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Professor challenges a capitalist system through free and sustainable projects that brings the community together.

By: Jim Bea Sampaga

01 April 2019

Bamboo trees, open galleries, and high ceilings are some of the things that decorate the art building at University of Hawaii at Manoa. But in the middle of the building sits a shelf filled with peculiar items.


Across from the shelf is a mini fridge with a sign: “Leave what you want, take what you need but not the fridge!”


The “free store” is filled with clothing and books, and “free fridge” is where people leave food ranging from herbs to sandwiches. Both encourage people to give and take items without having to pay a single cent.


University of Hawaii’s Art & Art History Department Chair Gaye Chan introduced this self-sufficient system to Hawaii that requires community cooperation rather than dependence on a monetary system.


“Everyone is equal,” Chan said. “Anyone can be part of the system as long as they use their labor.”

Chan founded Eating In Public (EIP) in 2003 with Sociology Professor Nandita Sharma to “nudge a little space outside of the state and capitalist systems.” EIP has initiated more than 1,000 free and sustainable projects across the country, including the Free Store and Free Fridge.

(Shot and edited by Jim Bea Sampaga)


It all started when Chan wanted to find a solution to the growing number of baby papaya plants in her Kailua neighborhood.


As a gardener, Chan didn’t want to throw away these papaya plants. So they looked for a place to plant them where everyone could share.

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Chan at UH Manoa Free Garden’s communal compost, where she puts her mom’s kitchen waste to help with the soil. (Photo by Jim Bea Sampaga)

“If we planted it at our house, then it’s likely that people wouldn’t pick out the papaya,” Chan said.


As a solution, they planted the papaya saplings on a roadside weed patch next to a fence of a privately-owned land near their neighborhood.


“That place was just a weed patch that no one really cared for,” Chan explained. “So it seemed like a good place to make this happen.”


They planted the baby papayas and put up a sign saying: “These papaya trees have been planted for everyone. When they bear fruit, in about a year, you are welcome to pick them as you need… Please feel free to water and weed.”


“When we started doing this we didn't really think of this as a project, we just simply had too many papaya plants,” Chan explained. “And it's because of this initial gesture that Eating in Public was born.”


Five months later, they received a note from the owner of the adjacent land saying the papaya trees needed to be removed. The caretakers of the private land cut down the papaya trees, which caused community outrage.

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One of the signs on the location of the Free Store in Kailua. (Photo from

Chan and Sharma used this as motivation to replant in the same patch. This time they added other plants too, like tomato, pepper, bitter melon, lemongrass and passion fruit. Signs were erected to educate people which plant is which and when and how to harvest them. They also put up posters and signs encouraging people to participate in this free garden.


The land is known as “Kaelepulu Pond” in the windward side of Oahu. It’s owned and developed by Kamehameha Schools. The pond used to be a thriving fish cultivation area and it’s stream used to water taro, sugar and rice crops. At one point in time, everything there was commonly shared.


“We refuse to ask for permission because this is the Commons,” Chan explained. “Who is supposed to ask? There’s no one to ask because no one has the authority to tell us [it’s] okay or not okay.”



When a friend of Chan heard about the free garden in Kailua, he said to her, “This is so interesting because that’s what the Diggers did.”

“Who were the Diggers?” Chan asked him.


In 1649, food prices were so high in England that a group of poor men, known as the “Diggers,” decided to plant crops and graze their livestock at a common piece of land in order to survive.


The Diggers preferred to tend to their food and shelter in the commons, believing that the common land should be returned to the common people, but the current government at the time felt threatened by them.


The Diggers eventually dispersed.


“They lost at the time,” Chan said. “And I think we’re still fighting that same struggle because I certainly want the Commons back.”


Eating in Public, according to Chan, is about “how to survive and to dream of reclaiming our Commons.”

Items, Food, Seeds

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People can leave and/or take whatever they want at the Free Store.

(Photo by Jim Bea Sampaga)

Located just across the Free Store, people can leave and/or take food in this mini fridge. (Photo by Jim Bea Sampaga)

Chan and Sharma further tested their limits and opened a Free Store in their front yard. Just like their free garden, they invited others to participate by taking and leaving items.


The concept of Free Store wasn’t theirs. According to the book “America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon,” the term “Free Store” was first coined and introduced by a group of San Francisco Diggers in the 1960’s.


Around 13 years ago, EIP brought Free Store to UH Manoa.


Chan thinks it’s funny that students embrace the Free Store as part of the university.


“[The Free Store] has been included by the UH tour when they bring people around the campus,” Chan said. “They generally stop at the free store and say, ‘Hi and here is a free store!’”


EIP also began setting up “Share Seeds” stations where anyone can take and leave plant seeds to grow in their own gardens. One of the Share Seeds stations is located in the lobby near Chan’s office at the Art Building. The seeds are packed in junk mail envelopes.

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A Share Seeds station at the lobby of Chan’s office. It has a variety of edible weeds: atemoya, weedy amaranth and celosia. (Photo by Jim Bea Sampaga)

“Well, I grow things so like if I grow lettuce, I will leave a few plants for seeds,” Chan explains. “I packed them up and I put them there and other people put seeds there too.”


When asked if she knows where the other seeds in the Share Seeds stations come from she replied, “I don’t where they come from, I really don’t know.”



One of their most unique projects is WE(ED)S. According to their website,  it’s a “sidewalk-to-table” project that aims to educate people about edible weeds.


EIP has recipes on their website for cooking edible weeds found everywhere in gardens, sidewalks and parking lots. They also do free cooking demonstrations to help inform people about it. They once did a pop-up cooking demonstration at the university Art Building two years ago.


When asked if they had to fill out any university food service forms, Chan said that they refuse to ask for permission.


“Our cooking is so short by the time that we get reported on we were already finished,” Chan said.


This project began when Chan started learning about the weeds that she pulled out of her garden.


“The idea of invasive [plant] species is slippery, so anything that's not native has become ‘invasive’ as well, even though they don't do anything that harms the ecosystem,” said Chan. “So I think it's more of a political metaphor of xenophobia.”


Chan thinks this project serves as a proof of her belief that “unwanted things are unwanted for a particular political purpose.”


She hopes to do more WE(ED)S cooking demonstrations in the future.



Located beside the vending machines in the Art Building, the UH Manoa Free Garden is flourishing with its tall papaya trees, a blooming moringa tree, massive aloe vera plants and rows of kalo.  


“It’s got a little bit of everything,” said Dylan Jurusz, a UH Manoa junior and the most active volunteer at the Free Garden. “Whatever you see in the produce aisle of the supermarket is what we’ve got here, on a smaller scale.”


Jurusz showing crops like kale and lettuce available at the Free Garden.

(Photo by Jim Bea Sampaga)

“There's no real manager, but he's the one who puts in the most work,” Chan said of Jurusz. “Whoever wants to do the work does the work. It’s pretty simple. It’s the Free Garden because it’s free.”


The UH Manoa Free Garden has been around for 8 years. Different people have taken care of the garden throughout the garden’s existence.


Just like Chan, Jurusz likes gardening and has been tending the plants near the vending machines since before he knew that it was the Free Garden.


“I would walk through [the Free Garden] every day and I just wanted to take care of them because I noticed no one else took care of the plants, so I decided watering [the plants] and I pull the weeds out and stuff,” Jurusz explained.


One day, a professor noticed him tending the plants and introduced him to Gary, the most active volunteer at that time. Jurusz has been active in the Free Garden for almost two years now, making sure that the plants are healthy and growing.


“It's just out of self curiosity and the want to learn and just keep pushing myself to learn,” Jurusz said.

Currently, Jurusz runs the Free Garden Instagram account, posting things like volunteer day announcements inviting people to help weed and clean the garden.


Jurusz said the garden is the best it’s ever looked since it was first planted because of all the people helping out.


“It's like a good social experience and everyone learned something, which is the coolest part because you don't learn the stuff in school.” Jurusz said. “They don't teach you this, so we're all going out of our way to teach ourselves and it's beautiful.”



EIP challenges capitalism primarily by offering things for free. There are minimal costs to maintain the Free Garden and the mobile kitchen for the WE(ED)S cooking demonstrations.


Chan explained that the weeds are free and that people volunteered for the cooking demonstrations.


Few ingredients were purchased, including rice, garlic, soy sauce, eggs and cooking oil. The plates used in previous demonstrations were made of bamboo shoots and banana trunks.


For the Free Garden, garden tools, hoses and chicken manure are a few things they have had to buy. Jurusz buys some items for the Free Garden.


“I buy seeds… I bought some dirt just to help it out but the goal is to spend as little money as possible,” Jurusz explained. “But we couldn't be where we are right now if I didn't go out and buy some seeds so it's worth it.”


Some of the vases, pots and decorations at the Free Garden are from the Free Store.


“A lot of stuff that we have in our garden comes from the free store,” Jurusz said. “Like every time I walk through there I was like what can we use that can go in the garden?”


Chan also creates basket bags from sturdy bale straps. She sells the bags to raise funds for the Free Garden.



Jurusz said that, unlike the Free Store and Free Fridge, the Free Garden on campus isn’t as well known. He hopes that through its instagram account, they will be able to inform and encourage people to join the Free Garden.


“People still have no idea what this place is or where it is,” Jurusz said. “There [are] so many people that want to get involved but don't know how to.”

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Signs at the Free Garden encouraging people to volunteer. (Photo by Jim Bea Sampaga)

Jurusz hopes that more people will join their Volunteer Day every Tuesday afternoon. Dropping off plants at the garden for them to plant is also encouraged.


At the time of the interview, the Free Store and Free Fridge looked empty, but Chan was unphased.


“They're empty until they're not empty,” Chan said. “It won't be empty soon, someone will leave something.”


Chan encourages people to tidy up the Free Store and Free Fridge, not just take and leave stuff.


“That's how you become a commoner, because there's no one who works there there's no clerk or janitor,” Chan added. “It’s us. We do everything.”

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