An Experience in (Mild) Communal Living
Overview History Meetings Cleaning Eating Food Shopping Recycling Worm Bin

We were all vegetarians at the collective. "Vegetarian" means we didn't eat any animal flesh, including fish, beef, pork or chicken. Some of us will eat dairy outside the house, and individuals would occasionally have fish at a meal outside the house, or maybe some turkey for Thanksgiving.

We used to be exclusively vegan in the house. Being "vegan" means we didn't eat any dairy (milk) products or eggs. Over the years we relaxed that, so individuals would buy themselves cheese, yogurt, or even tuna fish. However, when we cooked for each other, it was all vegan.

While we agreed on our diet in the house, what people ate outside the house was their business.

You may ask, but how did that happen? Well, Pete and Jean, the founding Hampsters, made sure I was a vegetarian before I came to the house. Pete and I did the same when meeting John and Dan. So basically, as people we all agree this is the diet we want to have.

We shared all our food in the house. There were no personal stocks of food to speak of. For the most part, anyhow: in the later years, people might buy tuna or cheese separately, but we were always open to sharing our food. The vast bulk of the food, though, was shared. It helps that we were all vegetarian. Also, as you'll see below, we managed to make allowances for individual favorites in our shopping.

We were all pretty loose about this stuff. We all agreed on how much we wanted to spend collectively on food each month. We made this budget by deciding basically what kind of food we wanted in the house. Then we each spoke up, as necessary, and said, "Hey man, I'm sorry, but I just got to have that stoneground mustard," or something like that. And as long as it doesn't rub each other the wrong way--I mean, it's not bologna or anything like that--then we'd just buy it. I knew if there's some little thing I wanted, I'd just arrange to get that from the same budget.

For example, Pete and Dan were partial to granola. I can take it or leave it, as I usually find it too sweet. Pete ate yoghurt, and Dan liked olive oil. We bought all these things even though we didn't all eat them.

The arrangement worked well.

We finally settled intoa four-week shopping schedule. We tried different arrangements for shopping. For example, we started out buying food by the week. We'd each put in about $25 and one of us would go shopping for everyone. We'd rotate the shopping each week.

That arrangement worked alright, except that $75 was really just enough to cover what we needed each week. Some weeks we ran out of food by Friday (we shopped each Sunday), leaving us foodless for a couple of days.

We also realized that our food needs changed over time. For example, when John replaced Jean in the house, we found we were eating more, since John ate more than Jean did. Our budget increased because of this.

At some point we decided we needed more money in the food budget. The way I figure it, there's two ways you can arrange this. You can set a budget, then build your food list to fit in that budget, or you can build your food list, then set a budget to cover it. Since we all enjoyed eating, we settled on the latter. By the time we started, we had been living together for awhile, so we had a food list in mind already, and that was built on the $75-a-week model. So you could say we had some budget in mind built into our choices.

Given our food list, we could then figure out exactly how much we needed to cover it. So we increased our food budget accordingly.

But how did we finance this budget? Well, when we were talking about the food budget, and running out of food, we realized we needed more money in our budget. Someone pointed out that whenever we ate out for lunch or dinner, we spent $3-10 or so. That was a lot of money over a month, even if you only ate burritos for lunch. What if we spent that money instead on the house? That way we'd all eat better, and healthier, too. So we collectively decided to put more money into the food budget, and adjust our private budgets as necessary.

Our last adjustment, was that we moved from a calendar-month budget to a four-week budget. We found over time that our budget, being fixed, was flush in a short month and short in a long month. A four-week calendar simplfied things, since we spent the same amount, relatively speaking, every week of the four.

One nice feature of the four-week calendar is that the shopping rotation is very fair: no person shops two weeks in a row, and every person shops every three weeks.

We also developed a new shopping plan. Our food seemed to fall into two large categories: stuff that would rot in a week and stuff that would last a while on the shelf. Somebody suggested that we shop once a month for food essentials, basically bulk stuff that would last all month, and then we'd just do a smaller "perishables" shop the other weeks of the month. The big shop, since it was so much food, was handled by two of us. The other weekly shops were managed by a single person. Again, we rotated. With our expanded budget, we had much more food in the house and didn't run out on a regular basis

As I said, we had an idea of what to buy, which we developed through trial and error over the last few years. At some point, to make shopping easier, Jean sat down and wrote a list of all the things we were usually buying, which became our Master List. When we moved to the four-week plan, we updated this list to separate those items that were bulk and long lived from those that were fresh and short-lived. If you're interested, you can view a copy of the shopping list (shopping_list.htm) we developed by the time I left.

The big shop was a little ordeal, but not a killer. We generally shopped on Sunday. We ran through the master list, and from that developed a list for the day. Where possible, we take containers that we already owned and filled them up at the store. For example, we bought shampoo, skin soap, laundry soap, and dishsoap like this. We also bought our miso, peanut butter, oils, tamari (soy sauce) and such in our own plastic containers. We reused our plastic bags (recycling.html) when possible.

Two of us headed out to the shop. We did all our shopping at Rainbow Natural Foods ( market, a large co-op in the San Francisco Mission District. We used to get vegetables at the Farmer's Market, but we decided to buy all organic vegetables, and the Farmer's Market on Sunday's doesn't have much in that way.

Rainbow Natural Foods supports all sorts of bulk shopping, for grains, beans, liquids, cleaners, etc. It's pretty good in that way.

The whole "big shop" probably took about four hours from start to finish.

On the weeks in between, we shopped in small quantities. One of us would go shopping, and we'd rotate each week. This shop was usually just vegetables, fruit and tofu, and took about an hour or hour and a half.

Our rotation worked out so that no one shopped two weeks in a row, and everyone shopped every three weeks. For example, it's like this

  • Big Shop - Dan, Pete
  • Patrick
  • Dan
  • Pete
  • Big Shop - Pete, Patrick
  • Dan
  • Patrick
  • Pete
  • Big Shop - Patrick, Dan

and so on. That was a workable arrangement.

We tried to buy organic produce and grains when possible. It is more expensive to do so. Personally, I preferred it because I have this idea (which may not be scientifically sound) that not using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers is better for the health of the soil and water on and near farms. I don't worry too much about the effect of minute amounts of pesticides on my own health, but I realize some people buy organic food for that reason.

We couldn't always buy organic, because sometimes what we needed (say, cooking oil) wasn't available when we shopped. But, as a rule, we did.

We all liked to cook at the house. None of us were gourmands, but we could each whip up a decent meal in a short time.

When we started the collective, there were no cooking arrangements. Some collectives have a "chore wheel", basically a disc which you move around over the months to keep track of who's on what chore in the house. There are other systems people use for this.

We all had different schedules, and we didn't want any big structure to the whole thing, we chose to leave cooking open. We all like to cook for other people, so there was a loose tradition that people would make enough food for each other.

Some time later, someone pointed out that was a little lonely. I mean, none of use felt right about just cooking food for ourselves, when others might come home hungry. The arrangement changed. Now, whoever was home around dinner time would cook enough for three, and the others would join when they could.

This was a fine arrangement, except that, you know, people have different lives and some people, because of their schedule, would cook more than others. I worked as a programmer, and I got in late quite a bit in the first couple of years, so I didn't have much chance to cook throughout the week. We talked about it and decided that we needed a commitment to cooking.

So we moved into a more structured system. Each of us cooked twice a week, for all three people. People ate together if they were at home when food was ready, or by themselves if they get home late. Saturday night was open and people just snacked or made themselves something light.

Because we shopped in bulk, and didn't buy prepared (or quick cook) food, cooking ran a little longer than in some houses. I could prepare a meal in 30-45 minutes, though an hour was more typical if I was not rushing. Sometimes I felt a little pressed for time and I'd just whip a little something up. But I enjoyed the end result of all this work--good, fresh, meals cooked from scratch. What a blessing!

We had a number of cookbooks we collected over the years for reference. When I was growing up, the household standard was the Joy of Cooking. I still use that --it seems to have every recipe conceivable--but I prefer some of the simpler vegetarian cookbooks.

I think our favorite cookbook was The New Farm Cookbook, written by hippies on a commune in the Southern U.S. There's also Ron Pickarski's Friendly Foods, probably the best vegan cookbook I've used, hands-down. I'm also partial to The Vegan Cookbook, a simple and straightforward English book that seems to work every time. Of all the books I've tried over the years, these are my long-standing favorites.

Details on these books are:

Title Author Publisher
The New Farm Cookbook Edited by
Louise Hagler
Dorothy Bates
The Book Publishing Company
PO Box 99
Summertown, TN 38483
Friendly Foods Brother Ron Pickarski Ten Speed Press
PO Box 7123
Berkeley, CA 94707
The Vegan Cookbook Alan Wakeman
Gordon Baskerville
Faber and Faber Ltd.
3 Queen Square
London, England

And in case you haven't figured it out yet, we ate really good over there.