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How to start a Grow Free Cart (+ share surplus produce with your community)

A Grow Free cart is simply a cart (or a stand, or a table – any surface really) where home-grown produce, preserves, seeds and seedlings are placed and made available to anyone in the community. It’s the ultimate answer to “how can I share my surplus with my neighbours”, or on a more basics level, “what do I do with my courgette/zucchini glut?”

It’s one of a number of awesome neighbourhood community initiatives popping up all over the world. You’ve probably heard of the Little Free Library movement , which is the world’s largest book sharing movement. Books are placed in little free libraries all across the globe, and people are free to take them, and/or add new books.

The Grow Free movement is the fresh-fruit-and-vegetables version of the Little Free Library.

There’s also Little Free Pantries, which are the dry goods/long-life groceries version, and Community Fridges – sometimes called Solidarity Fridges or Freedges depending on where you are in the world.

All three movements help reduce food waste through sharing, and make good food more accessible to those who need it.

Being a vegetable grower, a Grow Free cart seemed like the best fit for me, with a suitable space on my front verge. A fridge requires power, which wouldn’t be easy for me to set up on the verge. There’s already a Community Pantry two streets away from me, so no need for another so close – plus a local church two streets away in the other direction runs a food bank that I make regular donations to (one of my 2021 resolutions).

You don’t have to be a vegetable grower to start one, of course, but it helps knowing that every week I will have things to put on the cart.

I’ll talk you through the steps to get started. If you’re interested in starting a pantry or fridge instead there will be some differences to your setup, but the process will be pretty similar.

How to establish a successful Grow Free cart, in steps

Setting up a Grow Free Cart: what you need

The only thing you really need is a surface on which to place things, so any table or shelving will do. A lot of cart stewards (as people who have carts are called) use baby change tables, because they are a great size, have multiple shelves, tend to be on wheels for easy moving, and have sides to stop babies (and lemons!) rolling off the edge.

Some people go further and rig up a roof for their cart, to protect from the sun and rain, and even paint their carts in bright fun colours. This is the best one I’ve ever seen (in a neighbouring suburb, and how I first heard about Grow Free)…

I’m positioning my cart under a tree, where it has shade, and the one weekend there was a downpour I relocated to underneath my garage door where it was protected from the rain.

I purchased a wooden baby change table second-hand for $15. I spent a long time trying to find a free one, but in the end I decided to pay for one that was exactly what I wanted. Two shelves as well as the top, and unpainted wood, on wheels.

I’ve got a few different baskets that I picked up on the Buy Nothing website. I could use cardboard boxes, but I tend not to have them lying around.

I also got a whiteboard from Buy Nothing that I’ve use to make a sign, and I wrote on a piece of scrap wood for a second sign.

Other people use Eskies/cooler boxes to store more heat sensitive items. I don’t, but I would use a repurposed polystyrene box that chilled products often get delivered in, or track down an unwanted cooler box on Buy Nothing.

My total cost: $15.

Choose your opening hours.

Unlike little free pantries and community fridges, most carts have opening hours. This is because the produce is out in the open, exposed to the elements, and often quick-to-perish. Some are run by community centres, and so open Monday-Friday 9am – 5pm. Others (like mine) are run by people outside their homes. I decided to open my cart at weekends, for now.

It goes out on Saturday morning, and stays out until Sunday evening. Then it’s wheeled back inside until the following weekend.

Finding produce for the cart and people to share with.

Of course, for a successful cart you need fruits and vegetables! Seedlings, seeds and homemade produce are also permitted. My garden has a few things growing, and I chatted to my neighbour with a lemon tree beforehand to get some lemons.

But the best way to find surplus fruits and vegetables is to tell others what you’re doing! I posted to the Buy Nothing group and a local Grow Swap Share group (both on Facebook) in advance of the first outing to let people know what I was doing.

There’s also a directory on the Grow Free website which lists all the carts across the world. I emailed them as soon as I was ready, and added my cart. There’s a local Grow Free Western Australia facebook group too, which I use, but without a doubt my other community pages draw the most people.

(I chose to register my cart with Grow Free because I love the movement and what it stands for. Obviously I can give away vegetables to my neighbours with or without official permission of Grow Free, so there is no requirement to ‘join’, but there’s value in being part of a collection of like-minded people like this and helping spread the word. On their website, Grow Free have some great resources, downloadable flyers, a logo etc and it’s helpful to be able to refer new visitors interested in learning more here.)

Start before it’s perfect.

I took way too long to start my cart once I decided this I what I wanted to do. (Like, twelve months too long.) I was worried about finding the right cart. About whether I’d have enough stuff. That I’d end up with too much stuff and create food waste when I was trying to reduce it. That no-one would come. That everyone would come! That it wouldn’t look inviting.

In the end, I just decided that I had to start. Best decision I made. Sure my cart isn’t beautiful or overflowing, but it’s growing each week and in time it will get to a place where I’m happy with it.

Promote, promote, promote.

For a long time before I started my own cart, I followed along on the Grow Free Western Australia Facebook page. And I noticed that the best carts were the ones that posted each week, saying they were open and sharing their offerings. And so I’ve done the same, and it’s been the best thing for getting people to the cart.

Even though it’s officially on the list as ‘open’ at the weekend, people need reminding. And mentioning what is on the cart also helps with visitors. (Tell people there are passionfruit, lemons and fresh figs and they are there!)

So every Saturday morning, once it’s out, I take a picture of the cart and post to the Buy Nothing group, Grow Free Western Australia group and sometimes the Grow Swap Share group, reminding people that the cart is ready for business and telling them what’s available.

Then on Sunday, I edit the post with an update as usually there’s a heap of different things by then. And people can message to check if stuff is still available before they swing by.

Posting every weekend is a bit tedious and part of me can’t be bothered, but I know it’s the single thing that gets people coming, so I grit my teeth and do it.

Dealing with surplus stuff.

At the end of the weekend, there’s usually a few bits and pieces left. Some things can be popped in my fridge until next week (fresh chillies and lemons will last a week). I usually let my immediate neighbours know if there’s anything left so they can come and take it. I haven’t needed to yet, but I can always post to Buy Nothing if there’s too much for me to use.

Setting yourself (as well as your cart) up for success.

Stewarding a cart isn’t a lot of work, but it isn’t no work, either. I have to put it out each weekend, set it up (which means raiding the garden beforehand for things to share), post about it, and then pack it all away at the end of the day – and then repeat the next day.

I started mine in the hottest month of the year, which meant I had to check back often to top things up (rather than just putting out everything at the start of the day and being done with it).

If this sounds like too much work for you, a Little Free Pantry might be a better often, as they are much more ‘set and forget’.

If you decide to set up a cart, consistency is important for success. I’ve committed to weekends, and so I’m making sure that the cart goes out and that I post about it, every weekend. That way people know to drop things off, they know to come and take what they need. And I can decide if it’s too much work, or if I’d like to do more.

There’s no reason why a cart couldn’t be seasonal (from May – September only, for example) or even just once a month.

(Originally I’d thought about doing a midweek day too, but having been going for about 6 weeks now, I’ve found the weekend is more than enough for me.)

I don’t specifically commit to a time, so I don’t have to drag myself out of bed in order to meet a deadline – I just post when it’s ready. That works better for me.

Why set up a Grow Free cart in your neighbourhood?

Really, the answer is, why not?

It’s a great way to share excess produce with neighbours, meet new people, connect with our local community, reduce food waste, and feel good about taking some kind of positive action in a stressful world.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you heard of Little Free Pantries, Grow Free carts or Solidarity fridges before? Is there one in your area? Have you set one up, or are you thinking of doing so? Any questions about getting started? Anything else to add? Please share your thought in the comments below!

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!