food in common

navigating food feelings and feeding a village

Living communally involves a constant dance of addressing individual needs while working together to meet common goals. One of The Village's goals is to meet everyone's food needs through communal groceries and cooking, and we realized soon after we started living together that this wasn't going to be a simple process. After a lot of discussion, we learned about some of the myriad of ways people can relate to food, and we found a system that's worked well for us.

note: this post was written by evy and might not represent the opinions of all Villagers

when needs seem in conflict

Our biggest point of tension was around snack food, prepared food, and whole food.

Some people didn't want snacks in common spaces or bought with house money. Seeing snacks tempted some people to eat them even when they didn't want to, and some people wanted to be able to open the pantry and only see whole foods (i.e. raw ingredients that haven't been precooked).

This seemed to conflict with some people's preference for foods that are easy to eat. If there weren't snacks and prepared foods around, people who couldn't cook easily (out of depression, food anxiety, parenting time-constraints, or other reasons) might end up skipping several meals.

So some people wouldn't feel comfortable at home with snacks regularly visible, and some wouldn't feel comfortable without food they could easily eat.

There were even more complications -- some people really wanted the kids to be raised in a “healthy” food environment, some people felt shame around liking snacks and being considered an “unhealthy” eater, some needed sweet foods around to soothe their stress, and some had limited extra funds on top of the $300/month food contribution to get their own groceries.

There were other constraints that came up as well:

helping us understand each other

We took a lot of time to listen to each other's concerns around food so that we could find a solution that felt comfortable for all of us.

One of the most helpful parts of this process was going around in a circle letting each person talk about their perspective -- their experiences with food while growing up, how they relate to food now, and what they would ideally want for the house and why. People talked about concerns for their health, parents that controlled their eating habits, calorie counting (in both positive and negative ways), and spiritual relationships with food. While each person shared, others could only ask followup questions or say nothing at all -- this was not a time for debating or problem solving.

When we got to problem solving, we tried to work together to meet the desires of everyone in the group.

One strategy we used was a spreadsheet with anything we could think of buying for the house. Every person got to vote for each item on a scale of 0-5, where 5 meant “I need this around to feel at home” and 0 meant “I don't want to spend house money on this”. You can see an anonymized version of the spreadsheet here. Broccoli is our highest rated vegetable!

A very helpful part of this process was talking about what it meant to rate an item with a 0. It ended up having different meanings for different people, such as:

Learning about these different meanings helped us lower the intensity of the conflict and find more flexible ways to meet everyone's needs. What we originally thought was a block was often just expressing a strong preference, and we've tried to be more clear about that in consensus decision-making since then.

We originally used this spreadsheet to come up with a fixed list of what we all agreed could be put on the grocery list, but in the end ordered more free-form without consulting the list and instead doing our best to consider other people's needs. (Simple systems are easier to follow!)

We haven't banned anything from being bought with house money except ice cream and alcohol, but we buy controversial items minimally and only when they're items people need to feel at home.

how we order food

We order grocery items through a channel on Slack. Each message in that channel is a single item for the shopping list. Buyers emoji-react to messages with the logo of where they plan to buy it from, and people can know when it will arrive based on the regular cadence of the shopping schedule. The item is checked off with an emoji when it's purchased.

Bulk food is bought weekly from Costco, people go to farmer's market about once a week, and we do a “fill in the gaps” buy from Rainbow Grocery every week. We then use Amazon for items we want but can't get elsewhere. Different people purchase from different vendors, and they keep track of who's getting what with the emojis. The people who were shopping in stores were burning out from doing that work, so we decided that delivery was worth paying for.

Any resident can also buy something directly from the grocery store if they need it quickly, and be reimbursed for it, especially if it's to help them cook a meal for the house. We try to keep track of what things are bought in this way, to see if we can cover it better by bulk buying.

what about the snacks?

In the end, we got two opaque bins for the pantry -- one for savory snacks, and one for sweet snacks. We sometimes buy snacks with house funds for those that need snacks around to feel comfortable, and most people never see or think about them! Several people who relied heavily on snacks in the past have noticed that they eat snacks less now that they live with people who cook regularly.

This is a great example of one of my guiding values: to “move towards” instead of “move away from”. Instead of trying to have no snacks, we reduced the need for them by focusing on regularly providing home-cooked meals for each other. Of course for this to work we had to have some degree of shared desire to eat whole foods together regularly, but that was something we could all enthusiastically agree on.

I'm really grateful to live in a house that values communal resources and that is willing to spend the time to get to know each other and help each other feel comfortable. Since many of here expect to live here for a long time, feeling comfy and at home is something a lot of us care about. I learned a lot from this experience about how people can relate to food, and hope that this post can help another house's food journey be a little easier.

in summary

I'd love to hear more about other houses' food systems, how they arrived at them, and how they handle the things we're still trying to figure out. How do you make sure food is ordered at the right cadence? Where do you buy from? Do you have cost-saving tricks? Let me know :)