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5 ways you can give back to your community (even under lockdown)

Something I’m working to do more of this year is contribute more to my local community and those with less. If 2020 taught me anything, it was that local resilient communities are so important for those that live in them, and the support networks that a good community can offer are priceless.

The other lesson was that, no matter how hard you think you’ve got it, someone else has got it worse, and almost all of us have privilege that we can use to benefit those with less.

(Privilege, incidentally, doesn’t just mean the more obvious things like time or money or power. It can mean white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, mental health privilege, and so on. We might not have them all, but even having one or two makes life easier for us than those who lack them.)

What this ‘contributing’ looks like will vary from person to person – it depends on our privilege, after all. But there are lots of ways we can benefit others and support our community. It doesn’t need to be big or grandiose. Small actions are just as important.

Something so small it only makes a difference to one person still makes a difference to that person.

Here are five ways I’m trying to give back to my community, and contribute more.

Picking up litter

It might seem small, but litter (or lack of it) has such an impact on a community. Rubbish strewn across a park or in waterways is unsightly and harms wildlife but it also gives the impression that no-one cares about the area. And if somewhere is already covered in trash, it almost gives the go-ahead for more trash to be added.

If you want to instantly improve your local community, commit to picking up litter.

It might be that you just try to pick up three items every time you leave the house. Or you might join an organised clean-up event once a month, or even just once a year, where you collect rubbish as part of a group. Or you might decide to ‘adopt a spot’ and keep that one area trash-free.

In Western Australia our container deposit scheme launched at the end of 2020. This means most beverage containers can be returned to receive a 10c refund. Whenever I’m out on my bike, I pledge to pick up every container I see. I’d say on most trips I find 2-3 containers. The funds are going towards a community replanting project in the local area.

And yes, I feel guilty about all the other litter I see and leave when I’m out on my bike. But the reality is, if I stopped to pick up everything, I’d never reach my destination. So I focus on the containers (which is more than I used to do) and accept that I can’t do everything.

In March every year there is a national ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ event. So this year I got together with some like-minded neighbours and we organised a Clean Up Carlisle event, picking up litter along the train line. It’s the first time I’ve ever organised a clean-up like this myself – so it was pretty exciting that people outside of our group turned up!

When I was talking to my neighbours about the event afterwards, they were annoyed that we hadn’t decided to choose one of the main roads in the area, which also has a litter problem. And so I suggested another event, to come soon. When people take pride in their community, these things start to happen…

Donating what you no longer need

I’m a huge fan of donating stuff we no longer need – or more accurately, finding new owners and homes for our old things. It’s one of the things I talk about in a lot of detail in my book Less Stuff.

I have mixed feelings about donating to the charity shop. Too many people use charity shops as a dumping ground for stuff they feel guilty about throwing away. Charity shops are overwhelmed with stuff, only selling about 15% of everything that gets donated.

If you’re going to donate to the charity shop, ensure it’s your best stuff, its clean and not broken, and it’s appropriate for the time of year (charity shops don’t want Christmas decorations in January, or ski ware in summer). You can even call before you drop off to check it’s stuff they actually need right now.

Charity shops are an easier option, but there are lots of other places to donate items to people who need them.

Try your local Buy Nothing group.

Ask on a local community Facebook group for ideas of local places to drop things off (such as homeless shelters or refuges, community projects, schools or playgroups).

If you have excess food (even if it’s open or past its expiry) try Olio. They’ve recently expanded into non-food items, too.

Givit is an online Australian platform which lists items needed by individuals or organisations.

Supporting a local food bank

Food banks often have specific needs and won’t accept items that are open or past their use-by (use Olio for these things). You might have items in your cupboard to donate, or you might decide to make a donation by buying extra groceries.

I found a local food bank run by church just two streets away from me, and I started the habit of making a monthly donation box at the end of last year. Being local I like that it benefits people in my area. Every time I got to the shops I’ll buy a few things to add to the box, and then once a month I make a delivery.

It felt strange to me to buy items in packaging at first, but I feel better about supporting the food bank than I would if I avoided the groceries and didn’t contribute. I still try to keep to my values where I can – buying Fairtrade coffee and locally grown tinned vegetables.

Something else I’ve been able to do, and this might work for you if you don’t have the budget to contribute financially, is take food that’s been offered up on the Buy Nothing group to the food bank on behalf of others.

(The drop off hours are quite specific, being Wednesday and Friday mornings only, so not everyone can get there. I have flexible working hours and can pick things up and drop them off.)

I want to add, that the very fact that food banks need to exist at all is quite outrageous. In a world where 1/3 of all food grown is thrown away, the fact that millions of people go hungry in countries like the UK, Australia and the USA (so called ‘developed’ countries) every day is quite unbelievable.

Our food system is in crisis, and there is a lot of work to be done by corporations and governments to stop allowing this waste on this scale and to redistribute resources more fairly. In the meantime, people need to eat and donating to food banks is one way to share our resources with others.

Making a monetary donation

The obvious one, possibly. But making monetary donations to organizations you believe in and/or whose work you value – whether it’s a regular donation or a one-off, whether it’s a small or large amount, whether it’s a big organisation or a small community project – is always going to be of value to them.

I want to get better at this. It’s easy to get stuck the rabbithole of where’s best to donate, which type of organisation, how do I know my donation will be effective, am I making the best choice etc etc.

To get unstuck, I’m learning to let this whole idea of ‘best’ go. Donations are more than money, anyway. They are a show of support and belief in the work.

My new rule is, don’t fixate on what’s ‘best’. If a donation drive crosses your path and it’s something you believe in and you can spare a few (or many) dollars, make a donation.

You might not be able to spend that money on cupcakes any more, but that wasn’t going to make the world a better place either.

I make a monthly donation to IndigenousX, who fund and give a platform to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices across Australia. I’ve learned so much through their writing.

Because I’m self-employed and my income isn’t regular, I don’t commit to regular monthly donations other than this – although I have plans to when I can. I made a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation on my birthday, I made a donation to Boorloo Justice (Boorloo is the Whadjuk name for Perth) for their Decolonise Pride fundraiser, I supported the Learn Our Truth crowdfunding campaign organised by the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition and In My Blood It Runs.

I also purchased a photo print that was a fundraiser for the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project. (Does that count?)

And at the other end of the scale, I supported a local community garden in their fundraiser to get new chickens.

Making an in-kind donation

You might not have money to donate, but you might have a product or service you can donate. I’ve donated copies of my books to the Hilton Harvest community garden, and Free the Hounds (a greyhound charity) simply because they reached out to ask me – and I like gardening and greyhounds!

If you’re a writer, needleworker, an artist or some other creator, maybe you can offer your creations to organisations to help them with their fundraising efforts.

Volunteering your time

If you don’t have money but you do have time, maybe volunteering is for you. Volunteering can mean so many things, from getting out and about and hands-on to helping with social media. It can be a regular commitment, or one-off jobs as required.

It can be helping an established organisation, an informal local group or even helping one person (for example, with their weekly shopping).

In the past I’ve volunteered for not-for-profit organizations, but currently my focus is on much more local activities – such as hosting the community Grow Free cart and helping get our new community Street Activators group up and running.

I also admin a couple of zero waste Facebook groups.

My energy, enthusiasm and time for volunteering ebbs and flows, and right now this is all I have the capacity to do. But I’d love to volunteer at the Food Rescue place sometime in the future.

2020 (and 2021) have left me feeling a little bit ‘stuck’. Unsure where I want to concentrate my focus, and unsettled by all of the change. Simple acts like picking up litter, buying some (plastic-free) teabags at the grocery store to give to the food bank or making a donation to a group whose request popped up in my feed are tangible things that I can do, today, in the moment, to help make things a little bit better.

As Anne Frank said, no-one has ever become poor by giving.

Food is free: 8 ideas for where to find it and how to share it

I’m a big believer that the most important part of zero waste isn’t the stuff you buy or the things you use – it is the connections that you make with others.

Ultimately, as a society, if we want to waste less then we need to share more. The more connected we are, the more we can participate in sharing – be it receiving or giving.

I’ve talked about the sharing of ‘stuff’ often (and it’s a big part of what my book Less Stuff is about). Today I wanted to talk about something different that we can share – food – and just some of the many ways that people are already sharing food with others in their community.

Food goes to waste in lots of ways. It might go unpicked on a tree or in a garden bed, or it might be picked but then not used before it begins to go bad. We might buy more than we need, change our plans or our minds, decide we don’t like something we purchased and so let food we have go to waste.

The following community initiatives all exist to help those with not enough have access to what they do need, and those with too much/excess to share what they have. Everyone wins.

Buy Nothing Project

It might be possible to write a waste-related post and not include the Buy Nothing project, but today is not that day. It’s one of the best neighbourhood sharing networks I’ve ever joined. The Buy Nothing project is a global network of community neighbourhood groups that use Facebook Groups to connect members.

It’s only possible to join one group – the one where you live. The vision for the network is ‘buy nothing, give freely, share creatively’, and members can give, lend or take from other members (no swapping, selling or bartering is permitted).

A lot of the items are of course not food, but it’s by go-to resource for finding excess lemons, and I’ve also found avocados, lemongrass, oranges, limes, opened jars of peanut butter, other unopened grocery items and more.

Website buynothingproject.org

Little Free Pantries

You might have heard of Little Free Libraries… well, Little Free Pantries have taken this concept and applied it to food and household items: neighbours helping neighbours.

They are designed to provide better food access to those less able to meet their everyday food needs, but everyone is welcome to provide or take food as they need. It removes the hierarchy associated with food charities, and there is no need to ‘register’.

Their website not only has a map of where the existing Little Free Pantries are located (if you’d like to donate items), but lots of information for setting up your own including detailed plans for actually building a pantry.

Website: littlefreepantry.org

Community Fridges

These refrigerators are located in public spaces, enabling food to be shared with the community – anyone can put food in or take it out – with the goal of reducing food waste, and also enabling those in hardship easy access to fresh food. The first Community Fridges were set up in Germany in 2012.

They are like Little Free Pantries with electricity – meaning that they can offer chilled products, but are more tricky to establish (needing an electricity supply, for a start).

Unlike the Little Free Pantry, there isn’t one overarching network for the fridges, and they sometimes go by different names.

Freedge is a good starting point if you’re in North America, South America or Europe. Website: freedge.org

In Spain they’re called Nevera Solidaria, or Solidarity Fridges. Website: neverasolidaria.org

In the UK, a national network of Community Fridges has been set up by the environmental charity Hubbub with a goal of 100 open Fridges by 2020. Website: hubbub.org.uk

Grow Free carts

Started in Australia and now expanding overseas, this growing network of sharing carts offers free home-grown produce including eggs, jams and chutney, seeds and seedlings. Some carts also offer empty glass jars, old plant pots and egg boxes for reuse.

Some carts are available 24/7, and others have ‘opening hours’ (my local one, pictured above, is only open on weekends). Many local groups use Facebook to detail exact open hours and also what the cart has from day to day/week to week.

Everything is free, and they have the motto “take what you need, give what you can.’

Website: growfree.org.au

(I’m planning on setting up my own Grow Free cart in the next month or so. I’ve sourced a suitable cart – a baby change table on wheels from my Buy Nothing group – and will be posting shortly on how it goes.)

Food Swap / Crop Swap groups

These are informal neighbourhoods groups of people sharing their excess food and produce through recurring events (often weekly, fortnightly or monthly). They run under a few different names, including Grow Swap Share groups and Crop Swap groups, and they all run slightly differently.

Even if you’re not currently growing anything it can be fun to go along and find out who’s growing what in your area, and get to know your community.

Website foodswapnetwork.com (or try cropswap.sydney for a great list of Australian groups)

Fallen Fruit

A map of urban fruit trees and other edibles that is open for anyone to edit. Listings include public orchards and community plantings, trees or shrubs on public or council land, and those on private land. Run by volunteers as a not-for-profit initiative.

Website fallingfruit.org

Ripe Near Me

A map of locally grown food that allows both the public to add any fruit trees growing on public land, or home gardeners and growers to list their surplus (which they can either offer for free or charge a small amount). 

Website ripenear.me

Olio Ex

There are plenty of apps helping reduce food waste, but Olio is one that is completely free, allowing shops, cafes and households to list excess food and share it with neighbours.

Website: olioex.com (app available on Android or Apple)

I’m sure I have only touched the surface of all the great ways that people are sharing surplus food, strengthening neighbourhood ties and connecting community. But I’m also sure that there is something here for all of us. Whether you want to drop some tins at your local Little Free Pantry, download the Olio app, set up a Grow Free cart, check out fruit trees in your nihbourhood or join a local Crop Swap group, the best thing about all of these ideas is that you can start today.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Which one (or two!) ideas resonate most with you? What will you do to take action? Are you already involved in one of these and can you share your experience? Do you know of any other great initiatives I’ve missed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!