The Gift Economy

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks picking fruit and vegetables from the garden and hedgerows and preserving it for winter. Most of the mushrooms I picked in my neighbour’s field were dried, as were some of my cooking apples (the first crop off the tree in years!), and some apples and other fruits were bottled or made into jam, some of the elderberries became Pontiack sauce to enrich casseroles, and the eating apples my friend Marie gave me from her hugely productive orchard went into the steam juicer with a cinnamon stick to make a lightly spiced juice for winter nights, whilst most of the tomatoes were roasted with slivers of garlic and a dribble of olive oil before going in the freezer. So this

Became this (plus lots of boxes in the freezer!)



But I was also able to give lots of produce away. Most people had more than enough courgettes and green beans but tomatoes, mushrooms and grapes were welcome.  In the days before freezers everyone in the neighbourhood feasted when a pig was killed on a farm because with only limited means of preserving the meat it made sense to share it and, in return, be given some of a future supply. The same ethos applies to garden crops now – anything surplus is shared out. But I realised I was making choices about who got what.

It set me thinking (there is lots of time to think whilst peeling and coring apples or waiting for jam to reach setting point!) about the amazing people in Todmorden (and other places) who plant unloved or underused public spaces with edibles and invite everyone to help themselves. I think that if I was one of them I would start with a pretty rosy picture of the benefit I would be bringing to the community. I would imagine helping those elderly or disabled people no longer able to tend a garden and missing having freshly picked fruit and veg. Those parents struggling to feed their kids and relying on the food bank could have freshly plucked salad for tea. They are the deserving poor.

But what if I see that lad from the rough end of town, the one who has never wanted, let alone had, a job picking ALL the strawberries I carried water to when the weather was hot and dry? Do I tell myself that at least he wants to eat fresh food and they will be good for him or do I worry that he will simply trash them and curse him? The ?underserving? poor.

Or what about that couple with two good salaries and a big house saving a bit on the Waitrose shop – is that OK? The ‘too lazy to grow their own’.

Maybe this is why Community Supported Agriculture and Community Farms are so popular – only those who put in cash or work benefit.

But that begs the question – Those parents using the food bank may be unable to put money upfront however economically advantageous in the long run, and may not have time or energy to volunteer. And the retired or disabled folk may have the same problem. Community agriculture and Community Farms can easily become middle class enclaves however worthy the aspirations.

All this linked back in my mind to a conversation with a friend earlier in the year. We were talking about birds taking our black- and red-currants. To net or not to net was the dilemma. My choice, because I have plenty of space, was to not net but to increase the number of bushes until even the most voracious of flocks cannot eat them all! Not so easy if all you have is room for one bush I know.

It all seems to me to be part of the same questions: How generous should I be? When am I being greedy or overly self protective? At what point do I give so much stuff away I am not being properly caring towards myself? And how do I cope if my generosity feels unappreciated or even abused? Despite reading a number of books recently on our attitudes to money and possessions I have no answers to these conundrums – but I would love to hear your thoughts!


5 thoughts on “The Gift Economy

  1. itwasjudith September 20, 2018 / 7:31 pm

    In the scenarios at hand, I share your thoughts, questions and worries.
    I would be upset to see the “undeserving” or “unneedy” take plenty because that would not be FAIR.
    It’s the ever standing dilemma about how much individuals should be allowed free judgement within a community in relation to their misuse.
    I see no easy solution. How can individuals be brought to care and respect? By example? That may sometimes work if people are willing to care and we’re perhaps just genuinely oblivious to their crap behaviour.
    When I see such bad behaviour, I wish I lived far from people, or at least to have a place where only caring people could gather…
    Sorry I cannot offer a good answer to the problem!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. itwasjudith September 20, 2018 / 9:53 pm

    Just as I finished typing, I was on my way home, and done kind person (a bakery) had put out a large bag of loaves for passers-by to help themselves, so said their note. I took two from it. Have I been greedy?? It was night and I hated should they go to waste and there still seemed to be plenty. I alerted another passer and he also seem to take some .
    Thanks to the generosity of strangers, I hope I haven’t taken too much!?


  3. Going Batty in Wales September 21, 2018 / 9:46 am

    Dear Judith, Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. i think your experience perfectly demonstrates what a minefield this is. You had absolutely no way of knowing if people who were really hungry would come along later, see the loaves and take them. If they did then it is possible that by taking two you left them short. But if no-one took any and the shopkeeper came back this morning to find them still on the doorstep, probably soggy and certainly unuseable how would they feel? By taking some and pointing out the bag to someone else you showed appreciation of their generosity, encouraged them to do it again. And just as you pointed out the bag to someone else, they may have passed the word along a chain of people so that those who really need the bread found it or know to look there in future. In the face of so many imponderables we can only do what feels right at the time. But I also appreciate your discomfort and uncertainty. I am reminded of someone who gave me a lot of support many years ago; I felt awkward because they gave me so much and I had nothing to offer in return. They gave me the reply “Don’t pay it back, pass it on” so maybe you could do a small act of kindness for someone else – make a cup of coffee for a colleague, pay a compliment, send a supportive email to a friend who is a bit down….There can never be too much kindness in the world! And enjoy that bread as the baker intended!


  4. JuliainLampeter December 1, 2018 / 11:29 am

    Dear Sue and Judith,
    I’m returnng to Sue’s blog after a long gap (thanks for posting about it on the Paramaethu facebook page Sue!), and what a treasure trove it is.

    I really appreciate the phrase “don’t pay it back, pass it on” as it seems to encapsulate for me the basis of the gift economy – if something is given with an expectation of payback, it is not a really gift.

    We have started Incredible Edible (Bwyd Bendigedig) in a small way here in Lampeter, and my hope is that it will eventually expand to become something that people who need to use the food bank can also make use of and get involved in. I hope that if I saw a local “bad boy” picking lots of strawberries at a BBL bed, I would feel able to strike up a conversation with him about them and maybe draw him into something. I find my learned insularity is something that I often have to challenge for myself since moving to Lampeter and getting more involved in trying to be the change I want to see, and it certainly means venturing out from my comfort zone.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Going Batty in Wales December 1, 2018 / 11:52 am

    Thank you Julian. I know some of the people in the Lampeter group and am delighted you are collectively doing Bwyd Bendegedig. I shall look out for signs when I am next in the town. I appreciate the difficulty of moving out of your comfort zone – I feel it too. If you would like to keep up with posts please subscribe so you get an email each time I write one but I will also try to remember to post a link on paramaethu cymru.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s