Over the years we have had varying degrees of success with sharing food. We have tried out a number of approaches from everyone buying their own food supplies to sharing most ingredients. We have tried both an incentive system and one based on taking turns cooking.
Nov 2012 Update: Our latest attempt at an organized shared meal system started in May 2012 and so far so good, We typically have three or four delicious community dinners per week, plus the sharing of smaller meals, snacks and treats. Usually there are leftovers. We have made some significant changes to the how we share. We now buy all our food ingredients out of a shared housefund of $230 per person per month. This fund also has been paying $35 per dinner to any of us willing to cook.
Starting this month, we are trying a slightly different way of rewarding people. Whatever is left in the house fund at the end of a month after paying for food and cleaning supplies will be distributed evenly as an hourly rate among those who recorded time spent cooking and cleaning.
Our first attempt at organized sharing
Back in June 2010, we began a new vegetarian meal sharing system based on taking turns cooking. Each of the seven people who lived here at the time committed to cooking one night a week. For example, I cooked on Thursdays. I would head over to the farmers’ market and buy fresh produce, then cook up something super seasonal. In June it was often pesto. Meals needed not be fancy, but depending on who was cooking, they could get quite gourmet. Sometimes there was even dessert.
Prior to this, sharing was very ad hoc. We shared basic ingredients, but people cooked only when they felt like it. It was totally unpredictable – a crapshoot as to what gets bought or made – but sometimes there were very nice surprises. People coped by eating out a lot, cooking a lot of small meals, and/or hoarding food to make sure they had a backup in case no one made anything or enough. We only had one fridge so it was always packed and the kitchen was frequently crowded with people cooking at overlapping times.
The new structured system was very predictable so we saved money not having to eat out, spent more quality time eating together, and the fridge was much less cluttered. For anyone who missed a meal, a container was set aside for them. Often there were leftovers, so we had food for lunch the next day as well. Sweet deal!
Later we added a tweak to the plan – each of us took one of our days off per month – so that it worked out to a commitment to cook (and clean up) for only three days a month. While there were a few days with no scheduled dinner, it did allow for using up leftovers or going out.
But by Jan 2012, a year and a half later, our sharing system came to an end. What happened?
It gradually broke down over over a number of months. We went from each cooking three shared meals per month to two, then a key person dropped out completely in November. December proved to be the last month. As the sharing got less frequent, we started cooking more just for ourselves, we ate out more often, and we bought a second fridge to handle the extra ingredients needed for seven people to eat separately.
The lessons learned? A voluntary system depends on everyone being keen. In the beginning the system worked great and everyone was excited to take part. Having people who eat in a similar way is also important. It is not enough just to have everyone be vegetarian. Some cooks may use too much of certain spices or flavours for other’s tastes, or they may tend to over-cook things, or they like to prepare mostly raw vegetables which can leave others unable to satisfy their hunger. One needs to be open to new taste experiences but sometimes our fussiness got the better of us. We also needed patience when meals ran later than planned. Ingredient quality was also an issue at times – each cook had a different take on what was acceptable in terms of freshness. Some cooks made a big effort to shop for local and organic ingredients, others didn’t.