Adrian Coyne (middle, handling the green beans) and volunteers prepare bags of produce to deliver to Baskit customers. Photo: Baskit
Adrian Coyne (middle, handling the green beans) and volunteers prepare bags of produce to deliver to Baskit customers. Photo: Baskit

When the pandemic first hit, Adrian Coyne, like many other people, was fretting about food. Coyne worried about getting enough to feed the nine adults in his cooperative household in Emeryville. And just as the shelter-in-place orders went into effect, their refrigerator broke.

A new fridge was procured, but given the number of people in his home, Coyne began looking into restaurant supply stores as a way to get large amounts of produce at bulk prices. Since all restaurants were shut down without notice, there were great deals to be had from distributors stuck with perishables they couldn’t sell. Coyne found himself buying 20-pound boxes of vegetables like carrots or kale, which was way more produce than his pod could consume.

Coyne has a full-time job with a tech company – called Pilot, it’s bookkeeping software – and he’s part of the Burning Man community, too (he’s a longtime fire and rope dart dancer/spinner), where “you’ve got tech millionaires partying with food service workers,” he said.

So he knew that among his community, for as many people like him whose salaries wouldn’t be affected, he also had artist and gig-economy worker friends who would soon see a drastic loss of income. To reach as many of those friends in need as he could, Coyne posted on Facebook, offering his excess produce to whoever needed it at whatever cost they wanted to pay.

He collected money from about 15 people and distributed the surplus produce he had. When he tallied up his expenses and what he had taken in, he realized, surprisingly, that he had made a small profit.

The second time he offered his extra produce, he got even more interest — around 50 people responded. Then 60, then 100. He was soon upgrading to Google spreadsheets and Venmo requests. When his Venmo account had over $2,000 in it, he realized he should start an LLC, and Baskit: Pay-What-You-Can-Produce was born.

With Baskit, customers can choose to pay as little as $5 for a delivery of a week’s worth — about 10 pounds or $30 worth of produce — of common fruits and vegetables. Orders are made on Baskit’s website, where customers choose a one-time, weekly or every other week delivery (whichever option, produce is always delivered on Saturday). A typical bag could contain onions, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, lettuce, apples, oranges, bananas — if you’re lucky, you may even get a mango. Regardless of what customers choose to pay, everyone gets exactly the same selection, which allows Baskit to keep prices down.

“We have among the most egregious wealth disparity both in the country and in the western world right in the same community,” Coyne said of the Bay Area. With Baskit, he sees an opportunity to rebalance that inequality, by having those with the means to subsidize for people who have less. Or, as the Baskit website calls its concept, “a radical, socialist produce agenda.”

Well, that part of the mission statement is tongue-in-cheek, Coyne said.

“In our contemporary political climate, where [“socialism” is] thrown around so aggressively, it’s more of a joke,” he said. “This is a voluntary redistribution of wealth.”

On Thursdays, Coyne gets texts from vendors at the produce market in Jack London Square about what they’ll have, with prices. Coyne tells them what he wants, and then “stupid early” Saturday morning, he and his band of volunteers pick up the haul.

Coyne and volunteers take the produce to rented space in a parking lot at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley (which is actually in Kensington), where they set up pop-up canopies and folding tables. Working with gloves and masks, they assemble all the produce into bags, after which they are delivered to customers.

Baskit volunteers load bags of fruits and vegetables in the parking lot of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Photo: Baskit

Once the Baskit operation grew, Coyne started fielding more calls from people wanting to volunteer. Beyond bagging groceries, some offered to help with the website and with marketing. Coyne only had one question for would-be volunteers: “I asked, ‘Are you OK diving into a philanthropic venture that will look great on your resume but I can’t pay you?’” And for anyone who was OK with that, Coyne said he would “shower them with love and affection and produce.” However Coyne does pay those who self-identify as unemployed or underemployed, as well as people who were formerly incarcerated who help with bagging and site logistics

Coyne says he’s not concerned with his ability to scale Baskit right now; all it would require on his end is more canopies and tables. The hardest part would be getting more drivers. Fortunately, he just connected with some out-of-work Uber and Lyft drivers. Coyne has also hired formerly incarcerated individuals to make deliveries. Baskit currently delivers to both the East Bay (from San Leandro to Pinole to Orinda) and San Francisco.

Coyne didn’t have any demographic data yet as to who was using the service, but he wants to start marketing Baskit to lower-income communities that might not be on Facebook (Baskit’s main source of marketing) and to form relationships with grassroots nonprofits that can reach people he can’t.

In June, during the Black Lives Matters protests, Coyne said he stopped advertising because he didn’t want to interfere with the movement’s messaging. On Baskit’s website, its About Us page has a statement that reads: “We recognize that active anti-racist efforts are necessary to prevent the company from upholding white supremacy. We actively seek out partnerships with other organizations in order to reach a diverse set of people, so that we can avoid an unjust distribution of resources which would otherwise benefit only those with access to white affluence.”

“I’m not interested in taking money from white people to give it to other white people who don’t have money. I want to hit all the communities who are systemically underserved,” Coyne explained to Nosh.

Still, Coyne needs all community members, including those who have the means to pay full price, to make Baskit work. People can also opt to make donations without purchasing any produce, or as one person did, give $200 for their weekly haul.

Baskit allows customers to set their own price for a week’s worth of common fruits and vegetables. Photo: Baskit
Baskit allows customers to set their own price for a week’s worth of common fruits and vegetables. Photo: Baskit

While Baskit has become a bigger venture than he ever thought it would be, Coyne is not taking a salary from it. For now, he sees Baskit as a labor of love — and an alternative means of therapy.

“This has become my second full-time job, and it helps keep me sane,” he said. “If I didn’t have this occupying my brain space, I’d just be reading the news, and be really depressed.”

Citing a study about how some 9/11 front line responders didn’t suffer crippling amounts of PTSD because they had jobs and a purpose, Coyne said, “this is as much therapy for me as anything else. If I didn’t have this to do, I would be looking for some other way to be impactful. This just aligned with my neurotic feeling that my quaran-pod had enough to eat and extend it out.”

But even after the pandemic ends, Coyne plans to continue to grow Baskit.

“Even if COVID-19 disappeared tomorrow, the economic divide has only increased,” he said. “Given that more Americans were already shifting toward getting food delivered, to be able to provide people a service to do armchair philanthropy, where buying groceries is a donation to others, I see no compelling reason to stop.”

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...