Communities stock street fridges to share food with hungry neighbours

Allison Gibson set-up a community fridge in Toronto

THE FRIDGE ON THE STREET CORNER IS FULL OF FOOD. Thadeaus Umpster makes sure of that. It was his idea to put it there. Right out on the street where hungry people can help themselves.

The streetcorner fridge is part of a community-led solution to hunger that has been popping up all across the world ( since the mutual-aid-oriented anarchist collective In Our Hearts NYC (IOH), joined with residents last February to set up New York City’s first community fridge in Brooklyn.

“Our goals in doing this are to make sure that people have enough to eat, and also to address food waste,” says Thadeaus. “Another thing that we’re very focused on with this project is helping to build stronger, more resilient, self-sustaining, autonomous communities.”

To set up a community fridge, organizers find a willing business or residence that will let them plug in a fridge in an accessible outdoor location. The fridges are stocked by donations from community members with extra food to spare, or local bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, food pantries and sometimes farms looking to offload extra food.

Inside a community free-food fridge, on any given day people will find fresh veggies, dairy products and other basic perishables meant to feed community members struggling with food access. Stacks of non-perishable items are often also found in baskets or crates surrounding the fridges, free for the taking.

Community fridges in Toronto

Toronto activists have set up community fridges downtown on east College Street, in the central low-income community of Regent Park, in the west end inner city Parkdale neighbourhood and outside The Iceman, a distributor of packaged ice at at 782 Adelaide West, that also regularly drops off ice to homeless encampments around the city.

Jalil Bokhari, along with Julian Bentivegna, a chef at the restaurant Ten set up a Community Fridge in front of Ten last August. It was pretty much a no brainer says Bokhari.

Julian told Jalil  he had a spare mini-fridge in the basement—and soon, it was stocked with surplus produce outside Ten  at 1132 College Street. In the month that followed, other small businesses volunteered to set up their own fridges, and more and more volunteers got on board.

“I truly believe this needs to be a mutual aid project, a community-driven project. It lets people be involved a bit more and makes sure that the mutual aid aspect is ringing through.”

Volunteers say they’re astonished by the rate at which food vanishes from the fridge.

“I was worried,” says Julian,” ‘Is this thing with kale going to be in the fridge for two days?’ But anything that gets put into that fridge is gone within three hours, so you don’t have to worry about the food going bad.".

The vast majority of the food goes overnight. At one point, Jalili says, they received a donation of 30 or so meals. “I was like, ‘This is way too much. We’re not gonna have donations for days ‘cause the fridge is gonna be full,” he says.

The next morning, the meals were all gone.

Mutual aid worth preserving

Community Fridges in Toronto favours more direct forms of aid, as opposed to becoming a registered charity seeking and accepting donations of money. They may accept small amounts to cover things like fridge repairs, Jalili says, but the goal is for the community to help in other ways.

“We don’t want to allow the floodgates of money coming in, and then we’re stuck with $50,000 and no idea of what to do with it,” Jalil says.

Opening the door further to giving money, he adds, might route people away from giving time or food directly to the cause.

“It removes that aspect of mutual aid, and we’re turning into a charity. We want to make sure the involvement from the communities is really part of it,” he said.

“I wanted people to be able to volunteer their time, or their bodies, or the ability to do something—whether it’s graphic design, or you can drive and help us transport things, or you have a fridge lying around, or you have time in the mornings to help clean.”

The concept of mutual community aid is one of the most radical things about the community fridge project Jalil says: “It’s been really empowering”.

“It shows how relying on ourselves can always be an option that works.”

More than 54 million people will potentially experience food insecurity in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

Community Fridges Toronto

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