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Community Fridges Podcast Transcript

Learn about how community food fridges help get healthy food to community members who need it in a collaborative way from Alice Lam, Rebecca Dorris and Sandra Sunil.

 

 

Avery Parkinson

Welcome to in the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food sustainability and urban agriculture, indoor growing food insecurity, resource consumption, and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.

Over recent years, a number of community fridges have popped up in cities across Canada. These are places where people can come to access ingredients and meals, regardless of whether they're experiencing longer term food insecurity or just need assistance getting through a given week. We spoke with Alice Lam, one of the co-founders of the Calgary Community Fridge. 

Alice Lam

My name is Alice Lam. I'm one of the co-founders of the Calgary Community Fridge and Outdoor Fridge/Freezer and pantry located in the inner city neighborhood of Crescent Heights in Calgary, Alberta. The fridge was opened in 2020 in August as a response to the pandemic and the lack of affordable food options. And we have now been around for almost a year and three months, and it's been going well. 

Avery Parkinson

So how do community fridges, and your community fridge in particular, work on a day to day basis? 

Alice Lam

Yeah. The fridge is based on a concept of mutual aid, and so there's no, like, hierarchical organization or charity that is responsible for filling the fridge. We do have volunteers who clean the fridge throughout the day. But ultimately, it's up to any Calgary business organization that wants to make a donation of excess food that they may have. And people from around the city who require extra food will come and get it. Ideally, our fridge would only be serving our immediate geographical area, like the neighborhood that we're in. But because of a lack of community fridges in Calgary, we see probably over 100 people a day coming from all quadrants of the city to get some fresh food. Granted, due to the precariousness of supply, there are times when people come to the fridge and there's no food. 

Avery Parkinson

So how do you hope that your initiative in your specific area of your city will grow to other parts of your city or even up to other cities in Canada? 

Alice Lam

Absolutely. And that's one of the core tenets of this kind of organizing group is that we have day jobs, we have families, we can't be responsible for every single fridge in the city. And nor do we want to be the gatekeepers of fridges in the city. And so what we've created is a startup guide on how you can start your own fridge in your communities. And in the past year, we've helped fridges start up in Regina, Vancouver, Victoria, and Edmonton, which has been really cool. And then we have about three more fridges starting up in our city. 

Avery Parkinson

So, of course, community fridges are just one part of building a more resilient food system. What other things are part of building a better food system in general, but also perhaps just in Calgary where you live?

Alice Lam

What we're doing is we're advocates right for social change. Although what we're doing is very admirable and people really like it, it gives people an immediate way to give back. Like what we're really doing is shining a light on the inequity in our food systems and the gaps that still need to be filled by policy with things such as either universal basic income or increasing income of seniors and disabled community members, increasing stock of affordable housing, and also preventing food producers and grocery stores from throwing out good food that could be redirected to people who need it regardless of ability to pay. I know that we are a more upfront and personal look at food scarcity. A lot of people can live their lives never having to encounter anybody who uses the food bank if they don't want to. But being nestled in the community of Crescent Heights, which is 50% very high income, 50% very low income, we've really brought the issue to the forefront of people's minds. And really the pandemic has kind of similar to many other things, heightened the inequity in our system. It's given us a chance to really have these conversations with people who have never thought that they would have to rely on us or anything like that. And being in that situation, like they now understand just how precarious our society is and how we are each closer to falling into poverty and needing help than we are to becoming like the next billionaire of Canada. Right. So it's really been a great way for us to highlight these social issues and to start conversations about policy reform and about advocating for folks who are more vulnerable and more marginalized than us when we are voting in political elections, when we are whole. Right. If people can afford to buy food, they don't want to go to a fridge, they don't want to use a food bank. And you can do that by having things like universal pharmacy, decreasing costs of medication for seniors and folks on disability. Poverty is something that is sector wide, but you can tackle it one segment of the population at a time. And so things like, we get a lot of seniors coming to our fridge who are living on old age security and maybe a little bit of pension. And it kind of tops out at about $1200 to $1,300 a month. With housing prices exceeding $900 a month in rent, it doesn't leave them much left over if they have to pay for both food, medication and housing. It also doesn't leave them anything else for just to live a nice life. Life is more than just food, housing and clothing. Right. It's about having money to participate in recreation activities, culture activities, the arts, to travel, to take transit. Right. Our current model kind of just makes it seem like, well, you have a roof over your head and you have some food, not necessarily high quality food. You should be grateful. And that's all that there is. And that's your life. You're destined for the rest of the next 30 years of your life to be pulled up in your apartment, essentially. And so that doesn't build a very productive or equitable city either. And so definitely changing in terms of income for whatever segment of population you want to tackle. Right. And then having policies and some sort of price incentive for food producers and grocery stores to have something to influence them, to not just throw out good food and to instead redirect it. 

Avery Parkinson

In addition to helping other people in Calgary access food, what are some of the other community benefits that you've seen come out of your fridge? 

Alice Lam

Oh, for sure. I think that with our fridge you have people that have never volunteered or even worked alongside or live near people that are in a different income bracket than themselves or in a different education bracket, which is something that seems so strange being that Canada likes to tout itself as being multicultural and equitable and inclusive. But it is just based on how our cities are zoned, how our cities are planned, you can definitely live every day without meeting somebody outside of your postal code if you wanted or your income level. And so it's really helped people learn more about the folks that live in their communities that are not as privileged as they are. And there have been friendships that have been made, but there's also been conflicts that have been made. With every good, there's always going to be some challenges and barriers. And sometimes people meet and they are very happy to see each other. And sometimes people meet and they have a disdain for each other. And it just really, again is brought back to just the struggles and how stretched people are in today's economy. And it can result in a lot of conflict. And so as much as it is, we've built this community. We have like 10,000 followers. We've raised a lot of money. It's almost like you can't like we're racing against time. And we are trying actively to solve this problem while both trying to be balanced like being optimistic and grateful for the support that we get. But also trying to be like this isn't enough. And it does take a policy level approach to really solve this problem. And it's both right. It's not one or the other, but it's both. It takes community activism. It takes buy-in at the mainstream level, but also at the policy level. And so it has been a great community builder we have through this community fridge project, we've been able to open our first pay what you want thrift store that is like a brick and mortar store. It's all completely run by volunteers. And not only are we providing folks with food, but also with clothing and things like books and plants and stuff and things that historically would cost people who are low income money that they wouldn't be able to afford. Right. 

Avery Parkinson 

So what do you think is the future of the Calgary Community Fridge and the other things you want to be working on? 

Alice Lam

We always have new ideas that are informed by our community members. That's how the pay what you can clothing store started. We were providing food, but there was also a huge need for clothing. And of course, there was a lot in our very consumerist type of society, there's a lot of clothing that just goes to the landfill as well. And so that's kind of how we came up with our pay what you can throw store idea as a way to raise money to buy food for the fridge. What we've seen through that and what we've heard from our community members is that there aren't affordable or free gathering places in Calgary. It's like a huge winter city. We don't have these seasons like you guys have in Toronto. It's just like two months of summer and the rest is basically winter. And so in the inner city where we have a lot of housing projects, a lot of the seniors just don't have a place to hang out. So now they come to our store, they come and like, you know, they check things out and they might grab a few things, but mostly it's just a chat with a volunteer. And so we're trying to really work on creating a community hub where we can have seniors or whatever, whoever it is, come and take part in arts activities, culture activities, financial literacy courses, maybe English courses, fitness courses, whatever it is. That's kind of like the next gap that we feel like in Calgary, one of the two recreational centers downtown closed down. And a lot of the time, just because you have a big recreational center doesn't mean that everybody has the privilege of attending regardless of price. Like, there's mobility issues, there is time that is open. And so we are kind of just wanting to insert ourselves into the community as this extra service or place for gathering that people can have. And that will likely be our next project. 

Avery Parkinson

That was Alice Lam. For more information about the Calgary Community Fridge in their work, visit @calgarycommunityfridge on Instagram.

We also spoke with Rebecca Doris, who works with the Parkdale Community Center to operate an Ottawa based community food fridge. 

Rebecca Dorris

My name is Rebecca Dorris at the Parkdale Food Center in Ottawa. I have a really long name. It's the Neighbor Experience and Opportunity Coordinator. So that was a position that was created out of Covid, recognizing that a lot of our neighbors - we call our clients neighbors because they are - have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and all of the restrictions. So they needed someone on the ground to be able to listen to the needs and react appropriately and respond appropriately. 

Avery Parkinson

What was your process of starting a community food fridge, like, so we were initially approached by the Hintonburg Community Association. So we're in a community in Ottawa called Hintonburg. They had a little bit of money and they wanted to actually start this community fridge, but started in tandem with an organization that they knew and that they trusted. So myself and a few other staff, as well as summer students, worked with them to get a refurbished old white household fridge in front of our building at the beginning of this summer in 2021. So throughout the entire summer, we had this tent that was like, we called it the wedding tent, but it's a big one that was set up over a parking lot area and the fridge was housed underneath that. So the purpose was that we make food a lot more accessible and barrier free because we do operate a food bank that we now call a grocery program. We operate a few cooking workshops, but food is not consistently available 24/7. And so that was the idea behind the fridge. We did a little bit of research. There are other places that have done it in Canada. So we had some consultations with folks in Calgary and also Toronto to see how they did theirs. And from that and the help of our students, we developed some signage to kind of help people understand what they could bring in what they couldn't, and as well as some of the rules and responsibilities of accessing the fridge. So the idea kind of came in tandem. Like we do. We always do things with community and with the community in mind. We set up a community fridge and then later we realized, oh, we need a pantry. Like, what about pasta and things like that. So we did a pantry next door and then we noticed there were a lot of families coming by. So one of the students set up a little, like, children's pantry with some toys and some books and things like that. So it kind of became bigger than what we anticipated, but very responsive to the community's needs. 

Avery Parkinson

How has the community fridge been part of building a community in Ottawa, especially given the ongoing covid 19 pandemic?

Rebecca Dorris

We're still in the COVID world. It's letting the community know that we're still there for them. Even though our services have changed, like many other community organizations, we used to be able to have people inside to actually have meals and coffee on a daily basis. Now we do that kind of outdoors or at a community center now, like just once a week. So it's hard to see people. And that social interaction is so important at a time when social isolation is almost more dangerous than the virus itself, to be honest. So I think it's just a visual reminder that we're still here for everybody and that everybody has a part of the community, too. So one may think that people just who have a lot will just give to the fridge and people that are living in poverty will take from the fridge. But it's not like that. A lot of folks, when they just look at their cupboards and they say, I have too much of this, I don't need it. They'll bring it to the fridge, even if maybe they're living in food insecurity. And also I've seen teachers come by and say, look, I'm sorry, I just need some tomatoes and it's fine. Absolutely. There's no boundaries on it. There's no policing in the fridge. We tell everybody not to say anything harmful to somebody else just because they may clear up the fridge. Nobody knows their situation. So I think it's just a more outward expression of how to tackle food security in a different way. 

Avery Parkinson

What advice do you have for other people in other cities who are looking at starting their own community food products? 

Rebecca Dorris

If you're interested in getting a fridge started in your community, start by looking at maybe the community health centers or the food centers in your neighborhood and maybe even the community associations like being very creative, reaching out to businesses and also just do some research before you get started. I think we dived into it before really understanding what we're undertaking. We hope to eventually create some sort of manual, but we've been really piggybacking on the folks in Calgary and in Toronto for their support. Don't do it alone. And think of all the aspects, too, because I think we were so happy and excited and we were stuck in summer. And then all of a sudden the weather started to turn and we were like, oh, my God.

Avery Parkinson

That was Rebecca Dorris. For more information about the Parkdale community food fridge, visit @parkdalefood on Instagram.

Now, of course, food fridges are not the only way people can access healthy meals when they need it. We spoke with Sandra Sunil, founder of 4Love4Care, about her extending the PEI Community Food Fridges into a catering organization. 

Sandra Sunil

My name is Sandra Sunil, and currently I'm doing a masters of public health at Memorial University. And my primary role with 4Love4Care is that I'm the founder of the nonprofit organization which began in December of 2018. 

Avery Parkinson

Can you talk a little bit about 4Love4Care and what you guys do on a day to day basis? 

Sandra Sunil

So this organization strives to support disadvantaged members in the community, especially PEI, by assisting in removing barriers with food, transportation and health. And this organization really began between my brother and my parents, and we were really trying to come up with a way in which we can give back to the community. And one of the things that we really focused on is how can we utilize the resources and skills that we currently have in doing that? And with my parents’ expertise in catering and food industry, we really tapped into that resource, and we thought, OK, why not we use that resource and do something with food and support the community. And one of the things that we've really noticed with being at the farmer’s market and connecting with our clients is that we've really heard some really challenging stories that families, especially single parent families, have gone through in accessing food. And that made us really form this organization to not only increase access to food, but also increase the sense of community and provide an opportunity, a tool for people to connect, network and build community and support each other. 

So 4Love4Care right now just consists of my parents, my brother and I, and we do have a lot of dedicated volunteers as well. And it's based on events at the beginning when we started in December 2018. So we started off with a year end celebration which consisted of like 200 attendees. And through that fundraiser, we were able to assist in a family of two grandparents raising their three grandchildren in getting an affordable vehicle. And we were also able to assist families in getting their groceries for the month. And that really escalated our formation of the monthly free meals on the island when we began it in June 2019. And these monthly meals are primarily where we really excelled as an organization by bringing volunteers, bringing community members, and creating that spot and opportunities where people can come together. We will have like a hall booked with tables and a buffet style food, which is all pre Covid, of course, and it looks very different how it's running now, but it was just nice to have, like, music and entertainment and some playing cards on the table, just really creating that sense of community. That was like a monthly initiative. And we knew that monthly meals are great in creating that social capital and increasing that sense of community. But it also is still an immediate relief measure. And it's not sustainable. And it doesn't address how we want our food system to be. And we want to do so much more in making sure that long term sustainable solutions are available and addressed. So that's what got us to forming and developing the PEI community fridges. And from that, it really built into this community run initiative where everyone is involved in its grassroots organizing. And so it's not just one person or one group or organization. We really wanted to provide that resource to start that up and really have the community runway. 

Avery Parkinson

How does the community aspect of what you do add to your organization and the impact that you're able to make? Having people be able to come to the table and address and state what they're going through, it's a difficult process. But if we do listen and if we act, then that is more empowering. And that really gets to the root, I think, of really working to make those changes and that's what's really important. And with the PEI community fridge, we've seen that happen a little bit so far, even though it's in its initial stages, like having this resource. We've had people write to us, put notes on the fridge saying that this resource is so great. I'm someone who's on disability, and it's really hard for me to cook and make meals and just having cooked meals in the fridges and something that I can use from day to day, it really helps them. And so that not only shows and raises awareness to the issue with access to food, but it also shows how much more work needs to be done for people with disabilities and increasing access and accessibility. 

Avery Parkinson

How does the work that you do help to build a more resilient food system? 

Sandra Sunil

We have to look at what's hindering accessibility, what's hindering the access and acceptable food for all. And one of the things that I keep coming back to is the issue about poverty and not having sufficient income to support ourselves. And that's still a main issue on Prince Edward Island as well. And we've seen a lot of low income households and individuals just struggling and deciding between paying rent or feeding their family. And that issue, it's interconnected. And we need to address and see what barriers and challenges are affecting a sustainable food system, because we know that it's not just about the food, it's about income, it's about health. It's about all various challenges that would affect having an accessible food system. And we would have to consider the social determinants of health. And although income is not like a primary factor, there's a lot of other factors like health and mental health. So it's just focusing and addressing the root causes. To me, that's important. And if we address the root causes, then it would be more proactive, and we can then have a sustainable food system in the future. What are the most significant challenges you faced when doing the work that you do? One of the biggest challenges that we've had is with funding and money, because starting this organization, it has been just me and my family, and it has been coming from our pockets. And that is really like limiting how much we can do with celebrating the year end celebration and like the monthly meals. We could only do it once a month because of financial restrictions. But we've really seen the community really step up. And there's so much support and love in just helping to do these things to bring the community together, increase a sense of community and really support each other in the process and having that sustainable and mutual aid as well, like throughout Prince Edward Island. So that has been really heartwarming to see, which has been really great. 

Avery Parkinson

How has Covid 19 affected the work that you're able to do? 

Sandra Sunil

It definitely has. Not only has it shown us how much of a challenge and barriers there are that families are facing. It also prevented us from doing like, the sit down monthly meal events so we weren't able to have like, the entertainment aspect or the buffet style aspect either. So we had to modify those events to do take out dinners which loses the aspect of increasing the social capital and connectedness. But we still wanted to provide that access to food that we did prior to Covid because we knew the need to exist and hopefully we'll be able to start that back up soon in person and have that continue. But we'll see how things go.

Avery Parkinson

What's next for 4Love4Care and the PEI community fridges or anything else that you're currently working on? 

Sandra Sunil

Yeah, there's nothing set in stone at the moment. We would love to expand our PEI community fridge and have more fridges placed in different cities on Prince Edward Island. So having more community groups and those from specific cities and towns to form the community fridge and who knows, we're going by day by day so there might be more things that come up but continuing our work and really trying to shift into looking at more long term sustainable solutions as well on things that we can do.

Avery Parkinson

That was Sandra Sunil, one of the founders of 4Love4Care. For more information about the work she does, visit 4Love4Care’s Facebook page. 

We hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast. If you're interested in learning more about just vertical and our work, follow us @justvertical on Twitter @just.vertical on Instagram or visit our website, www.justvertical.com. This was our 10th and final episode of season one. We hope you enjoyed and learned a lot about the different environmental, cultural, and social aspects of food production. Happy growing!

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