Community fridges are popping up all over Toronto

Businesses are setting up repositories of free food around the city in an effort to combat food insecurity


Samuel Engelking

Rebecca Bidner-Goldstone (left) and Jalil Bokhari stock up a community fridge in Toronto.

It’s an elegantly simple solution to community hunger: Put a fridge on the street and fill it with food that’s free for anyone who needs it.

Of course, it’s not quite so simple. You need power, of course – and a property owner or landlord who’s cool with hosting the fridge; and people to make sure the food in the fridge is safe to eat. And since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, you need to sanitize that fridge frequently.

But Jalil Bokhari has found that help has been pretty easy to come by.

Bokhari, along with Ten chef Julian Bentivegna, is the creator of Community Fridges, a Toronto-based initiative that sets up repositories of free food around the city in an effort to combat food insecurity.

Community fridges exist in countries worldwide (there’s even a website, freedge.org, dedicated to mapping them). Bokhari knew of several in Brooklyn; his friend Zenat Begum had set up a network there.

Bentivegna mentioned that he had a spare mini-fridge in the basement – and soon, it was stocked with surplus produce outside Ten (1132 College). In the month that followed, other small businesses volunteered to set up their own fridges, and more and more volunteers got on board.

Now, Bokhari says, the group is a growing syndicate of volunteers, and he’s mapping out more robust plans for its future. “Are we working with food banks or farmers markets? How do we garner a consistent support network?” he says.

He adds that the growth is welcome – partially because it means more neighbourhoods can be served, and partially because it allows him to de-centralize ownership of the project off  himself and onto the community.

“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.”

Businesses buy in

Sierra Leedham and Dara Moshonas of Parkdale shop Black Diamond Vintage – the second business to get on board – say adding a fridge out front seemed like a simple way to give back to their area.

“We talk a lot about what we can do to be an addition to the community, not just moving in and being a drain,” says Leedham.

Moshonas adds that the store has a monthly fundraiser and maintains a budget to give back to individuals and organizations. “I think that’s a really important part of being a business in a community – giving [back] money that people spend in your community so that it can continue to thrive. It’s a nice, big circle.”

The next fridge to join the family – outside Paintbox Bistro in Regent Park – has begun redistributing food items from the social enterprise’s newly minted grocery program, rolled out during the pandemic to help improve food access in the area.

Part of the learning curve in pivoting to a grocery model, says Paintbox Catering and Bistro director of impact and operations Allison Gibson, was discovering how much food waste grocery stores actually produce.

“It was like – this was all going to waste? We can’t throw this away when people are starving,” Gibson says.

Now Paintbox’s fridge is up and running, stocked with produce, dairy and bread items from their grocery roster, as well as community donations. (Someone even put in a box of Freezies.) 

Dry goods like diapers, masks and shelf-stable items are next, with Black Diamond and Paintbox both looking to expand with a dry goods drop box or cabinet.

Another fridge has just been added outside The Iceman (782 Adelaide West) – a distributor of packaged ice that also regularly drops off ice to homeless encampments around the city.

The community fridges are largely stocked, cleaned and sanitized (multiple times per day) by a growing network of volunteers; Bokhari is quick to credit them with the program’s overall success so far. 

But host businesses do provide a role in keeping an eye on things, making sure people stopping by the fridge are aware of best practices and occasionally spotting items that might be close to going off.

But that’s not as big of a concern as you might think. Program volunteers say they’re astonished by the rate at which food vanishes from the fridge. 

“I was worried – ‘Is this one 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 danger zone,” Bentivegna says.

The vast majority of it goes overnight – which, the fridge hosts are quick to point out, underscores the stigma still carried by food insecurity. With job losses broadened by the pandemic, the problem has become even more widespread.

At one point, Bokhari 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, they were all gone. 

“It‘s very apparent that this needs to exist – and it’s working, essentially. It’s being used,” he says. “It’s getting emptied, to get filled up the next day, to get emptied out again.”

Samuel Engelking

Allison Gibson set-up a community fridge at Paintbox Catering and Bistro.

Opening doors

Community Fridges isn’t the first to bring the concept to Toronto. In 2018, a then-newly established charity called Road To Zero Waste set up a fridge at an Ali Baba’s location in Parkdale.

Today, Road To Zero Waste operates a dozen fridges across the GTA and beyond, including one at Bloor and Runnymede, stocked largely with donations of diverted food from large brands like Longo’s and charities like Second Harvest.

Founder Laylo Atakhodjaeva says the original Parkdale fridge is no longer there – it was taken away when the host business changed hands a few months ago – but there are plans to bring two more to the neighbourhood soon.

Atakhodjaeva adds that she’s been in touch with Bokhari to trade ideas on things like operation strategies and weatherproofing. 

There are a few differences between the two groups. Community Fridges takes more of a mutual-aid approach to food redistribution, based on accepting donations from the community (along with some donations from companies). Road To Zero Waste makes collecting donations of surplus food from large organizations (which would otherwise become food waste) a bigger part of their mandate.

“We’ve been able to feed thousands of families through our community fridges – and at the same time, we’re so excited that we can save thousands of tons of food, and that it went into people’s bellies instead of landfills,” she says.

While Road To Zero Waste, a registered not-for-profit, accepts monetary donations to fuel its operations, Community Fridges is currently leaning toward more direct forms of aid. They may accept small amounts to cover things like fridge repairs, Bokhari 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,” Bokhari says – which is an issue faced by some fledgling activist groups this past spring in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

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.”

That concept of mutual community aid is one of the most radical things about the community fridge project – but it’s also, Bokhari says, “been really empowering”.

“A lot of people are, sadly to say, losing faith in their government,” he says. “With all these calls for defunding police and refunding social programs and not having our voices really heard, I think people are ready to help people in ways that they can.”

@nataliamanzocco

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