Re: Common Meal Accounting and planning
From: Lynn Nadeau (
Date: Fri, 8 Oct 1999 12:03:39 -0600 (MDT)
There was an entire workshop at the national conference this past week on 
exactly that. 
I spent hours putting my conference notes in shape, on computer, planning 
to share them, and then (groan) arrived home to find that the airport 
security Xray killed my disk. @!#$%^&*()   It would have answered your 
question in much detail. Maybe someone else will do the same and offer 
their notes to the list. Till then, a cursory summary.  

Many groups. Many systems. 
Meal prices ranged from $2.25 for an adult meal to $4, with $2.50 very 
common. That usually included 25-50 cents "profit" for the kitchen 
kitty-- staples etc. A lesser price, usually half, was charged for small 
or child meals, on an honor system, so a parent could determine if the 
child could be expected to eat a full meal, or maybe almost nothing. 
Leftovers were usually free, or by donation. A price is set for guest 

Costs were determined either by dividing actual expense by actual diners, 
or using an average (much more common). 

The least complicated system was atypical: a small group with near-total 
participation simply had everyone cook, and every cook fund the meal they 
cooked: no money changed hands. In some larger groups with a money 
accounting system, there might also be small supper clubs that met 
certain nights that also did the no-money approach. 

Cooks typically hand in receipts to a treasurer who reimburses them soon 
from a kitchen account. 

At one fairly small group, all transactions, including what you spent as 
cook, went into the periodic accounting. So your expenditures were a 
credit against your debt for meals eaten. 

Where periodic accounting was used, there was either a zero-balance 
system, or a minimum-balance system, where a sum of money ($100 in the 
case cited) was put in as an intial deposit, and periodic accounting 
restored it to that amount. The latter case provided the kitchen account 
with a large cushion. 

Payment for meals is by cash, pre-purchased meal tickets, or signing for 
them to be tallied up periodically, like every month or two. Meal tickets 
were working well in several places. Some groups give choices of how to 
pay. How detailed a bookkeeping system seems to stem from how much a 
volunteer bookkeeper is willing to do. 

Kitchens were initially stocked with staples, and this was often paid for 
with an assessment. Replenishing staples was paid for either as part of 
the meal shopping, or from a surplus generated from meal prices. 

A successful fundraising idea, which was being used to fund kitchen costs 
beyond actual meal preparation, was getting gift-certificate-type coupons 
(in say $25 denominations) from the local grocery store(s) at a 3-5% 
discount, as a nonprofit (and it didn't always have to be a 501c3 to 
satisfy them). The coupons are then bought by members at face value, 
generating 3-5% profit for the cohousing group. One group said they 
resold thousands of dollars worth of such coupons every month, providing 
a steady surplus. 

Most groups reported an evolution in systems, as things were found to 
work or not for that particular group. 

Sign-ups for eating meals were done on a clipboard at the common house. 
The cook for a meal fills in what will be offered on the menu. Some 
groups regularly offer alternate menus for a meal, such as meat-dairy 
vegetarian- vegan  or gourmet-plain or adult-kid. 
In this case, the form used has columns to sign up for, say, 2 adult 
portions of menu #1 and 1 child portion of menu #2. The pre-printed form 
can have a line for each member or household, with names already down, so 
a person just has to write in a number or check mark. There can be a 
comment column also. Or a place to request a late meal, or a "place only" 
to sit but not eat or bring one's own food. 

Usually one signs up FOR a meal. Another possibility is to commit to 
meals on a certain night, unless you sign up NOT to come (less common). 

There is a deadline for sign-up, so shopping and quantities can be done 
ahead of time. Some groups allow a certain number of last minute add-ons. 

Diverse food needs, such as allergies, or non-dairy vegetarian, are noted 
either on a master chart in the kitchen, or on the master sign-up form. 
Groups, and individual cooks, vary in how much they try to have something 
for everyone. The range went from, "If they can't eat it, they can not 
sign up for it." to a conscientious effort to provide for all needs at 
every meal. At meal times, the full ingredients for each dish are posted, 
either on a menu board, or on a tag by each serving dish on a buffet. 
This is important particularly for those with serious allergies. 

Work for meals was also handled in diverse ways. Range from "everyone 
cooks in turn, whether they eat common meals or not" to volunteer sign 
ups. Various systems of teams. Usually 2-3 people make meal, with one 
setting the menu and shopping. Sometimes by sign up, sometimes by teams 
which rotate. Pioneer Valley actually has work teams which rotate among a 
series of chore areas, Landscape, Maintenance, Cleaning, Cooking, and 
such, which include a rotation at common meal preparation. 

Clean up is either by the cooking team, or by a separate sign up. 

Participation in meal work ranges from required to totally volunteer. 

Participation in common meals varied a lot. Surprisingly few groups had 
more than two meals a week, and some even had trouble getting 
participation for the second of those. (There were exceptions, both to 
low frequency and low attendance.) 

 Personal conclusions: Listening to this discussion, I thought it might 
help to have simpler meals, so that cooks didn't feel they had to do 
something challenging, and perhaps encourage subgroups to meet for meals 
that were easier to do, because the numbers were lower. In our group (our 
common house is only waist high now) I think I'll suggest something like 
Thursday soup and bread night, or Friday pasta and salad. 

I also conclude (and no one talked about this) that it would be useful to 
have a meeting with all the members as part of planning how it will work. 
Share people's hopes and fears, what will make it work best for them, 
make some goals, and try to build on the positives. Decide how to work 
into it, maybe starting less frequently or less elaborately. Set some 
"sunset clauses" about times to reevaluate and rearrange the systems.  It 
doesn't seem to automatically end up with everyone participating and 
having a great experience of it--- which I for one kind of expected: all 
those happy meal pictures in the cohousing books and magazines. Make no 
assumptions, and be sure everyone feels heard. If they have reservations, 
focus on what would work for them. Remember, the whole idea is to be a 
pleasure and a convenience, while building community!

Lynn Nadeau
RoseWind Cohousing , Port Townsend WA


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