I live well below the poverty line, so I live in a cheap, slummy apartment building where everybody else is poor, too. For the most part, I like this setup. I grew up in poverty, and I’m not comfortable around moneyed people. (It’s a topic for another day but people with money are really weird about, well, money. You can’t even talk about it around them.) But being poor definitely has its drawbacks. My neighbours and I are always running out of food and meds.
One of the many things I like about poor people’s cultures, though, is that we tend to be really good at sharing resources. It makes sense: when you’re short on money, you need to have strong relationships to get by. Of course I’m going to give you what you need if I have it–I’m definitely going to need something you have in the very near future. Besides, when we’re all in the same boat, none of us is likely to believe that the reason I can eat today, and you can’t, is that I deserve it more than you, but next week when you can eat, and I can’t, it’s because you worked harder than me. Most of us are well aware that we’re going to stay poor, no matter how hard we work.
The benefits of setting up a shared pantry are that it makes sure nobody goes without at least one of their basic needs, it builds community in the place where you live, and it politicizes your poverty. There is strength in numbers, and this strength can help you if you have to fight your slumlord, or advocate for community resources to your city council, or need a dog-sitter while you’re in the hospital. It also relieves some of the shame that poor people are socialized to feel about the poverty that’s been imposed on us by capitalism.
My neighbours and I set up a shared pantry a couple of months ago, and, while the process is pretty common-sense, I thought I’d share a few tips on how to make it work. If you don’t live in an apartment building where people need food, but you’d like to contribute to our pantry, you can view our wishlist here. (I’m aware that Amazon is a monster that is currently driving the race to the bottom, but we live in a food desert, and there aren’t a ton of options to fulfill this particular need. I’m sorry.)
Step 1: Ask your landlord for permission to… haha j/k. Fuck the landlord; talk to your neighbours.
Ask your neighbours if they need anything. Ask to borrow a cup of milk or to bum a smoke if that’s what you need. And start talking about resource-sharing.
The goal here is to begin to unlearn the shame of being poor. Talk about the generosity and straightforwardness that define poor people’s cultures. Talk about how different you are from the landlords, who exploit your need for housing for their own profit. Talk about meeting everybody’s needs by working together instead. And of course, tell your neighbours that you’d like to start a shared pantry.
Step 2: Differentiate yourselves from charities and food banks.
Food banks and charities can be useful resources for people who don’t have much. But the charity model doesn’t help us in the long term. Charity is what happens when a few people hoard resources and then pat themselves on the backs for being “generous” when they give a little bit back. Charity relies on the premise that if I can eat today, and you can’t, I really do deserve it more, and if I share, it’s because I’m so benevolent. Community is what happens when people bring what resources they have and organize them so everybody’s needs are met. Community relies on the premise that everyone always deserves to eat.
Some of the things we’ve done to make our shared pantry shelf work differently from charities are:
- Putting it in a common area, so anyone can use it without having to ask.
- Not putting anyone “in charge” of it. It’s just there for everyone to use and refill as they see fit.
- Seeking neighbours out and encouraging them to take what they want or need. Got mushroom soup? Go knock on the door of the guy who likes mushroom soup and tell him about it!
- Trusting others to add to the shelf when they can.
- Not keeping track of who takes what.
- Gratefully accepting whatever contributions people can make, even if they’re not quite what we were expecting. Maybe someone doesn’t have extra food, but she can make awesome peanut butter cookies if you collect the ingredients–super!
- Considering what people actually want: are coffee and cake mix necessary for survival? No. Do we deserve a diet that reflects our wants as well as our needs? Yes. If we wanted to do the bread-and-water thing, we could stick with the food bank.
Step 3: Trust poor people. Fight anti-poor stereotypes.
What if somebody takes more than their share? What if somebody takes stuff but doesn’t contribute anything? What if people rely on the shared pantry and just stop buying their own groceries?
People who have spent their lives being shamed for their poverty are usually pretty reluctant to take more than they need, or to take things they haven’t earned. The stereotype of the “welfare queen” is still strong in our culture, and it’s been used to punish and stigmatize poor people all our lives. We’re afraid of it. A part of fighting back is refusing to buy into it.
Whatever people need is “their share.” That’s why there’s no need to keep track. When you talk to your neighbours, encourage an ethic of “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs.” Some folks might be reluctant to chip in until they see the usefulness and consistency of the effort. That’s fine. We’ve all been burned by the charities discussed above, right? Others might be reluctant to take anything because they don’t want to be needy or take advantage. That’s fine. Just keep reminding that they’re entitled to it, that it makes the whole community happy to know nobody is going without.
Step 4: Think beyond food.
A friend reminded me of this when she asked if anyone in my building needed pads or tampons. I didn’t think of it because I make my own reusable cloth pads (SO much comfier btw), but once I thought about it, I realized there are four women in my building who probably have periods and use pads or tampons. So I added it to the list!
Once I started thinking about non-food items that would be useful, I also added toothbrushes, flossers, toothpaste, toilet paper, bars of soap, laundry detergent, dish soap, jars for storing dry goods and measuring cups for separating dry goods to the list.
I put dog food and cat food on the wishlist, too. Our animal companions bring us so much necessary, well-earned joy, and food banks often don’t carry pet food. The belief that poor people shouldn’t have pets if we can’t afford them is a part of the same ideology that says rich people deserve to have more than poor people, poor people should feel bad about themselves, and a bread and water diet is all we deserve. But we deserve to love, to be loved, to have companionship, to take care of others.
Step 5: Keep talking.
There are lots of ways that folks can contribute, even if they don’t have any food or household items to share. Talking to people is how you can find out what your collective strengths are. Ask your neighbours to encourage others in the building to take what they need, too. Or to share recipes. Or for rides to the grocery store. Or to lead group walks. Or for yoga classes. Whatever.
And once you’re there, if you happen to start a conversation about how your landlord is scum and rent is theft… all the better.
There’s probably other stuff we’re doing that I’m just not thinking about, but these seem to be the keys to making it work right now, beyond the logistics of just putting food on a shelf in the hallway. I think my next steps will involve organizing a social gathering, like a barbeque, and collecting funds to order our local Good Food Box. It’s a box of veggies. I don’t know about places outside of Ontario, but I do know that a lot of communities in Ontario have them, and they’re a pretty good deal if you, like us, find it hard to get fresh fruits and veggies.
Please leave a comment if you have other tips for setting up resource-sharing in a small community, like an apartment building or neighbourhood.