Jeffrey Carter, who is homeless, carried two gold-colored coins in his palm as he approached the Mission Muffins cafe trailer in Northwest Washington to exchange them for a breakfast burrito and apple juice.
The quarter-size coins — each worth $2.20 and inscribed with part of the Lord’s Prayer and an image of wheat — were “Breadcoins,” a new form of currency in the District intended for people in need.
Inspired by the popularity of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, Breadcoins have circulated in the District since 2016, but they are still relatively unknown. They are an option for people who worry that giving money to those in need might be used to fuel an addiction.
“People don’t want to give to people who drink alcohol and use drugs,” Carter, 56, said this week as he waited for his food. “It’s a new way to give.”
Carter got his Breadcoins at the Central Union Mission, where he has been living since August, when he relocated from Connecticut. The shelter serves meals, but using Breadcoins at Mission Muffins gives him more options and allows him to feel like a paying customer. Mission Muffins, which is next to the shelter, is a workforce development program that is part of the shelter in the NoMa neighborhood.
Central Union Mission disburses the coins to residents who take its workforce development classes. Breadcoin co-founder Scott Borger often distributes the coins to people when he volunteers at the shelter each week.
The coins are the product of his entrepreneurial venture, which encourages people to buy coins for $2.50 each and distribute them to people who are hungry or to participating nonprofit groups. Each coin is redeemable for $2.20 worth of food at one of six vendors in the District, with a combined 11 locations. The value difference keeps the nonprofit organization running.
Some items at Mission Muffins are priced so that they can be bought with one Breadcoin. For example, a Breadcoin will buy a muffin, a twin pack of scones or a cup of coffee. For items that cost more, people can pay with multiple coins or make up the difference with cash.
The coins are aimed at helping the roughly 17 percent of city residents who, according to census data, are experiencing poverty. More than 6,900 people in the city are homeless, according to the District’s point-in-time count conducted in January 2018.
Borger said he hopes people who are financially stable will also use the coins to buy food in an effort to destigmatize them.
The economics of the initiative seem simple at first: People buy the coins online or at Mission Muffins and distribute them to people they encounter who ask for money. There’s also an option to pay a monthly fee of $25 for 10 coins. After recipients use the coins, the vendors redeem them for cash.
The roughly 2,800 coins in circulation also double as a loan repayment mechanism for some vendors. In 2016, Breadcoin bought a $20,000 trailer for Mission Muffins, which was then operating out of a tent.
The business is paying off the trailer in monthly $600 installments, using as many Breadcoins as possible and paying the rest with a check. Once Mission Muffins finishes repaying the loan in December, it will own the trailer outright and can start exchanging Breadcoins for cash.
In addition to making 30 cents off each coin it sells, Breadcoin is also funded by donors and investors. The staffers are all volunteers, which Borger said keeps overhead costs low.
Tony Casson, the manager of Mission Muffins, said that few of his customers use the coins and that getting them in people’s hands has been a challenge. Those who do use them are mostly customers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to buy from him.
“For us, it’s a win-win situation,” Casson said. “Whether we get one or we get 50 in a day, it’s a revenue stream that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
Other participating local vendors include the bakery Captain Cookie and several food trucks and stands. And Borger briefly had an arrangement with one establishment outside Washington — Portland Soup Co. in Portland, Ore. — that accepted Breadcoins from April 2017 until its closure a year later.
Not every vendor that accepts the coins takes out a loan from Breadcoin, but Borger said supporting local entrepreneurs is a key part of the program.
Breadcoin is also an expression of Borger’s Christian faith, which he said challenges him to serve people in need. Each coin is inscribed with part of the Lord’s Prayer — “Give us this day our daily bread” — but Borger said the program doesn’t promote Christianity or try to convert participants.
Borger, who is also an economist at the National Credit Union Administration, said the project gives him a different perspective on the city than his job does.
“In a room with people who are talking about billion-dollar deals, it’s good to be reminded on occasion that $100 or even $25 can be a huge difference in someone’s budget,” he said.
Persuading businesses to join the program has not always been easy. Some sit-down-restaurant owners are nervous that inviting in people who are homeless might alienate other customers, so Borger said he is temporarily prioritizing carryout businesses where management is likely to be less apprehensive.
Elizabeth Bowen, a professor at the University of Buffalo who studies homelessness, said people who are concerned about serving or eating meals near people who are visibly homeless should consider whether it’s truly problematic or whether they just prefer not to dwell on how many people experience poverty. Bowen said she thinks Breadcoin is a promising program, in part because it gives people the option of several vendors and because many people who are food-insecure have specific dietary needs.
During the commute to her job near Union Station, Melanie Weldon-Soiset frequently gives Breadcoins to people who ask her for money. She started buying the coins about two years ago, when she attended church with the co-founders.
Each coin comes with a list of vendors that accept it. Some people are grateful, some are confused, and still others have rejected the coins, Weldon-Soiset said. She said carrying a few Breadcoins in her purse has taught her to feel more compassionate toward other people’s suffering.
“Breadcoin’s a small way for me to look up and realize there’s others that have needs and to be able to care about them,” she said.
Borger hopes to eventually expand Breadcoin to other cities and rural areas and to get the coins into schools to reach children. Mostly, he said, he hopes the coins will empower people to acknowledge others who are in need, instead of averting their eyes.
“It’s a different perspective, and that’s just by having the coins in your pocket,” Borger said. “… It changes your heart.”