Food and Community

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Buying, cooking and eating food cooperatively is a simple but profound solution that helps many people save money while also enjoying the benefits of community.

I experienced one way of doing this several years ago, as a member of a student housing co-op in Illinois. About 22 of us shared a large rented house near campus, and held weekly meetings to divvy up regular chores like taking out the trash, cleaning, and even paying the monthly bills. I was always attracted to the food-related tasks like helping prepare our biweekly house meals (a welcome alternative to campus dining), or taking our collective funds to the grocery store on weekly food shopping trips.

Budgeting and cooking food for a big group helped me learn a few practical skills for sure, but the experience of shared cooking and eating, particularly with my passionate, well-read, morally motivated and gastronomically adventurous housemates, left me with lessons and memories that I will always treasure.

There are groups all over Seattle, student and otherwise, who live in cooperative housing arrangements, and each community has developed its own policies surrounding food. But even if you don't live with a big crew, you can still share in the benefits of a collective approach to food.

I recently met one of the members of the Seattle Community Pantry project, a resource created by a network of individuals as "an alternative to the existing dominant food distribution structure." Members contribute a monthly fee, which they can choose to pay in dollars or in agreed-upon services, such as cleaning or picking up food orders. The Pantry places collective large orders for bulk staples, and procures food in other ways also (including collecting overstock from local businesses and dumpster diving). Food is stored in a central location to which all members have keys, and each member is allowed to take whatever he or she needs and will eat.

Food is a very personal issue, and finding the right cooperative arrangement takes open discussion and a willingness to compromise. But there are many things you can do here in Seattle to start experiencing food on a community level. A few ideas:

Join a CSA: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an easy and convenient way to connect with local farms. Members agree ahead of time to buy a seasonal share in the farm at a set price, which gives farmers the support they need before the growing season. In return, members receive a regular delivery of farm-fresh produce (and sometimes other products such as eggs or dairy). If a share is more than you're likely to eat, or more than you can afford, consider splitting the box with neighbors or housemates. Find information about CSAs in our region from Puget Sound Fresh.

Buy food cooperatively: Pooling resources with friends, family and neighbors can be a way to save money and build community. Food buying clubs, also called buying co-ops, can be as small as five or six people or as large as you like! The groups take advantage of their size by buying through wholesale distributors or directly from farmers to gain access to fresh, local and organic food at a reduced cost. Find tips on starting your own food buying club in this article from the Organic Consumers Association.

Take part in a community garden: Growing food for yourself is a great feeling; growing food for others is a way to share that magic. By volunteering your time in a garden like Marra Farm, whose bounty is donated to the Providence Regina House food bank, you help get fresh produce to families who rarely have access to such a nutritious treat. Or check out the P-Patch website for more community gardening opportunities.

Volunteer with a local food organization: At FareStart, volunteers can help prepare meals that are served at local homeless shelters and childcare centers. At Solid Ground, you can assist with surplus-harvesting programs like Lettuce Link and the Community Fruit Tree Harvest. And there are many other opportunities to take part in helping others eat, including volunteering to help cook and serve community meals to senior citizens via the King County Senior Services Community Dining program.

This post is part of a series. Last weekend, several members of the Worldchanging Seattle team attended a teach-in called Confronting the Food Crisis, presented by the Community Alliance for Global Justice with the generous support of local sponsors and allied community groups. We'll be bringing you news about the solutions we discovered via short posts all week!

Photo credit: flickr/keylime_pie, Creative Commons license.


I've heard rumors of the Seattle Community Pantry for years, but I could never find a way to contact them. Thanks for the great post, Julia!

Posted by: Jen Power on December 16, 2008 6:51 PM

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