This is part of an ongoing HuffPost Canada series on food insecurity and how it’s affecting Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this edition, we talk to the everyday people running community fridges in their cities and find out what it takes for an everyday Canadian to run one in their area.
“Is your refrigerator running?” sounds like the start of a dad joke, but during a pandemic it’s taken quite literally by hundreds who depend on community fridges; usually outdoors, these fridges are stocked with donated food available to hungry locals for free, no questions asked.
With food insecurity soaring through the COVID-19 pandemic, community fridges have popped up across the U.S. and Canada, in the most ordinary of public places. In northern Calgary, there’s a fridge tucked between a computer store and a thrift shop. Regina’s fridge is humming in front of a family pharmacy. And on Prince Edward Island, a public library doubles as the home for a small, but mighty fridge.
While each fridge is unique, they all speak to the spirit of mutual aid that many Canadians, especially those with children, have turned to for help as corporatized government measures have fallen short.
Since CERB ended, more people have found themselves pulling these fridge doors open: an estimated 80 to 100 people are daily users of Calgary Community Fridge, emptying it at least five times a day, co-founder Alice Lam, 32, told HuffPost Canada.
Keeping these fridges running to meet demand, especially during the holidays, is a major effort undertaken by volunteers. The holidays were an especially busy time in Calgary, as donations rose and more people used the fridge.
“Canadian winter was my biggest roadblock,” Danielle Froh, the founder of Regina’s fridge project, told HuffPost Canada.
More often than not, just one person is all it takes for a network of like-minded people to do what needs done to make sure their neighbours don’t go hungry.
Curious about starting up a community fridge in your area? HuffPost Canada spoke to three Canadians running community fridges to find out what you should consider:
Know the basics
Besides a working fridge built for outdoor conditions, at minimum people should expect to also have to source a safe location that can reliably provide power, resources like a power sources and others in this Lifehacker checklist, and acceptable food donations.
While the community fridge concept has roots in curbing food waste, it can feel demeaning to accept a neighbour’s half-eaten leftovers from last week.
“It’s all about dignity and making sure that whatever we provide to the individual is something good enough for ourselves,” Lam said. Rotting, unlabelled, and culturally inappropriate foods may not be appreciated and could potentially deter visitors.
Lam noted that hearty meals from a local Sikh cultural centre are always appreciated by locals who use the Calgary fridge.
Watch: How Los Angeles’ Sikh community is feeding people through the pandemic. Story continues below.
“Talking with people at the fridge, they ask, ‘It would be great if you had lentils instead of macaroni’ or ‘Can you carry basmati rice?’” said Lam, to give a few examples. “That’s great, we want to make it as inclusive and dignified as possible.”
Food-insecurity stigma may also keep visitors at bay. It may be worth doing an “environmental scan” of what people’s needs are and what you’ll need to prepare for — environmental scans in this context will mean compiling information about what food insecurity looks like in your neighbourhood and how it is (or isn’t) being addressed. That could look like collecting media coverage of prior hunger relief projects, finding out what demographics are most likely to be food insecure, and potentially contacting social service organizations to find out what kinds of food people are most in need of.
Read local laws
It isn’t illegal to disperse free food to others in Canada, as an individual or through an informal arrangement. Small grassroots groups are also exempt from the strict donation laws that charities must respect or the red tape recipients must go throughto qualify for aid.
Having a fridge located on private property, which you have permission to use, should curtail most zoning issues, although it may be worth reading up on bylaws ― an archaic rule about abandoned appliances was used to temporarily shut down a community fridge in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood last year, a decision which was widely condemned by Torontonians and forced Community Fridges Toronto to relocate.
In some places strict health protocol may mean only produce can be given out. A legal guide for fridges in B.C. notes that a permit is needed if “potentially hazardous foods,” meaning meat or cooked meals, are handed out.
Other places may accept meals, but only if the containers are clearly labelled with ingredients and dates. The hours of operation may differ, as some places would benefit from 24/7 access while others won’t. Regardless of location, COVID-19 cleaning protocols and general health and safety measures should be taken into account, should the understanding that solidarity, not charity, is the bedrock for any mutual aid.
“In efforts of solidarity, unlike in charity, the saviour complex is eliminated,” explains The Interlude writer Carmen Russo. “There is no one in charge and no policing of how people choose to engage. Everyone can give and everyone can take.”
Anyone can run a community fridge
Organizers come from all backgrounds and, in Froh’s case, are already leading full lives. She runs the Regina fridge with Brianna Kroener, while juggling Emergency Room shifts as a registered nurse and parenting. Others are already in the food industry or engaged with other hunger relief projects.
Almost every Canadian community fridge project’s origin story begins the same way: Someone sees a successful community fridge somewhere else and decides to give it a go locally. As Hamilton Community Fridge coordinator Jacqueline Cantar told HuffPost Canada, their initiative was inspired by how successful fridges in Toronto became over the summer. Once the new Hamilton group created social media accounts, it didn’t take long for offers to roll in from people eager to volunteer or lend their properties to host a fridge.
“As a community, people are willing to help. It’s just a matter of knowing how to get together and really make the plans come together,” they said.
The timeline for getting a fridge ready-to-use can take under a month, as it did for the team behind Calgary’s community fridge.
“In three weeks, we were able to … fundraise $15,000, secure a fridge and a location, create manuals, signage, and [coordinate volunteers]. It sounds like a lot, but there was a system in place to help,” Lam said.
Use social media to crowdsource info and funds
Social media is essential in the development stages, as it can connect organizers with existing fridge initiatives willing to share what they’ve learned. Regina, for example, was able to adapt how Calgary “winterized” their fridge because of how similar the western Canadian cities’ climates are. Calgary, in turn, learned from teams in Toronto and New York, who answered their many questions.
The free fridge, or “freedge” movement encourages this decentralized approach by sharing open-source guides.
Posts can also help people get familiar with the fridge before they first visit, as Community Fridge KW in Kitchener, Ont. showed in a playful video.
Platforms such as Instagram can also boost crowdfunding efforts, raise awareness, and even get volunteers involved. Kroener became the Regina fridge’s co-runner after seeing Froh’s social media posts.
Brace for Canadian winter, with friendly helpers
Making winter-proof sheds for fridges to stay in will be important for projects that plan to run throughout the cold months. While fridges are meant to keep contents cool, they are not meant to operate in -40 celsius, which is how low temperatures can get in some parts of Canada.
Insulation and a safe heating source should be considered before building.
As with any group project, it may also be best to leave specialized work to those with experience. Froh said that local companies, like Leenan Construction, donated their time and materials to winterize Regina’s fridge.
“Watching these people work in the cold to build this structure for the community was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt,” Froh said. “It really just showed the impact that mutual aid can have on the community.”
Keep everyone organized
It can be hard to keep track of what everyone’s duties are, the logistics of operating a fridge, and donations, while also making sure service users are happy. Designating an organizing committee or point-persons can be helpful for different aspects like fundraising, social media, or fridge maintenance.
Easy-to-understand signage can also help neighbours use the fridge as efficiently as possible and with minimal misunderstanding.
Acknowledge the big picture problem: systemic inequality
Mutual-aid projects, while commendable, address social service gaps, but don’t solve the bigger issue at hand, say researchers and advocates: Food security is tied to affordability, which plummets when people don’t have income support.
Redistributing food can help hunger in the short-term, but redistributing wealth through measures like a basic income program are long-term goals that would address the root cause of hunger, according to Lam.
“People who come to the fridge are like you and me,” she said, while delivering 40 meals and bags for bread to Calgary’s fridge, for its latest holiday stock. “They’re people who had gainful employment, then the pandemic hit. They’re making less than $1,200 a month and need to pay rent. Guess what they’re going to choose?
All of the [Calgary] coordinators, we’re lucky to be gainfully employed, so this was a way for us to give back. But something’s got to change.”
Notable community fridge projects
Vancouver: Convivial Cafe and Bakery is piloting an in-store fridge. As well, The Vancouver Community Fridge Project announced on Instagram plans to open their first fridge, with support from the Chinatown Seniors Food Program.
Toronto: Community Fridges Toronto currently hosts five fridges across the city. In the Greater Toronto Region, Road to Zero Waste’s community fridges in Rexdale, Scarborough, and Milton are open to the public. Founder Laylo Atakhodjaeva told HuffPost Canada that the organization’s fridges in Guelph and Brampton are unavailable at the moment, as they’re located in buildings that have shut down due to the pandemic. They’re expected to be fully operational once those buildings reopen.
Quebec: In Montreal’s borough of Anjou, the Facebook group “Le Frigo des Buissons d’Anjou” provides updates for their anti-hunger efforts. Fatimah’s Community Fridge, a Montreal-based project by Muslim organization Peace Initiative Canada, has offered home-cooked meals since 2017. Its founder, Aameen, who goes by his first name, told HuffPost Canada that the project went on hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, with plans to potentially resume operations this year.
Atlantic Canada: Community freezers are running in Nunatsiavut communities, like Posteville, which regularly makes Facebook updates for locals about what’s in stock. NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) has freezers in select areas, available to members who “are not able to take advantage of our communal fishery program, which includes seniors and those with disabilities.”
In Prince Edward Island, the Montague Rotary Library hosts a community fridge that can be used during library hours. According to staff member Krystal Dionne, it offers fruit and snacks like granola bars.
Also on HuffPost: