One Man’s Trash: The Rise of Community Fridges

| Maria Passingham

I’m making meringues. I’m writing at my kitchen table while a gentle sugary smell wafts from the corner, a smell that’s going to keep coming for the next six or so hours. Why am I making meringues, and more importantly why am I telling you? Well, firstly because I had 5 left-over egg whites, and I didn’t want to throw them away. Secondly, because we need to talk about food waste.

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) approximately 7.1 million tonnes of food are thrown away by UK households every year, that equates to about £810 worth for the average family. Another 1.9 million tonnes are wasted by the food industry (including farmers, processors, retailers, and restaurants). Meanwhile 8.4 million people in the UK are struggling to afford to eat (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). Is there not a way to redirect some of this “waste” to those in need I hear you ask?

Indeed there is. Actually there are multiple ways. From apps that redistribute end-of-day food from stores and restaurants, to community projects that turn food destined for the bin into nutritious and delicious meals to feed their neighbourhood, to community fridges.

In 2016 ‘The People’s Fridge’ was the first of its kind in London. Popping up in Brixton, the fridge – affectionately known as Freddie – was launched as a community resource after a crowdfunding campaign raised over £2k, and aimed to play a part in fixing the “problem of organisations not connecting” (Ben Longman, Co-Founder).

Run entirely by volunteers, the fridge takes donations from supermarkets, individuals, and some local businesses and restaurants, and is an open resource for anyone to come and grab a loaf of bread, a punnet of ripe strawberries, or a couple of Pret pastries. The fridge isn’t manned, and while that can occasionally make it a target for a selfish mass-haul, it mostly means that anyone can access it without any ‘proof’ that they need low-cost food, eliminating the stigma that surrounds food-banks. 

When asked recently about what the volunteer team have learned since Freddie was installed, Longman stressed the importance of working co-operatively, and creating a good culture within an organisation, adding that the fridge is “powered by the energy of the people”. The team have built relationships with local businesses and corporate partners, and have shared knowledge with other groups wanting to start their own community fridge. 

While The People’s Fridge wasn’t the first in the UK, Longman believes it has “acted as the cheerleader”, which is part is due to the praise and coverage it received from Jamie Oliver. 

Nearly three years after Freddie was installed, more than 70 community fridges operate across the UK, with 100 more planned by 2020 by environmental charity Hubbub. According to members of their Community Fridge Network, an average of 584kg of food is distributed per month per fridge, allowing families to eat more affordably and saving that food from landfill at the same time. 

Tragically, part of the reason that community fridges have become a familiar sight is the undeniable rise of food-poverty in the UK. The Trussell Trust shared recently that across summer 2017 and summer 2018, they saw a 20% increase in emergency food parcels for children. By taking surplus food and making it accessible to anyone community fridges are playing their part in alleviating pressure of food-poverty. 

However, Longman argues that these fridges do more for their areas than simply re-distribute food. He says that Brixton’s The People’s Fridge has proved its real value in education. Firstly, there’s the fact that it encourages conversations and learning about our food surplus and waste problems. He mentions that now people walk past and point out the fridge to their friends, where three years ago they would have been baffled by it. 

Secondly, the methods of collaboration with local and large businesses, as well as food safety, permits, and other paperwork has been a learning curve for all parties involved. Finally, many of those (up to 55% according to Hubbub) who use community fridges learn about and engage with other local initiatives, from sharing household items to cooking workshops.

While the economic reasons behind community fridges are sad and frustrating, the rise of their popularity is only encouraging. As more continue to pop up across the UK, the job of persuading people of their value becomes easier, and their positive impact in each community grows. 

So if like me, you can’t bear to throw good food away, please look to see if there’s a community fridge near you. Or you know, iflife gives you egg whites, make meringues. 

If you’d like to find out more you can search for your nearest community fridge here.

Photo by Sebastian Wood

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