Breadcoin is a new currency in Washington for people in need
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.
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.