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A Grocery at a Crossroads

Roots Zero Waste Market sets out to change grocery shopping in the Treasure Valley


Located at the neck of Chinden Boulevard just before it flows into Boise, and halfway between State Street and the Bench neighborhood, Roots Zero Waste Market is at a crossroads.

"We think it's a good location for meeting a lot of people," said Lea Rainey, who co-founded the market with her husband, Zach Yunker. "Touching as many people as we can is the core of our business."

It's at a metaphorical crossroads, as well, offering a shopping experience that stresses locally produced foods and sundry goods, transparent sourcing and minimizing the impact of buying groceries on the environment. The project turned heads in the spring of 2018 when Rainey first announced it; on Saturday, Sept. 21, the store—the first of its kind in the Gem State—will be fully operational, setting new benchmarks for sustainability in grocery shopping.

When Rainey gave Boise Weekly the nickel tour in late August, the market looked very nearly ready to swing open its doors. Only a few shelves remained bare, and a table had been set up in the front of the store that served as Rainey and Yunker's impromptu office, but already the main features and many of the finer points of the store were on display. Straight through the front door is the produce, a cold case, dozens of glass jars containing dried items like wheat and lentils and sundry items like artisan soaps, shampoos and toothbrushes ($5 for a bamboo-handled one with bristles made from a natural plastic). To the right from the front door is a deli area, and to the left is an apothecary, Vervain, which is a separate business.

"It's a lot like Europe, where you'll find a business inside a business," Rainey said.

The European pull is strong at Roots Zero Waste Market. Beyond incorporating more than one business in the same space, Rainey borrowed liberally from Continental shopping habits like people bringing their own grocery bags, and it was this feature that helped the market garner headlines when it was first announced. While it was certainly not the first store in the Boise area to encourage customers to use their own materials to take away their groceries, it will be the first founded in an age of acute environmental anxiety that will attempt to bake new mentalities and customs into its clientele.

"This is a change in consumerism," Rainey said. "We want to make it as comfortable as possible to use reusables as much as possible."

Sturm und Drang about the environment has been a driving force behind interest in the market and the market itself. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately one-third of all food produced in the world ends up in landfills, and food waste accounts for 9% of greenhouse gasses released directly through human activity. Rainey said she likes to give every food item in the store "three lives" to ensure minimal material ends up in the Ada County Landfill.

On the customer side, the market has elevated reusable, compostable and recyclable materials. A container exchange program (there's a $5 deposit to participate) lets users swap used vessels for freshly cleaned ones; at the prepared foods area, there will be a $.05 charge for compostable takeout containers. Paper bags have completely replaced those polyethylene bags that are ubiquitous at chain grocers. Rainey said at every turn, she hopes her customers will consider the broader impacts of their behavior, "decreasing pollution in an exponential way in a very short period of time." If there's an old-fashioned tinge to that ethic, it's because there is.

"A lot of what we do harkens back to the way we used to shop," Rainey said.

In the backroom, the grocery walks the proverbial walk. In addition to plastics, Rainey has banned palm oil products from the store, and in one instance, she said she continues to buy shampoos and conditioners from a local source, but declines to buy its bar soaps for just that reason. By buying fewer perishable goods, she said she'd like to sell out of produce before it goes bad, and edible incidentals like cauliflower leaves and carrot stalks are repurposed. If an apple falls to the floor, it goes into the juicer rather than the garbage.

For Rainy, the process of building Roots Zero Waste Market has been as much about what she wanted to put into the store as it is about what she won't. She has opted to pay a premium for stainless steel bins rather than plastic, and ended up buying them from a European supplier, Belgium-based Zero Waste Dispenser. Where other groceries use misters in their produce departments, she bought a Contronics humidifier, which purports to keep foods fresh in their bins for significantly longer, and has an electrical shock cycle that kills organisms on the surface of produce. A Combi oven in the kitchen combines most cooking functions under a single pilot light.

"This is the future," Rainey said. "You have to embrace technology to save this planet for the future."

When asked where she sees Roots Zero Waste Market in the ecosystem of local grocery stores, she said conversations about values and innovation are edging closer to the center of how people make shopping choices.

"I don't see it as 'competition,'" she said. "I see it as who's doing that cool thing first."