What would you do if you had access to five waffle irons at once? If the answer isn’t “have a bitchin’ waffle party for all my friends,” I don’t understand your priorities at all. For some residents of Portland, Oregon, making waffle party dreams a reality is as easy as checking out a book from the library. With locations in both the northeast and southeast quadrants of the city, Kitchen Share is a network of kitchen tool libraries that operate on a hyperlocal basis. Kitchen Share’s libraries may be small, but they provide an important model of how communities can bond over food and cooking in an accessible, sustainable way.
It all started with a quest for a dehydrator. Five years ago, Robin Koch and her housemate Kim Hack wanted to try their hand at food dehydrating and weren’t quite ready to invest in an expensive new piece of kitchen equipment. At the time, Koch was volunteering at the SouthEast Portland Tool Library, a community-based organization that lends home and garden tools to residents of Portland’s southeast quadrant for free (after an optional one-time enrollment donation). She and Hack wished there was such a program for specialized kitchen equipment. Ultimately, they decided to start their own.
Getting donations of kitchen equipment was the easiest part. “We started talking to neighbors,” Koch says, “and [Hack] went around and talked to about one hundred people who lived near our house.” It turned out that plenty of people were eager to free up pantry space by passing along a fancy juicer that they rarely used or an extra bread machine they’d inherited from an older relative. Koch and Hack also enlisted neighborhood volunteers to help with everything from building a website to organizing and labeling the donated kitchen supplies. Kitchen Share opened in the fall of 2012.
Today, Kitchen Share’s southeast location has 264 items available for checkout. The library is one of several organizations housed in Saint David of Wales Episcopal Church’s building (beyond tenancy, Kitchen Share is not affiliated with the church). In a high-ceilinged room with visible studs and plywood floors, neat rows of pots, pans, and small appliances (including, yes, several dehydrators) are arranged on open shelves. A cluster of cider presses and a large ceramic fermentation crock are kept on the floor. The space may not have much in common with a fancy kitchenware store, but walking around the library, this home baker felt that same exciting sense of culinary possibility.
Koch sees the value of the library as threefold. First, Kitchen Share builds community around food. In addition to lending out equipment, the library hosts potlucks as well as classes on skills like canning and cheese making. Then there’s the economic aspect. “We want to make things free and accessible to everyone—to experiment and to try things, to learn without making a monetary investment,” Koch says. Finally, like the home and garden tool libraries that inspired it, Kitchen Share’s model of community ownership aims to have “a positive environmental impact by lightening our need for stuff.”
In its nearly five years of operation, the southeast location of the library has grown to about 550 members. Membership is open to residents who are over 18 and have a home address in southeast Portland. The northeast location similarly limits membership to its quadrant. For Koch, it’s been important to keep the operation small enough to be manageable on a volunteer basis. Kitchen Share Southeast is only open two evenings a week, but Koch hopes to be able to expand its hours.
So far, the community has been invested in the project. As the library has a limited supply of donated equipment, I wondered if they’d had issues with items getting lost or broken. According to Koch, though, there’ve been surprisingly few problems. “Just as often as we’ve had something broken, we’ve had someone fix or improve something without being asked to,” she says. Koch shows me an apple grinder that goes with one of the library’s cider presses. It previously had a small, hard-to-use handle, but a volunteer replaced it with a better apparatus of his own design. He even took the time to expertly etch Kitchen Share’s logo into the metal.
As a series of recent scandals at Uber as well as backlash to Fiverr’s recent ad campaign have illuminated, the “sharing economy” has been in many ways an empty promise, especially for workers. But Kitchen Share really is about sharing, sans big investors and exploitation of independent contractors. “We see it not just as a library, but a hub where people can exchange knowledge and ideas,” Koch says.
Koch isn’t aware of any kitchenware libraries outside the Portland area, though she sometimes gets emails from people seeking to start one in their own community. A similar library was established in Toronto in 2013, but shuttered two years later. Keeping volunteer-run organizations up and running is a challenge. And yet, home and garden tool libraries have been cropping up in more cities. Koch hopes kitchen tool libraries will follow. The world could use more community waffle irons.
The waffle party, by the way, is an event Koch has actually hosted. She checked out a fleet of Kitchen Share waffle makers, ran an extension cord out to her backyard, and let her friends go to town with a giant bowl of waffle batter. May the future hold backyard waffle gatherings for all.
Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and multimedia producer based in New York City. Her essays, poems, and strongly worded letters have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atlas Obscura, VICE, and elsewhere.