How Food Waste Can Bring People Together

Millions of tonnes of edible food is chucked away every year in the UK. We visit a Community Fridge in east London that's fighting food waste for the good of the planet and local people

It’s 10.30am on a chilly Monday morning when the delivery arrives.

The doors of Redmond Community Centre in Hackney swing open and in walk volunteers carrying bread, smoothies, onions, popcorn, potatoes and strawberries. They are headed to the community fridge: a charity-run initiative where local people can come to collect free packages of fresh food that would otherwise go to waste.

It’s one of 90 such food waste hubs up and down the country managed by environmental charity Hubbub, which has been going since 2014. The fridge network started when a desire to solve environmental problems in an accessible way led the charity to turn its attention to food waste, and a series of initiatives were trialled in Derbyshire to deal with the problem. The most popular one with locals was a collaboration with Sainsbury’s and fridge maker Bosch: a community fridge which would rescue food and make it available free of charge. After 9,000 items of food were redistributed in a mere seven months, the charity received enquiries from across the country about setting up replica projects in various areas.

A van is loaded with boxes of food to be distributed to community centres and food waste projects

And so they did. In 2017 this was formalised into the Community Fridge Network, which gained funding from the National Lottery Community Fund, and it now helps people set up their own by giving them a guide and access to a Facebook group where they can meet others in their area who wish to set up a fridge. If the words ‘Food Waste Initiative' trigger visions of manky leftovers and rotting fruit, think again: this is about providing genuinely delicious food with no strings attached except a few lapsed Best Before dates.

Anyone can set one up with support from Hubbub, and anyone can attend once it’s running. Due to logistics around space—it needs to be held somewhere that can be locked, for instance—most take place in established organisations such as community centres, Churches, schools, Universities and colleges. But others have popped up in the most unlikely of places such as car parks and a shed. There are 30 more in the pipeline.

In Woodberry Down, Hackney, here’s how they do it: the community fridge is managed by a full-time staff member called Heenaaz Heenaaz. She started as a volunteer after moving to the country and wanting to get to know people in the community. After impressing staff at the centre, she got a full-time job. Every Monday she accepts the delivery of supermarket surplus from the Felix Project, a charity which rescues about 10 tonnes of perfectly edible surplus food from major retailers such as CostCo and Waitrose each day (equivalent to about 18,000 meals).

The Felix Project collects up corporate suppliers’ food in its gigantic warehouse, and distributes it by van to find a happy home, which is how it ends up with Heenaaz, who then organises it into individual packages. She makes sure the space is all set, hygienic and organised, and feeds back to Hubbub the amount of food that’s been distributed so they have an idea of the impact the fridge is having. Around midday, she welcomes the public to come and collect a package each for themselves. Heenaaz works alongside staff from Manor House Development Trust who are managing the regeneration of Woodberry Down, in Hackney, of which the community centre is a part, and there are also volunteers who help out with community centre events like weekly community meals, which often make use of food from the community fridge.

The lion’s share of food supply comes from corporations like supermarkets, most of it packaged up when it arrives except vegetables and the odd loaf of bakery bread. Leftover food such as household meals is not accepted in case it’s not safe to eat. The end result is a warm and welcoming atmosphere filled with regulars, semi-regulars and unfamiliar faces turning up to see what the fuss is about. There are, to use a technical term, good vibes.

“We think there is space for really hard facts about the environment, but we also think there is space for talking about it in a positive way,” explains Kanahaya Alam, the Community Fridge Network Manager. “We want a world where everyone is an environmentalist, whether they realise it or not.” Alam is well aware of the carbon dioxide emitted by food production and distribution at every stage from farm to plate, but this isn’t necessarily front and centre in the day to day running of the project. “All of our campaigns are very practical, very optimistic: we want to be funny and provide solutions in a light hearted way.”

Our vision for the network is to move beyond providing food

“I think sometimes it can be really discouraging if you can’t visually see the impact of trying to help the environment ” says Charlotte Arnold, Project Officer at Manor House Development Trust. “There are a lot of statistics out there, but when you can see all this food isn’t going to go to waste and that instead it’s going to really healthy meals and benefiting people’s health, it’s really humbling and you feel like you’re going in the right direction.”

It’s true that the scale of food wasted in the UK can be difficult to grasp by reading numbers alone. From commercial and industrial organisations alone, food and drink waste is estimated by WRAP to be tot up to 9 million tonnes per year, which is worth £5.2 billion. But these figures can feel abstract. Community fridges don’t bog people down by repeating them over and over, they simply offer people simple solutions that will improve their daily life.

Something of an elephant in the room, however, is food poverty. With the number of food banks in the UK skyrocketing in recent years, one might speculate the community fridge network serves the same purpose. With rising in-work poverty and a social security safety net with major shortcomings, hunger in the UK is tragically commonplace. Is this really an environmental project, or are community fridges and food banks the same thing?

“There is obviously a lot of confusion about community fridges being food banks, and there is some overlap,” Alam says. “We are providing food to the community and a lot of our users are in need. But we think food poverty shouldn’t be the answer to food waste and vice versa. We think they’re two separate issues and we do not want community fridges to become food banks. Food banks are doing their job, they’re there, we don’t want to replace food banks; as an environmental charity, this is more about reducing food waste and bringing people together.”

There is certainly a different emphasis. As a report from food bank charity Trussell Trust showed, “Deciding to accept help from a food bank was frequently described as ‘embarrassing’ and ‘shameful’” by users — a marked contrast to the positive atmosphere that Hubbub foster with their community fridge project. In other words, Hubbub want there to be as many community fridges as possible, while groups such as Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, Church of England and The Trussell Trust would rather food banks didn’t need to exist at all. The two initiatives address different needs and have separate visions, which isn’t to say community fridges can’t support the needy. It’s nuanced.

By way of bringing out that difference a little, Alam points to the future of community fridges: “Our vision for the network is to move beyond providing food. We always know that there’s a lot of potential for having this kind of initiative in the community—it drives people in, it increases the number of people who come into community centres, it reduces loneliness because people get to meet their neighbours and talk to them. The vision is that these community fridges should then become hubs where people can learn about other things, so they could learn how to cook, how to sew, they could share books, toys, cooking utensils, other skills. We could turn it into a repair cafe, a refill shop. There are all sorts of possibilities and we know there are a lot of community fridges that have started doing this.”

The fridge at Redmond Community Centre is one of them. Nzinga Gomes is a meal facilitator at the centre, who works alongside Heenaaz, covering for her when she’s away as well as working at the centre to organise weekly community meals and teach people about healthy eating habits. These shared meals often use produce from the community fridge because it’s cost-effective, healthy and ethical. “I’ve always said that food is a kind of excuse for gatherings,” she says. “We don’t understand how powerful it is to use food as a strategy to knit communities, to make us closer together and combat loneliness and isolation… I remember for instance one of the ladies that used to come here, Pauline, she’s severely disabled but she comes all the way here. And every time she says, ‘oh thank you for the food!’, she’s happy and chatting, and everyone’s like: ‘wow, look at her, she’s gone from a loner to knowing everybody, and making friends. She’s happier now.’”

What’s notable about the community fridge is the way separate issues can be solved all at once: from strengthening community to helping with weekly budgets and dealing with the environment. These are not mutually exclusive issues; they are all connected.

Take Donald for instance, a self-employed writer and performer with a bright smile, known for pitching in to help out with the fridge where he can. “Everyone come to the table who needs!”, he says happily. “I’m an inclusivist. And as a self-employed person who’s caring for my partner, it’s just really helpful to have this as a supplement because he’s got no income now. He’s got a pension but it’s pretty small. I appreciate [the community fridge] hugely… and I like when there's some sort of community thing going on,” he adds. “Just the other week, we were all kind of like, ‘Oh, I don't want these potatoes. Do you want them?’ And, ‘no, let's use these tubs, why don't you take them?’”.

Of course, some people who use the fridge do simply need some food to help them get by in tough times, and they are made to feel welcome. As one guest called Tony tells me with a wry chuckle: “I like the price.” His friend Benji, a busker who used to be homeless, echoes the point. “When you’re homeless, it’s not really the environment you’re thinking about,” he says. “I care a lot more about the environment now [I’m no longer homeless] but you’ve got to prioritise, haven’t you?”

Indeed, individuals do have to prioritise. But it’s striking that a simple thing like cutting down on food waste can have multiple impacts, and the individual person’s reason for being there doesn’t have to matter all too much. Simply by integrating into everyday life, community fridges are helping to achieve a world where everyone is an environmentalist, whether they look at it that way or not.