Free fridges help combat food insecurity

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      A network of community fridges around Vancouver is working to provide hungry residents with low-barrier access to fresh food—no shame, no policing, and no questions asked.

      “It’s give what you can and take what you need,” says managing volunteer Mona Grenier. “That’s our motto.”

      The Vancouver Community Fridge Project sprang up during the pandemic, and now oversees fridges in five neighbourhoods across the city: Downtown Eastside, Kensington-Cedar Cottage, Kitsilano, Riley Park, and a new location in Mt. Pleasant that opened at the end of August. Fridges allow access to perishables, like fresh produce and dairy, alongside classic long-life items like dry pasta or canned goods.

      Grenier, who became involved in 2021, says the neighbourly nature appealed to her.

      “These fridges are outside, in public, 24 hours a day, open, [for people] to come and get food any time they want it, any amount—and for people to be able to give food, too, any amount they want to give, any time of day or night,” she says. “It seemed like such a crazy idea that I was really super into it.”

      She estimates there are 40 to 50 official volunteers, and countless others who help out with ad-hoc cleaning, stocking, or food deliveries. But the non-hierarchical structure of the project means there’s no need to formally volunteer to get involved. If there’s an issue with a fridge, local residents might respond to an Instagram message asking for help; donating food, taking food, or fixing issues can all be done anonymously.

      Data suggests that a significant number of people in BC experience food insecurity. According to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada, 16.8 per cent of people in BC (one in six) experienced food insecurity in 2021, including almost 22 per cent of children under 18, and 33 per cent of Indigenous residents.

      An annual Food Banks Canada report also found that in BC, there were 195,925 visits to food banks between March 2022 and March 2023—a 20 per cent increase from the previous year.

      Unlike more formalized food insecurity measures like food banks, mutual aid projects like the Vancouver Community Fridge Project work to break down barriers—and allow individuals to directly donate food without participating in an organized drive.

      The community fridge model also encourages flexibility. People are not solely food donors or recipients, but can move between categories as they need. It’s not charity, but solidarity: the radical kindness of showing up for your neighbours.

      Still, Grenier acknowledges that managing the fridges is difficult, as there can be practical concerns around keeping all the food accessible, or dealing with conflicts that emerge from different people trying to access the same items. But in terms of combatting food insecurity, it’s one of the most direct ways to meet an important need.

      “I wish we had more community fridges,” Grenier says. “I would love to see one in every neighbourhood.”