By Cheyenne Fonda
Local nonprofits and grocery shoppers who want to do their part to reduce waste are hailing the return of the Wooden Nickel incentive program at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp.
The program, which gives customers who bring their own reusable bags a wooden nickel to donate to a nonprofit, had already provided more than $2,400 in donations — 5 cents at a time — to 11 Methow Valley organizations when it had to be suspended last spring because of the COVID pandemic. “We didn’t want employees touching reusable bags,” Hank’s Assistant Manager Carlan Nielsen said.
“We loved the program — it was doing so well,” Nielsen said. When Hank’s restarted the program at the beginning of February, they polled employees and gave them the option of not handling bags brought in by customers if they felt uncomfortable. But people are used to wiping down surfaces. “Everyone was willing to do what’s needed to be safe,” she said.
Hank’s launched the “Bag It Forward” program in August 2018 to encourage customers to bring their own bags and reuse produce bags and cardboard shipping boxes that the store otherwise pays to recycle.
In the habit
Hank’s customer Jill Lorenzen faithfully carries the reusable bags sold by the store. “I made myself get in the habit. They’re way nicer and hold a lot of stuff,” Lorenzen said.
When Lorenzen lived in Alaska, there were entire fields of plastic bags along tributaries of the Yukon River, she said. Although Lorenzen keeps two bags full of plastic bags in the car in case she needs them, she recycles them if she accumulates too many.
Shelley Burch takes advantage of the store’s empty cardboard boxes to pack her groceries, which she uses again at home to collect wood chips and bark for kindling. These wood chips produce a stockpile of fire starter — she accumulates roughly 20 boxes before winter starts. “It’s multi-purposing. They’re good for apples, too,” Burch said.
Hank’s focused on nonprofits that benefit children, Nielsen said. As a result, kids benefit in two ways from Bag It Forward — the program contributes to groups like The Cove, Classroom in Bloom, and Friends of the Pool that focus on kids and families, and children learn the value of giving back to the community. At the end of a shopping trip, the program is a reward for kids, since many parents let them choose the organization to donate to. When the donation jars reappeared last month, the kids didn’t miss a beat in selecting the charity to receive their nickel, Nielsen said.
Nielsen got the idea for Bag It Forward from stores in Bellingham, which gave customers beans to donate when they brought their own bags. Some grocery stores in Oregon used wooden nickels.
The Bag It Forward program appears to be an effective reminder.
“I hear from a lot of customers that the wooden nickels keep them on their toes,” Nielsen said.
It’s also been a boon to the nonprofits and the people they aid — in 2019, shoppers donated $2,455.35 to the nonprofits, Nielsen said. The store’s goal is to reach at least $5,000 this year.
The Cove received at least several hundred dollars through the program, which enabled the organization to purchase more food for Methow Valley families than in the past. “Every little bit counts,” Executive Director Glenn Schmekel said. The Cove supports an average of 70 local households, and the need has grown during the coronavirus pandemic.
The local American Legion post, with a small budget and all-volunteer crew, praised Bag It Forward.
“I am proudly reporting that 661 wooden nickels went into a check donated by Hank’s Harvest Foods to American Legion Post 0143 Methow Valley. … That $33.05 could just be the beginning,” former Commander Tristan Gilbert wrote in a letter to the Methow Valley News.
Bag It Forward helps the grocery store save money because they don’t have to buy as many bags. The store and customers will have a head start when the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags goes into effect later this year.
Hank’s is part of URM Stores, 350 member-owned groceries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Nielsen has been trying to encourage other members to adopt the wooden-nickel program to motivate customers to bring their own bags — and to save the stores money.
“It’s such an easy thing — they’re rewarding,” she said.
The 11 nonprofits in the Bag It Forward program are the American Legion, Classroom in Bloom, The Cove, Friends of the Pool, Jamie’s Place, Methow Recycles, the Methow Valley Community Center, the Methow Valley Senior Center, the Public School Funding Alliance, Room One and Winthrop Kiwanis.
This article was written by Cheyenne Fonda during her internship at the Methow Valley News. Marcy Stamper contributed additional reporting.