milk), and they have great seasonal local vegetables and fruits. They also have an amazing sourdough bread that they run out of very quickly always, unfortunately, as good bread is not easy to find in NYC. It is a very small place, so there is often a waiting line outside, now that they do not allow more than 4 customers inside at a time. The wait is worthy, though, and the neighborhood is fortunate to have had this store open during the pandemic! I have not tried to bring my own containers for the meat since the outbreak, but before they used to accept them. In their own words “We’re a whole animal butcher shop, specializing in local meat from small, family-run farms in New York state. All of our beef is 100% grass-fed and grass-finished and our pork and lamb is pasture raised, the way it should be! Our meat travels directly from the farm to family-owned slaughterhouses to our shop with no middle man”.
(2) HEALTH AND BEAUTY
- Brooklyn Herborium (Windsor Terrace and Columbia Street, Brooklyn)
I feel I have talked about Brooklyn Herborium in every single one of my posts 😊. See, for example, the one about a zero-waste bathroom. This is how much I love and recommend this “holistic sanctuary created to preserve ancient herbal wisdom, nurture a community and study the gifts of Mother Nature and reveal the teachings of our Wise Woman heritage”. Both locations are now open to the public for in-person shopping. They sell face and body products, baby products, teas and, in their newer and bigger store in Windsor Terrace, also food. They offer workshops and services such as facials. It is a beautiful place, with amazingly positive energy and products made in small batches with love and organic products carefully selected, tested and prepared. It is not a cheap place, generally, and I have to confess that I have looked for cheaper replacements for some of their products, and sometimes use them, but nothing beats theirs.
- Credo (Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
Credo is a beauty store with the mission of being clean on the planet, as well as on every body. They have various stores in the city and carry a very wide variety of products and brands. They care for and staff knows a lot about the ingredients of the products they sell, however not the ideal place in general to reduce packaging waste. I love the eye pencils they carry, and refillable cream blushes and mascara.
(3) A BIT OF EVERYTHING
- Package Free Shop (online)
Package Free Shop used to have a store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and another one in Chelsea, Manhattan. However, due to the pandemic, they have closed both locations and only sell online now. They are a zero-waste store and fully coherent with this. It is an extremely educational place and just an inspiration for the easy changes and swaps you can make in your life to live plastic and waste free. From beeswax wraps, to reusable cutlery for picnics, shampoo bars and other things you would not even know existed, like refillable dental floss or reusable cotton facial rounds. A pioneer store in NYC.
(4) TOILET PAPER
- Who Gives a Crap (online)
I know, this is a strange thing to recommend. However, since I discovered Who Gives a Crap, this is the only TP I buy. You can place big orders. I place 2 orders a year. Their TP is made from recycled books and office paper, it is biodegradable and has no inks, dyes or scents. They donate 50% of their profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. And they are beautiful.
Each neighborhood has its own places, heavens and gems and this is what I love about this city. We all also have different budgets, needs, priorities, and time to go around different places in different neighborhoods for different products. But it can be fun to go around, get to know your neighborhood stores (and other neighborhoods!) and support them, especially during these challenging times for small businesses. In my previous neighborhood, there was a street full of stores owned by neighbors from North Africa and the Middle East and it was a delight to buy their olive oil, legumes, nuts, dates and even henna for my hair, mostly in bulk. I feel I am lucky to live in a city with so many options. I have shared the ones close to me, and I encourage you to find the places that are right for the environment and for you, your budget, your lifestyle, your preferences, wherever you live. I have a good regular big supermarket in my neighborhood, and I shop there often too, for things such as non-dairy milks, smoked fish, sardines, tuna and anchovies, beers, ice cream, chocolate and other products. It is cheaper than in the places above and they have things I cannot find in those places or that I simply prefer spending less money on because the quality and impact on the environment are the same or similar. I would love to hear if you have any other recommendations that I should check out!