Community Fridges: The Little Free Library of the Food World

Making the refrigerator a public space helps people confront the reality of how much of what we eat is thrown away.

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Jul 3, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Let’s make a wager. I’ll bet that deep inside your fridge right now, hidden in the far left corner or wedged between long-forgotten condiments, is an item (or three) you were once excited to buy: farmstand raspberry jam, organic hazelnut milk, miso soup. Not only have you forgotten about it but it’s probably not quite as appetizing as it may have once been. And I speak from my own recent fridge cleanout—nothing, not even preserved lemons, lasts forever.

If you’re one person, or a family, living with one fridge, those lonely items are likely destined for the trash, contributing to the 40 percent of food that ends up being wasted every year. But just as many hands make light work, the proponents of community-based food sharing programs think more eyes in the fridge will equal less waste. Operating under the “take a penny, leave a penny” philosophy, people are installing community refrigerators in countries around the world, bringing the sharing economy ethos to bear on the issue.

In the United States and abroad, food waste has become a sort of culinary darling du jour, with top chefs like Dan Barber hosting dinners utilizing ingredients that would otherwise be tossed. With community fridges, however, the effect is a bit more direct, as Ernest Bertone has shown.

Last fall, Bertone and fellow University of California, Davis, agricultural and resource economics grad students Eric Yen and Ali Hill parked a glass-front refrigerator purchased from Safeway for $200 on Bertone’s front lawn. A sign hung on the door read: “Take what you need. Leave what you don’t.” Each time an item was left in the fridge, they posted it to the Facebook group FoodTrading. In about a month, 130 items, mostly nonperishables like coffee and chocolate, were exchanged before Yolo County health officials shut them down for illegal food distribution. According to Bertone, his property manager threatened to evict them if they did not remove the fridge. But rabble-rousers out to disrupt the way people think about food are a determined bunch.

(Photo: Free.go/Facebook)

“We put wheels on the fridge,” Bertone said, laughing. ”It’s like a game of cat and mouse.” The fridge is rotated among front lawn hosts like a traveling art exhibition. In an effort to work around the law, it is also now outfitted with a lock, which interested parties can gain access to by joining the food-sharing group. Bertone is trying to comply with the law but would prefer that the refrigerator be open to everyone. “We’ll try to get the law changed, but it takes time. If this temporary solution works, it could be a model for other states as well,” he said.

So, Why Should You Care? Across the food chain, $165 billion of food goes uneaten in the United States every year. Worldwide, about one-third of all food produced, worth around $1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems, a recent report by UNEP and the World Resources Institute found.

The kind of red tape Bertone and his friends ran into in California isn’t quite so sticky in other countries, where community fridges have been parked in town centers with less bureaucratic brouhaha. The best-known food sharing sites are in Germany, where they form the offline extension of the website, which filmmaker Valentin Thurn created following the release of his 2010 documentary, Taste the Waste.

The newest fridges are in Spain, where for the past two months residents in the small city of Galdakao have made use of the “solidarity fridge” that’s parked on city pavement and enclosed by a small wooden fence. The rules are strict: no raw fish, meat or eggs; packaged or canned goods cannot be past their use-by date; anything prepared at home must include a label detailing when it was made. Organizer Álvaro Saiz estimated that 440 to 660 pounds of food bound for the trash have already been intercepted. Four hundred miles away in the south of Spain, the city of Murcia followed suit. Bertone said people have told him of similar community fridge initiatives in Belgium, England, France, and Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday, Bertone installed his second public fridge, at a cultural center in Cali, Colombia, as part of a a two-week summit on waste issues. There, the public concerns were not about food safety. “In Colombia, the problem is that people will steal the fridge,” he said. While he was in Colombia, a professor talked to Bertone about putting a food swap refrigerator at the university, and the summit’s organizer was interested in putting another one in Bogotá.

While Bertone expressed interest in partnering with a church in Colombia, he is clear that the point of a food-sharing fridge is not to function as an emergency resource for those who cannot afford to buy food—a view echoed by organizers in other countries. Instead of a food bank, think instead of the office free table or the Little Free Library.

“This isn’t charity,” Saiz told The Guardian of the solidarity fridge. “It’s about making use of food that would otherwise end up in the bin. It doesn’t matter who takes it—Julio Iglesias could stop by and take the food—at the end of the day it’s about recovering the value of food products and fighting against waste.”

But Bertone doesn’t think community fridges alone can solve our global food waste problems. They serve a practical and very small-scale purpose, but they are also a provocation intended to encourage passersby to rethink the way they consume and dispose of resources. He’s working on other, more scalable solutions too. As part of his graduate studies, Bertone is developing an app that will interact with grocery loyalty cards to remind shoppers of the life span of the food already in their fridge, and he has partnered with a grocery store in Davis to run a beta test this summer.

“I don’t think the fridge itself or the app itself will solve the problems, but if people stop to think about their food—mind their food—that’s the solution,” he said. “You need some shocking ideas so people wake up and say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s this problem happening.’ ”