Common Meal System at Cascade Cohousing

Posted by Nathan Alison | 14 March 2011

The following information was contributed in March 2011 by Ian Higginbottom, founding member of Cascade Cohousing, Hobart.


The Common meal system at Cascade
Cascade runs three common meals a week and i thought I would share how our system works.  In my reading and discussion with people from US cohouses I have not seen anyone else running the same system.  In some ways it is a very Australian system - laid-back, egalitarian and with almost no administration.
The key principles of our common meal system are

  • cook in proportion to the number of meals that you and your guests eat (based on last roster or projection for next roster)
  • the individual cook is responsible for entire meal and clean up and may choose to work with a buddy or group, but these arrangements are outside the roster system
  • cook something yummy
  • in general, at end of the meal make some contribution to the clean up before you go
  • in general, mark on meals schedule if you are coming or not in advance (not required but requested)

Drawing up the roster
The roster person draws up a roster with roughly the number of weeks that the roster is expected to run for (based on a pre-survey of how often people plan to cook, or on experience).
Everyone participating signs up to cook 1 to 4 meals per roster depending on how often they eat and how many guests they bring.

Cooking frequency guideline

  • eat once a week or less cook once per roster
  • eat more than once and up to twice a week cook twice on roster
  • eat more than twice and up to three times per week cook three times on roster
  • if you bring guests then figure them into your estimate of eating or use the second guideline of cook once for every twelve meals eaten.

Everyone then signs up on the roster for the number of days they will cook.  If necessary the roster is shortened or lengthened to fit the total number of meals that will be provided.  This means the roster is variable in length -  roughly three months long plus or minus a couple of weeks.

Who pays for what
The kitchen is stocked by the group with a few simple basics such as oil and spices.  Beyond these basics the cook supplies and pays for the entire meal and no charge is made to those attending.  This gives the cook great freedom in what they spend as long as they deliver something tasty.  This is one of the key egalitarian elements in the system, the cook may spend as much or as little as the want on the meal, which allows people on very different incomes to participate without any attention being drawn to what is spent.  This system also removes all the time and administration associated with handling money.

Sign up
Sign up is not required to attend a meal, but it is encouraged.  Signing off to say  you are not attending a meal is even more important.  This system allows flexibility for participants but does come at the cost of some uncertainty for cooks.  however after 15 years of this system it seems that flexibility trumps a little uncertainty in the numbers being cooked for.

Cascade Cohousing common meals are a great success and remain a social hub of the community after 18 years.  Every group must work out a system that works for them.  We have found this system to be very simple, to work over many years, and to allow for flexibility with both attendance and what is spent on meals.  Common meals really are the hub of the Cascade Cohousing community and after 18 years all but one resident participates regularly and everyone comes to special occasions such as our annual Christmas and mid-winter celebrations.

Community creation and conflict resolution
From time to time conflicts arise in the community and some are handled better than others. The energy for improving our tools and skills waxes and wanes over the years as individuals or the group explore different areas of "personal growth" or gaining skills for living in community. The waxing and waning is an oscillation around an ongoing commitment by the group and most individuals to continuously improve intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that build communication and community. In the early days we ignored many issues in order to "get things built" and now encourage other groups to invest energy and time in the community skills at the same time as building the real estate.   In the last few months the 'community creation" committee has been investigating NVC (Non Violent Communication, ) as a possible tool for enhancing communication in the group and further improving the resolution of conflicts in a way that builds rather than damages community.  We have read examples of other cohouses in the USA successfully using this appraoch. A group of people will meet regularly over the next few months to practice NVC skills and we are discussing the idea of running a community workshop on NVC to further enhance our facility with this powerful communication tool.  It will be interesting to be aware of how we grown and change over the next year as these skills are practiced by group members.