Maria Gonzalez was desperate. Her husband of five years had recently left her and their two young children, taking the family car with him. The 25-year-old Potrero Hill native was struggling to make ends meet, but even after government help, she still needed support. The food program, known as WIC, for example, offered only three gallons of milk a month. “My kids go through one gallon (in) maybe three or four days,” she said.

Compounding her struggles were her children’s frequent hospital visits. Her daughter was not yet two but suffered from a chronic condition that required intubation and weeks in the hospital. Her infant son was being treated for a possible brain tumor. Their medical appointments forced her to miss work, and she worried about losing her job as a receptionist. With no real friends to rely on, she decided to seek kindness from strangers and logged into the SF Buy Nothing Facebook group.

The online community is free and strives to create a gift economy that emphasizes kindness over consumerism. It consists of thousands of subgroups across 44 countries, including more than 20 neighborhood-specific groups within San Francisco. Clothes and furniture are commonly available, yet more unique items can also be found. Dryer lint, pickle juice and countless cardboard boxes are some of the unexpected “goods” members have passed on to others.

Gonzalez had used Buy Nothing in the past to give away baby accessories and a dresser, so she decided to reach out for support. Her late-night post seeking food and diapers last June received more than 100 comments. She was flooded with offers of food, baby wipes, and diapers, as well as new toys and party decorations for her kids’ upcoming birthdays. One woman volunteered to pick up items for Gonzalez in 10 different neighborhoods; another included a link where she could apply for paid family leave for caregivers. Gonzalez was moved to tears.

While Buy Nothing is a great place to obtain kitsch desk lamps and leftover chocolate mousse cake, it’s more than just a dumping ground for closet purges and move-out discoveries. It helps excess food get to people who’ll eat it and gives unwanted clothes a second life in someone else’s closet. It allows people to save money by avoiding unnecessary purchases that can instead be gifted by a fellow member. For Gonzalez, and others in need, Buy Nothing can be a lifeline.

“I wasn’t expecting that much help,” she said. ”I just thought … they’re just gonna send me a meal, but … some people actually sent me a lot of food. I was like, oh my god, I have more than enough. ” She posted the extra groceries on Buy Nothing.

The Buy Nothing project began in 2013 as a Facebook group created by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller in Bainbridge Island, Wash. The two friends hatched the idea after sharing concerns about the abundance of plastic on a beach near Seattle. Today Buy Nothing boasts more than 4 million members worldwide, with at least 24 subgroups in San Francisco including one for the Mission. Anyone living in a subgroup’s designated area is free to join by requesting access from an administrator.

When Nicole Belanger, who works for Home Bridge, the philanthropic arm of Apartment List, began helping Afghan refugee families, she turned to Buy Nothing. “I was able to outfit the whole one-bedroom with three beds; two couches; coffee table; TV; TV stand; dining table; and chairs, and get that all arranged and picked up the same morning and then moved over to the unit by the movers, ”she said.

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