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When the Government Failed Us, Reddit Became America’s Food Bank

Anonymous strangers in communities like r/food_pantry and r/food_bank are helping hungry families when their cities won’t

It begins simply enough — a little digitized faith in humanity and a request born out of literal hunger. The request is a reluctant one, because despite what America’s bootstraps dogma would have you believe, it pains most people to have to ask for a handout. “I hate asking for help and I’m one to always pay it forward,” someone recently wrote on the r/food_pantry subreddit, one of many online communities where people can ask for things they want or need in the hope that someone will grant them their wish. “I created a wishlist for Amazon with a bunch of things I am able to safely eat and I’m hoping that I will be able to make it thru until that first paycheck from the second job comes in.”

Within minutes, a random stranger chimed in. “Sent you one of your items!” they wrote back. “Should arrive on the 7th!” The next day, another stranger sent a jar of Alfredo sauce, noting that “the other things were unavailable or said they couldn’t be sent to your address, unfortunately.” The day after that, the wishlist had been all but fulfilled. “Sent you a few items,” wrote another redditor. “One will arrive Wednesday and the rest Friday! Good luck at the new job!”

Stories like this one are all too common at a time when more than 30 million Americans are out of work and “6.7 million rent-burdened households could face eviction at the end of the month,” according to CNBC. In America, it’s not unusual for a person’s life — already upended by a pandemic — to be subject to an abusive landlord or a social system that forces parents to choose between working or taking care of their kids: That’s just the way it is here. “I had to leave my waitressing job last month because we couldn’t afford daycare for our 2 youngest kids right now and we make just enough to not qualify for assistance,” another redditor, who was looking for a night job and whose kids “are not picky,” wrote last year. 

Hers is yet another request for groceries in a sea of requests from people reaching out for something not usually endemic to the internet — kindness. 

But in this space between hopelessness and humanity, thin as it may be, there are those who have decided to chip away at the callous indifference shown by our capitalist system, one Amazon grocery list at a time. “During COVID, I think I’ve been a little bit more active in sending meals to people,” Brandon, a lawyer in San Francisco, tells me. He’s been doing this sort of thing regularly for the past seven years, “usually at least a couple of times every few months, maybe once a month on average, if not more.” 

Brandon “tends to go into runs” where he’ll send groceries to two or three people in one night. “You can see in my post history it’s basically all I do on Reddit — sometimes I give money, sometimes I send groceries and gifts and recently I’ve been sending dinner,” he adds.

He does it because he “grew up relatively poor and lower-middle-class,” and although his parents both worked hard, “sometimes it was hard to make ends meet. But even then, as tough as things were for us, I saw my parents supporting other family members who were even worse off,” Brandon tells me. 

That’s also why Somsri, another redditor who discovered these Reddit communities three weeks ago, but who’s already sent food to four people, has been helping where he can. Because he, like 37 million other Americans, knows what it’s like to be food insecure. “I have a lot in common with users in those subs, and that’s growing up extremely poor,” he explains. “The local government fails to provide stability to its citizens. I figured, if I still have a job and am financially stable, why not step in?” 

Being from Thailand but growing up in California and not speaking any English for his “first year or so,” he sympathizes with people who feel like they’ve reached a dead end. “I felt it was my calling to help people in desperate times, you know?”

The concept of a digital space where people can perform random acts of kindness for strangers appears to have begun in 2010, with r/random_acts_of_pizza (RAOP) and r/assistance, both of which boast the largest number of subscribers on these types of subreddits, with well over 100,000 each. According to a June 2011 ABC News report, one of the community’s founders, Daniel Rogers, from San Antonio, had the idea in 2010 when he was out of work. “You feel disconnected from society, a kind of depression sets in,” Rogers told the network with regard to that period in his life when he was unemployed.

But not since the Great Depression have the unemployment numbers been this dire — again, there are more than 30 million people currently out of work due to the pandemic. Brandon explains this is why there have been more people requesting food or money than ever before. “I’ve certainly been a bit more active than I had been in the past in the last few months,” he says. “I feel like every time I go to the well to see what’s out there, there’s always a bunch of people who look like the people that you can trust to get something for.”

To that end, behind the scenes, managing the various Reddit communities that connect people in need with people willing to help them in a pinch, is a small but dedicated group of moderators — think of them like a decentralized ministry that makes sure these communities run smoothly. “There’s a core group of us that run r/food_pantry, r/food_bank, r/need, r/gofundme, r/charity, r/random_acts_of_pizza and r/randomkindness, r/care and r/assistance,” one of the moderators tells me. “I’m also in the process of trying to claim r/foodbank, which is dead, for the sole purpose of pointing it to r/food_pantry and r/food_bank.”

According to a moderator of the r/food_pantry subreddit, with the increase in the number of requests, there’s also sadly been an “increase in the number of scam artists and opportunists we encounter,” he explains. “Internet panhandling is a thing and you’ll find some people are really good at it.” In that sense, he warns that “many of the requests you read are either heavily exaggerated or complete bullshit. I mean, this is the internet, after all.”

There are certain rules, at least, that the moderators can enforce to combat the “scam artists and opportunists.” For example, one stipulates that a person’s “account must be at least 180 days old with at least 500 comment karma and an active post history for the last 90 in non-charitable subreddits,” in order to request anything. Such rules, a moderator tells me, are there “to try to keep scammers from creating multiple accounts and infiltrating our community-based subreddit to take advantage of kind people.” They also just want their users to be “genuine contributing members of the Reddit community.”

Even amidst the various communities dedicated to random acts of kindness, there are differences, primarily between Random Acts of Pizza and all the rest. “We aren’t a needs-based subreddit, so we aren’t a community safety net,” an RAOP moderator explains. Another tells me that while there has been an uptick in requests for pizza due to the pandemic, “we still also want to be part of people’s celebrations as well, for such events as a graduation or birthday.” Because they’re not strictly a needs-based assistance subreddit, they have additional requirements and restrictions. Such as:

  • No defaulted loans from /r/borrow 
  • No activity percentage substantially in the giving/gifting subs
  • No minors (because what parent would be happy about their kid giving out an address to a random person on the internet?)

But rules like these, albeit unintentionally, prevent people like Somsri — whose account is less than 180 days old and therefore not allowed to post — from offering help. “I lurk through food_pantry, but am unable to visibly share the purchased items requested from users, so I’m forced to PM, and tell them, ‘Hey, I bought shit off your list!’” 

Before buying dinner and items from their grocery lists, Somsri tends to scroll through their comment history, just to see what they’re about. “Even then, I wouldn’t judge a person from their interests on the internet — I can sense some kind of energy, it’s weird, but that’s just me.”

Brandon has a slightly different way of deciding who he wants to help. “If they’re putting forward their kids first or their animals first, or they’re in a rough patch, but there’s a path out of it and they just need a little help in this rough patch, that’s usually what I gravitate toward,” he says. “I mean, I want to help everybody, but those are the ones that inspire me.”

In 2016, Tim Althoff, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Washington, wanted to find out more about what sort of requests inspire a person to decide who they want to help. To do so, he analyzed the content of requests from those asking for a pizza between December 2010 and September 2013. “One thing that I remember was, when we started this study, I really assumed two things would matter,” he tells me. “I assumed that politeness would matter — if you ask politely that this would work better — and I assumed that the sentiment would matter.” 

But neither of his assumptions proved correct. Instead, he found that the people most successful in getting their requests fulfilled would end their posts with something like, “‘Oh, I would definitely pay it forward,’” as Althoff recalls someone saying. Or, “‘Once I’m better, I’ll definitely pay this forward to somebody else,’” he tells me. The key was signaling in some way that you cared about these communities and that you’re not just there to take. “We would call this generalized reciprocity,” he says. “Even accounting and controlling for lots of other factors, this was significantly, positively associated with a higher chance to get the pizza.”

Other factors that were more likely to grant a person a free pizza, Althoff continues, were things like sharing more information about themselves or including pictures with their posts. “A lot of the pictures would show somebody’s fridge that’s completely empty, no food left, or a picture of a job termination letter, or a picture of the people themselves, or the picture of a screenshot of the empty bank account,” he tells me. 

Alternatively, if a person wanted food because they just got drunk with some friends, and were craving pizza, those would typically not be as successful as others that displayed higher levels of need,” says Althoff. 

Part of why he thinks that people are so willing to engage in altruism in these online communities is the speed at which it happens, “and how close this connection feels,” he says. “You give somebody a pizza, and half an hour later, they show you a picture of them smiling, even though you know they were in a tough situation.” He adds, “This isn’t scientific,” referring to the feeling someone gets when they fulfill a person’s request. “This was anecdotal — ‘I know that made my day when I saw the other person being so happy,’ and knowing that you made somebody’s day slightly brighter. You can really see it so quickly after you make even just a small contribution.”

But while Althoff believes that there’s plenty to learn from these communities, some of which may even have policy implications for social services, he’s reluctant to glean too much from his data. “For example, if you have this Reddit or internet-driven lens, chances are you’re biased toward more internet savvy, typically more affluent populations,” he says. “I don’t know about Random Acts of Pizza specifically, but Reddit tends to be more biased toward males.” 

If nothing else, though, these communities — flawed as they may be — provide access to assistance that otherwise doesn’t exist. “It doesn’t really hurt me at all financially to buy groceries for them for a week,” Brandon tells me. “But that’s a huge, meaningful thing for someone who needs food.” 

In that sense, as the government continues to fail to help its citizens through their darkest days, it may very well be these internet communities that emerge as one of the few lifelines that helps keep a family fed — for one more day at least.