‘Buy Nothing' as a Food Distribution Network | Civil Eats

‘Buy Nothing’ as a Food Distribution Network

As inflation and grocery prices soar, a volunteer in San Francisco created a food pantry from scratch to feed neighbors in need. Now, she hopes the model catches on.

Cilla Lee and some of the food donations to the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

Cilla Lee and some of the food donations to the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

Yulia Koudriashova is a single mom and teacher living with her two daughters in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. Her parents moved in with them in March when they were evacuated from Kiev after Russia invaded Ukraine. With Koudriashova’s salary as the household’s only source of income, the family has come to rely on the boxes of food they pick up nearly every week from a neighbor’s garage.

“For my parents, it’s very helpful because they see the support of the members of our community,” Koudriashova said. “They have nothing, they don’t have money, and we are sharing the same budget for five people.”

If Koudriashova can’t make a pickup, which typically takes place on Saturdays, she will likely receive a text message from host Priscilla “Cilla” Lee to make alternative arrangements. For the last 15 months, Lee has hosted a weekly food pantry out of her garage for the community of people she connects with through the online platform Buy Nothing. The neighbors share everything from food to clothing and furniture.

Lee is the administrator for the official Outer Richmond Buy Nothing group, which has more than 700 members on Facebook, and she recently launched an unofficial Buy Nothing sister group that also includes a nearby neighborhood to accommodate residents who wanted to participate. Within a month, it had 350 members, and now it’s close to 500.

Koudriashova estimates that the boxes save her at least $50 on groceries; without Lee’s food pantry, Koudriashova would have to visit a food bank, which she says would be much less convenient and welcoming.

Lee envisions her hyperlocal food pantry as a feel-good familial event, where members can meet their neighbors and build community. Members must RSVP to visit the food pantry to ensure Lee has enough food, but she has noticed that spaces are filling up faster these days. At a time when inflation has skyrocketed across the country, making everything from groceries to clothing and services more expensive, members of the group view the food pantry as a valuable resource that helps feed their families while preventing food from going to waste.

Grocery prices have soared nearly 12 percent in the last year, the largest increase since 1979. At the same time, 1 in 6 adults turned to charitable food in the previous 12 months, according to a December 2021 Urban Institute survey. Although that’s a 10 percent decline from 2020, the rate is still higher than before the pandemic.

If it weren’t for Lee’s food pantry, Koudriashova says she would probably have to visit a food bank, which she said would be much less convenient and welcoming. She estimates that each week, the boxes save her family at least $50 that she can use for children’s activities or other expenses. “That’s why it’s very important,” she said, “Now prices are so high in the shops, so I need to pay much more [for groceries] than before.”

On a recent Saturday, a Buy Nothing member with a flower-decorated van pulled up in front of Lee’s house loaded with fresh food from the Second Harvest food bank; Lee coordinates volunteers through her community to pick up the food at various food drives if she can’t do it herself. Perishable items like meat are transported in cooler bags before they’re placed in ice chests. For food safety reasons, Lee said she typically distributes food within an hour of its arrival.

Racks of food provided to members of the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)Racks of food provided to members of the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)Racks of food provided to members of the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

Examples of the food provided to members of the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photos by Naomi Fiss)

By the time she had set up, roughly 50 people had started lining up on the sidewalk outside her house. Then, one by one, they grabbed a box and filled it with food. There were coolers of packaged raw chicken drumsticks and crates filled with apples, melons, onions, potatoes, and heads of lettuce. Bright blue buckets held loose carrots and ears of corn, and cartons of eggs, loaves of bread, and bags of coffee beans, rice, and pasta were up for grabs. Lee also set up a table for visiting kids with donated cupcakes, ice cream drumsticks, and snacks.

Each person made their way through, picking what they wanted. After everyone finished, some stood in another line for a second round to grab whatever was left. Lee walked around checking in with members and making sure the distribution went smoothly, with a senior poodle in a sling on her side. Any food not taken is added to food boxes that are picked up later by members who couldn’t visit the pantry that day. Lee aims to give it all away every week.

Since Lee, who works in customer service for a major airline, started the makeshift food pantry more than a year ago, she has only missed one week; when that happened, she assembled boxes that members could pick up.

She’s come to know pantry regulars and remembers their needs. For example, she’ll tag member Khadija Lchgar when she sees someone in the group giving away diapers. Lchgar, a stay-at-home mother from Morocco, lives in San Francisco with her 3-year-old son and husband, who is a full-time student and works part time—the family’s sole source of income. Lchgar learned about the food pantry after joining the Buy Nothing group to look for free supplies for her home. Lee often receives donations of things like sushi, bagels, and sandwich rolls from local restaurants and she’ll point out whether any of it contains pork or alcohol, which Lchgar’s family avoids as Muslims. Sushi, for example, is made with Mirin, a Japanese rice wine.

Celia Lee explains the food options available at the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

Cilla Lee explains the food options available at the Outer Richmond Buy Nothing Group. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

For the food pantry regulars like Lchgar, Lee started a group Facebook chat. She shares recipe ideas, which come in handy for times when the pantry receives an abundance of zucchini three weeks in a row. Lchgar said the recipes motivate her to experiment with new dishes. “It helps my family because I am able to feed them healthy food,” Lchgar said. “We always get protein, dairy, vegetables, pasta, and whole grains. I think if you have this variety of food, you can make a different dish every time.”

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Origins in the Gift Economy

Documentary filmmaker Liesl Clark launched the Buy Nothing Project in 2013 after spending time working in the Himalayas. She was fascinated by how the region’s remote villages operated as cashless economies without much of a retail footprint. “They all take care of each other through a true gift economy model, and so I wanted to see if we could do something similar to that in our own community.”

Back at home on Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, Clark and friend Rebecca Rockefeller used the Facebook Groups platform to invite friends and friends of friends to their inaugural Buy Nothing group. It was an experiment: Before you buy something at the store, consider asking the group for it first. If you have anything in abundance from your garden or home, offer it here first. And when the giving and receiving starts to feel good, share your gratitude.

“We were starting to come to know our proximal neighbors and really connecting with them. And the easy part was the food.”

Neighbors began sharing odds and ends. Someone asked for—and received—a missing part for their coffee maker. A woman needed a spring for her toilet paper holder; lo and behold, a neighbor had one, and the two met and became close friends. “Those were funny little matches, but then the human matches were happening,” Clark said. “And we were starting to come to know our proximal neighbors and really connecting with them. And the easy part was the food.”

Clark shared eggs with a neighbor she’d never met (and made a film about it). Some gave away tomatoes, lettuces, and even weeds from their gardens. (Chickens love to eat weeds.) Others gifted extra enchiladas or half-eaten pizzas they didn’t want to throw out. Members purged their pantries and offered up their unwanted canned goods, teas, and spices. Clark’s group started a community potluck in a park, where they gathered and shared meals or extra food. A local farmer handed out vegetable seedlings so members could grow their own produce. One woman filled her car with donated food and held impromptu mobile food shares.

Buy Nothing communities proliferated on Facebook, eventually reaching 5,000 groups. Participation has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, Clark said. After facing some limitations with the platform, the Buy Nothing Project launched an app last year on Buy Nothing Day—also known as Black Friday—to give users more flexibility to engage with communities beyond neighborhood boundaries. Six months later, the app has more than 400,000 participants.

Clark has heard of other food pantries held through Buy Nothing groups. But they may not have the scale of Lee’s operation.

Inspired By Her Mother—and the Pandemic

Lee estimates that she redistributes more than 7,000 pounds of food every month to co-workers, her Buy Nothing community, and some of her neighbors. In addition to the food bank, she often receives donations from nonprofits and people in the community that have extra food or fruit from their backyard trees.

Lee had always wanted to volunteer during the holidays serving food to those in need. But she typically worked holidays. Then the pandemic hit. “It was so scary. If I was financially stable, scared, and unable to get food [because shelves were bare], I could only imagine how other people were feeling,” Lee said. “I just decided to look for places where I could volunteer and find out how I could be active and give back to my community.”

She was also inspired by her mother, who passed away six years ago from cancer. Even during her treatment, Lee saw her mother still helping family, friends, and acquaintances however she could. “My mom’s not here anymore, so I think about all the things that she did,” Lee said. “Like everybody else during pandemic, you kind of reflect upon your life and the things that are important to you.”

“[At the start of the pandemic,] I was financially stable, scared, and unable to get food, I could only imagine how other people were feeling. I just decided to look for places where I could . . . give back to my community.”

In 2020, she took a leave of absence from work to help the company reduce layoffs. She also rallied her colleagues with seniority or financially stability to do the same. She ended up taking off a year and a half. During this time, she started fostering senior dogs and volunteering at food banks. She discovered her local Buy Nothing group and saw that there were people in the group looking for food. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, we live in a really nice district. Who would’ve known that there were so many challenges to get food?’”

She found that one door opened another. A food pantry where she volunteered let her take home excess food—five crates of potatoes here or 10 boxes of apples there—which she gave away. Before the pandemic, Lee didn’t know how to cook, but when she had too much extra produce, she taught herself how to transform tons of zucchini into zoodles, turn too many cucumbers into salads, and she used a food chopper to make cauliflower “rice” like she saw sold at Trader Joe’s, all of which she shared with her community.

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Cilla Lee with her senior poodle. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

Cilla Lee with her senior poodle. (Photo by Naomi Fiss)

“I always have some kind of shenanigans going,” Lee said. “It’s almost like the ‘Lucy’ show. I come up with an idea and I’m just like, ‘We’ve got to get this going.’”

She keeps extra produce, dry goods, and bins on hand for members who need help outside the normal pickup times. For example, a new Buy Nothing member needed extra food for her three kids after a family member stole her EBT benefits. “Everyone has a different story, and I never ask,” Lee said. “They tell me, but I don’t require any story to visit. Just good faith from everyone, and I request they don’t pantry hop since I always can get plenty for people weekly.”

Now, Lee works about 30 hours a week at her airline job and spends at least 10 hours on the food pantry every week. Her dedication inspired Paola Capuano, a Buy Nothing member and single mom, to volunteer at the pantry. “When you see a person so involved, it makes you feel more motivated,” Capuano said. “So, whenever I can do anything to help her, I’m happy to do it.”

That makes Lee feel grateful that other people want to contribute. “I find if I lead by example, people will follow.”

Tilde Herrera is an editor at Civil Eats. She is also a writer and editor who covers business, food, and sustainability. Read more >

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