East Vancouver community fridge empowers residents

Donated material, months of volunteer efforts, and a sympathetic restaurant result in a free-food depot called LOAF

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      Food security has become a rising concern worldwide in recent decades, with some countries in more need of assistance in this regard than others.

      The United Nations defines food security, generally, as when people have physical, social, and economic access to a safe, secure, and sufficient supply of nutritious food.

      Vancouver is one of the world’s most expensive cities, and its stagnating wages, historically low social-assistance rates, and skyrocketing rents have robbed a significant percentage of the region’s population of its ability to attain food security. (The Greater Vancouver Food Bank now has more than 8,500 regular monthly clients, almost half of whom are children, youths, and seniors.)

      But recently some East Vancouver residents decided that they had had enough of standing on the sidelines with regard to this pressing issue. They organized, networked, scrounged supplies and a little grant money, and built a wooden roofed structure big enough to house a small chest freezer, a fridge, and a few pantry shelves.

      Friends Mary-Jane Cox and Jessica Kokott, both former Calgary denizens, were inspired by the Calgary Community Fridge project. Cox, who works in costumes for both Bard on the Beach and the Arts Club Theatre, told the Straight by phone that Kokott paid a return visit to that city and checked out the initiative. “Then she came home and said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ ”

      They set up a website, Instagram account, and Facebook page, Cox said, and compiled an email list of potential volunteers. “So we have a roster of people interested in helping out.”

      One of the more inclusive methods of getting the word out to locals interested in helping was to poster the neighbourhood that was chosen as the location for the community fridge. "Not everyone has social media," Cox noted.

      The two also contacted similar projects in Regina, Toronto, and New York, Cox added, as well as looking at some Vancouver examples, including the Kensington-Cedar Cottage location (4040 Victoria Drive) of the Vancouver Community Fridge Project (which also has a location in the DTES at the Vancouver Women's Health Collective).

      She said a team of UBC master’s students involved in studying a similar venture steered them toward the Hastings-Sunrise area, where one of them had a family connection to the local Dachi Vancouver restaurant, which donated the site and the electricity.

      “They had the location and we had the community engagement,” Cox said. “Now we want more people in the neighbourhood to get involved.”

      While speaking to the Straight, Cox several times made a point of stressing that she and Kokott have not done most of the work involved in setting up the community project. She said they don't like the word organizers. "We're more stewards. We have a lot of volunteers, and we get to meet people and connect with community members."

      Cox pointed out that many people, including those making themselves available in the neighbourhood for ongoing tasks involved in the initiative's day-to-day running, are responsible for getting things to the point where they are almost ready to open.

      The goal of the community fridge is to acquire and safely store perishable but nutritious food items such as fruits and vegetables—which the Greater Vancouver Food Bank does not normally accept as donations from individuals—and have them available, refrigerated, for free to anyone in the neighbourhood.

      The volunteers hope it will serve as the inspiration for identical community initiatives across the city.

      That wooden structure (“All of the appliances have been donated,” Cox said, “and the plywood [for construction] was donated”) is called LOAF, an acronym for “local open-access fridge”, and it is now standing outside Dachi’s east wall (2297 East Hastings Street, at Garden Drive).

      Friends Cox, Kokott, and their fellow volunteers will be ready to open LOAF this Saturday (July 10) near the northern boundary of the East Side’s Grandview-Woodland and Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhoods.

      LOAF is an acronym for local open-access fridge, which is billed as a "mutual aid project" on its Facebook page.
      Martin Dunphy

      “We’ll have some freezies and cold drinks to hand out,” Cox said the day after she and Kokott showed LOAF’s site to the Straight, “but we really want to celebrate for having gotten this far.”

      Cox said they hope to start getting “copious amounts of bread” donations coming in from grocery stores and bakeries (“It’s something that freezes quite well”), and she hopes that a gardening initiative called “Grow a Row” will help bring in a steady supply of locally grown vegetables.

      “I’ve had people reach out and say, ‘Oh, will you take stuff from my garden?’ ” Cox explained. “When you harvest, you will know that that row [of produce] is going to the community fridge. That’s something that the food bank can’t take, and it’s nice to have a fridge for this stuff.”

      She said common sense will dictate the condition of fruits and vegetables to be donated. “If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t donate it. So as long as it’s not rotten or mouldy and not bad for you, donate it.”

      And as for specific kinds of produce? “There will be no, ‘Oh, we recommend this type of food,’ ” Cox said. “The community will decide what it wants.”

      Cox, who moved to Vancouver from Calgary about two decades ago and who has lived in the nearby Commercial Drive neighbourhood for about 15 years, also insisted that community members will regulate food distribution.

      “There will be no limits as to what you can take; there will be no policing,” she said. “Bring what you can and take what you need.”

      A roster of volunteers will check LOAF daily to clean, remove expired food, and maintain the structure, Cox noted. “I think we really hope for it to run itself. We would like the community to guide it and meet its needs—that’s all you can hope for.”