Bread­coin is a new cur­rency in Wash­ing­ton for peo­ple in need

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Marisa Iati

WASH­ING­TON» Jef­frey Carter, who is home­less, clutched 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 — are “Bread­coins,” a new form of cur­rency in the Dis­trict of Columbia in­tended for peo­ple in need.

In­spired by the re­cent pop­u­lar­ity of cryp­tocur­ren­cies, such as bit­coin, Bread­coins have cir­cu­lated in the Dis­trict since 2016, but they are still rel­a­tively un­known. They are an­other 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 last week as he waited for his food. “It’s a new way to give.”

Carter re­ceived 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 in the Noma neigh­bor­hood.

A ma­jor way Bread­coins are dis­trib­uted is through Cen­tral Union Mis­sion, which dis­trib­utes the coins to res­i­dents who take their work­force de­vel­op­ment classes. Bread­coin’s co-founder, Scott Borger, also of­ten dis­trib­utes the coins to peo­ple when he vol­un­teers at the shel­ter each week.

The coins are the prod­uct of his en­tre­pre­neur­ial ven­ture that en­cour­ages peo­ple to buy coins for $2.50 each and dis­trib­ute them to peo­ple who are hun­gry or to par­tic­i­pat­ing non­prof­its. 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 ei­ther 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 pointin-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.

But 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 $600 monthly 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 staff mem­bers are all vol­un­teers, which Borger said keeps over­head costs low.

Tony Cas­son, the man­ager of Mis­sion Muffins, said few of his cus­tomers use the coins, and get­ting them in peo­ple’s hands has been a chal­lenge. For the peo­ple who do use them, it’s 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 of Wash­ing­ton — the Port­land Soup Co. in Port­land, Ore. — to ac­cept 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.

Evelyn Hock­stein, The Wash­ing­ton Post

Quentin Wil­son, 56, uses a Bread­coin to buy break­fast from Naomi Banks, who works at the Mis­sion Muffins food truck in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Each coin is worth $2.20 and in­scribed with part of the Lord’s Prayer.

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