by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee
Hynden Walch, a voice-over actor, was walking around her neighborhood when she noticed lemons rolling down the hill, rotting on another neighbor’s driveway. This was during the Great Recession, when times were tough and her personal times were a little tougher, complete with a terrible gig working for a bully director. Most people might give up hope in times like these, but having all of these experiences together got her brain working.
That’s when she came up with the idea for the Hillside Produce Co-operative, a free neighborly exchange of fruits, vegetables, herbs, baked goods and whatnot, which happens about every month. As Hynden tells it, it’s about “sharing, abundance, eliminating waste and gratitude.”
I discovered it about 10 years into its inception. I was walking around my own new neighborhood when I noticed a beautiful dog sitting on a porch. I’m shy about talking to new people, but never shy around new animals. That was Tucker, and that’s how I met his owner, Annie. We got to talking on her front yard, and she told me about the co-op. It sounded too good to be true.
That Saturday, I dropped off a couple of bags of my summer bounty – tomatoes, zucchini, calamondin, Meyer lemons, and bunch of herbs. A few hours later, my doorbell rang. A friendly stranger was standing there holding my tote bags full. Inside were juicy figs, crookneck squash, an Armenian cucumber, Anaheim chiles, heirloom tomatoes, nectarines, grapefruit, seedless grapes, lettuce, sorrel, chard, kale, butter lettuce, and so many other things. I laid them all out and admired the ridiculous bounty that filled my kitchen counter. There’s something so satisfying about eating food you grew yourself. It’s even more heart-warming when you get to share that food with friends, neighbors, and even strangers.
I was hooked.
That day happened to be the cooperative’s two-year anniversary. The co-op has been around for 12 years now. Because the picking up and dropping off was too complicated, Hynden has since changed it into a “drop-and-swap,” a sort-of cake walk for produce, if you will. We all meet at the host’s house at just before 11 am on a designated Saturday.
We put down whatever we brought, be it a handful of grapes or a hundred grapefruits. It doesn’t matter how much or how little. Once all of the goodies are laid out, we walk around with our reusable bags in hand, taking a bit of whatever we’d like. The first round, we are judicious, taking only a bit so everyone can get their share. The second time around is the “leave nothing” round. When you can grab as much of what you like until the tables or boxes are empty. It’s “downright communist,” Hynden says.
We gathered at Hynden’s house for years, but she said, “ten years is a long time to have everyone over to your house.” So, we started taking turns on hosting. Recently we’ve settled comfortably at our neighbors Karen and Paul’s home.
You can come for 15 minutes, or you can stay and chat with your neighbors for a while. Quite often, it devolves into scraping the last bit of the homemade pie with your fingers while drinking someone’s delicious freshly squeezed lemonade, while catching up on each others’ lives, trading gardening advice or just meeting some new neighbors.
This spring, once the pandemic started, Hynden had another idea. She thought, “We need the co-op now more than ever. We can do this without contact.” That’s when she came up with the idea of porch swaps. With the list of emails and our Facebook group, she organized a drive-around swap, a sort of “trick-or-treating for adults.” People list what items they had, and another generous neighbor makes a Google map with the addresses and the list of items. Within a two-hour window, participants can drive around to as many or as few places as they would like, picking up shared items from our Northeastern LA neighbors.
This past month, we shared hand-sewn face masks, homemade sanitizer, sourdough starter, kombucha scobys, homemade soaps, chocolate chip cookies, bananas, avocados, as well as the usual plethora of Southern California citrus and herbs. In the generous spirit that moved Hynden to start the group in the first place, she even let a couple of neighbors participate even though they had nothing to share. I, for one, am happy to give more than I take, especially to those who found themselves suddenly unemployed.
The last couple of months have been so much fun. It gives us a way to be neighborly and share our abundance, all the while going on a bit of a treasure hunt. I also get a change of scenery during lock-down, can admire different people’s houses and their gardens, and even get a few chance encounters with new members while I load them up with extra sweet lemons from my ridiculously prolific tree.
Even if you don’t live in our Northeastern Los Angeles neighborhood, you can start your own free co-op. Hynden says, “It’s impossibly easy. I started with literally five email addresses and it grew from there.” All you need is the willingness to share.
There are chapters all over the world now – even in Australia and Canada. The WLA chapter still does it the original way, whereby everyone drops off their goods that morning, and volunteers to bag and drop off goodies back to the contributors in the afternoon.
Hynden’s original idea grew from a worldview that sees a universal abundance and connection in the time of personal scarcity. When the world feels like it’s crumbling all around us, the neighborhood co-op has been a beacon of light. It’s a reminder for us all that not only are there still good people in the world, but some of them may live just a few blocks away. We can make our corner of the universe beautiful and a little bit brighter with just an idea, a vision and a handful of thyme.
*Photo credit: Clay Banks, Unsplash