Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

When economist Milton Friedman popularized the phrase “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he wasn’t part of a Buy Nothing (BN) group. Pandemic times have increased the visibility of this gifting economy where items are offered at no cost and with zero expectations from the giver. 

I joined my neighborhood BN group a year ago after reading an article a colleague shared about the groups which piqued my interest.  I’ve been both the recipient and giver of clothing, housewares and, of course, food – decreasing my spending habits and becoming part of a community in the process – with a few friendships also forged.

Buy Nothing 101

Bainbridge Island, Washington residents Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller were frustrated with the amount of plastics washing ashore in their beach community. The waste inspired these friends to take action, creating the very first Buy Nothing group on Facebook in 2013. Its purpose was simple: encourage neighbors to purchase fewer items plus share what they already possessed. 

Considered a gifting economy, Buy Nothing works in two simple ways: gifting and receiving. 

The most common of the two is for someone to “gift,” or give away an item. A photograph accompanies a brief description of the aforementioned item. Members comment if they are interested in receiving what’s posted. The giver selects a receiver by whatever means they prefer, and the two coordinate pickup of said item. Contactless transactions mean neighbors can feel comfortable walking up to a home without having to ring a doorbell or come face-to-face with another individual. 

Personally I’ve given away unopened makeup, home decor and an abundance of fruit that I couldn’t possibly finish before it spoiled. Most transactions and pick ups are easy to manage, except when a receiver no longer responds after being selected. In those instances, I move on to the next person interested and he/she is grateful for the gift. The biggest gift I’ve read about in our group so far was a 1998 Toyota Camry with a new engine back in March.

On the flip side, members may also do an “In Search Of” post. Lately, I’ve seen requests for crutches to borrow or snow gear for toddlers. But before I could offer up my pair of crutches in storage, other BN members chimed in to offer assistance. Our Facebook group in particular is relatively busy, consistently posting new and gently used items several times a day. 

A group is only as successful as its members, so some communities are less prolific with its activity. The Buy Nothing phenomenon is worldwide and until recently was neighborhood-based (an app was launched in late 2021), with boundaries within city limits or a certain radius. Some cities with larger populations have multiple BN groups while others consolidate – for instance, there’s a group called Buy Nothing Giving Economy Lake Forest/Mission Viejo/South OC. Residents are only allowed to be a member of one group within their designated boundaries. In Orange County alone, there are over 40 Buy Nothing groups with the largest membership in Costa Mesa consisting of over 3,000 members.

Volunteer administrators vet incoming members, confirming which group the individual can join and monitoring posts for clarity (acronyms are not encouraged). Members must abide by a set of guidelines that includes building trust and no harassment or stealing. 

Recently a new member privately reached out to me about a blanket I had just posted minutes before, wanting to pick it up the same day. After reminding the person that I specifically stated that I would let the item simmer, or make the item available for an extended period to allow others to comment, I also sent a message to our administrator about the awkward exchange. She kindly reminded the newbie of how we handle private conversations. Our group’s culture is one where direct messaging for a posted item is allowed only when requested by the giver; it’s both a sign of respect and a way to confine conversations to the original post only.

Why Members Gift Food

Members offer edible gifts for a number of reasons. A popular one is editing one’s kitchen inventory, otherwise known as a pantry clean out. When food became scarce during the initial lockdown, I made up my mind that I would stock up on canned and dry goods. Thanks to my Buy Nothing neighbors, I now have a modest inventory in our garage– except when my better half snoops around and pilfers some canned fruit for dessert. Oftentimes grocery delivery services bag an alternative item that the homeowner doesn’t want, so it is offered to the BN group. A few residents grow fruit trees in their respective backyards and want to share a bountiful harvest – leaving a basket of picked lemons out for members to take at their convenience.

There’s a resident home baker named Maybel in our Buy Nothing community who enjoys divvying batches of cookies and other treats to members. In fact, Maybel enjoys her baking therapy so much she began a side business; best-sellers include chocolate chip cookies and macadamia cheesecake. 

“Family and friends who taste my baked treats have long encouraged me to start a business, but it wasn’t until my husband grumbled ‘We’re out of (insert missing ingredient here) again?’ that I started taking orders to offset the cost of my hobby,” Maybel says. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a recipient of a few sweets including a banana bread studded with chocolate chips and walnuts, a combination I thoroughly enjoyed with my oat milk.

Nowadays, Maybel’s generous dessert offerings signify more than a desire to fire up her oven. “Whenever there’s extras after a baking order, I gift them to my Buy Nothing neighbors – payback for their gifts of eggs, flour, overripe bananas, etc. to me,” Maybel explains.

Of the various reasons for gifting food, my favorite is when someone purchases a multi-pack of something at Costco and decides they don’t enjoy the taste. These instances allow members like myself to try out food I hesitated to purchase in a larger quantity for the same reason it’s being given away, but at no cost.

Food Etiquette in Buy Nothing Groups

Due to its consumable and perishable nature, the gifting and sharing of food can be tricky. The same rules of trust and respect apply to all items posted in a Buy Nothing group. 

After a year of observing (and often participating in) communications between members, I’ve learned a set of unwritten guidelines that make for a successful gifting transaction. 

  • Photos are helpful. Givers of food items take clear photos of what’s being gifted; this allows for a legible display of the packaging to show brand, weight and other details such as flavor. In addition, a picture of or mention of any expiration date should be included for full transparency. Per member (and source of Buy Nothing comic relief) Alex K.: “While some members are not comfortable using expired food products, I’ve been able to save on food costs by taking their items and both eliminate food waste that someone would throw away and make something with those items,” he said
  • Tell me how much you’ve got. Details of how much has been consumed, whether by percentage or quantity is appreciated. Are there multiples being given away? If so, can items be split up, or does the giver prefer one person to take all and regift as the recipient sees fit? If packaging isn’t available, a telling description of where the item(s) came from will suffice. 
  • If you see something you want, respond in a timely fashion. Buy Nothing recipients have their own responsibilities when handling a consumable transaction. Ideally, members should respond within 24 hours of being selected to confirm they are still interested in an item. If it is a “flash give,” then individuals should respond as soon as possible, because the giver wants to unload an item quickly. I check for new posts throughout the day, sometimes getting lucky with my timing because the giver wants to let go of items as quickly as possible. 
  • When you pick up, come prepared. Unless a resident is going straight home after picking up a food item, he or she should be prepared with ice packs or an insulated container to secure any perishables, because it is unlikely that those will be provided. I’ve occasionally picked up goods from members in parks and parking lots, bagged (or sometimes loose) to carry back to my vehicle. These instances deviate from the norm of stopping by a member’s front door, but everybody’s comfort level varies these days.
  • Keep your post updated. When the item has been picked up, updating the listing to state its completed status is a way for members to refrain from commenting and move on to other posts.
  • Regifting is OK. If a consumable doesn’t work out for you, don’t hesitate to regift if there are multiples or if it makes sense to do so. For example, someone had a jar of vegemite and marmite in her fridge and decided neither was for them; both jars are currently residing in my refrigerator. 

The last two items are more common sense, but remembering these small details make a difference to givers. 

  • Let the giver know you’ve picked up your goods. Receivers should message when they’ve picked up an item, so there is a definitive completion of the transaction and no question about whether it went missing (or was picked up by accident by another member). 
  • Be thankful. A simple thanks to the giver goes a long way in a community. It shows genuine appreciation and often sets the tone for future Buy Nothing transactions.

Buy Nothing has curbed my desire to shop, reduced my grocery totals and introduced me to a generous (and humorous) group of individuals that I never would have otherwise been associated with. I’ve had lunch with at least two members and enjoy exchanging restaurant recommendations with them. Every so often, I’ll catch someone placing an item outside right as I’m picking up, and we strike up a conversation. Those rare interactions are some of my best experiences, especially after spending the last couple of years being distant from so many friends.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to coordinate the pick up of some loose chamomile tea, a new handbag and Valentine’s decor from my BN family. 

Three OC Restaurants Make Yelp’s Top 100 U.S. Restaurants

Formulated by a combination of Yelper submissions, reviews, ratings and geographic representation, the Top 100 by Yelp is a reflection of what diners are hankering for. Of this year’s chart-toppers, an impressive three out of four California restaurants in Orange County made the cut. Congratulations to the trio, which demonstrate a diverse cross-section of the county’s tastes.

At No. 3 is also one of my top five for 2021, Fermentation Farm in Costa Mesa. It gained attention last year when chef Amy Lebrun joined the team to create menu options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even brunch. As of this writing, Lebrun has moved on from Ferm Farm. 

No. 11 is a busy indoor/outdoor spot in Fountain Valley called The Vox Kitchen. Vox’s comforting Asian cuisine is influenced by cultures including Peruvian and Taiwanese; most diners go for the garlic noodles and large format steak. However, my preferred dishes include a golden pear salad and crab congee soup. Regulars use the Yelp waitlist feature, as Vox’s popularity often garners waits of two hours. 

Executive chef Joel Gutierrez of Lido Bottle Works Credit: Photo courtesy of Knife & Spork PR

Last but not least, the crew at Lido Bottle Works clocks in at No. 58. This Newport Beach kitchen helmed by chef Joel Gutierrez was featured back in June when I covered what kind of impact occurred when a restaurant changed chefs. Elaborating on the honor, Gutierrez stated “To hit the Top 100 in the nation, having menu range is important. We grow things in-house, we use local purveyors. I think this will become more and more important that people know where their food comes from and that it’s sourced humanely.”

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.


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