Community Fridges: Eliminating hunger with dignity

Community fridges were launched in Germany and Spain in 2012. It took about four years for the concept to enter India but the idea has caught on well here. India’s first community fridge was installed probably in 2016 by Minu Pauline, the owner of Pappadavada, a famous restaurant in Kochi after she saw a destitute woman pick up food from her restaurant’s garbage bin.

The model got a further fillip in August 2017 when Dr. Issa Fathima Jasmine, an orthodontist, installed one such fridge, Ayyamitu Unn, outside Basant Nagar Tennis Club in Chennai. She teamed it up with an open cupboard with five shelves where people could donate clothes too, and hired a guard to ensure what was deposited was fit for human consumption. Anyone in need of food or clothes could walk up to the fridge and cupboard and take whatever they needed and just walk away. It was that simple. The idea spread like wildfire. Bala Harish Kumar of a management consultancy firm in Bengaluru followed suit by installing ‘The Public Fridge’ at BTM Layout in November 2017 with Jasmine’s help. Today, many cities in India run community fridges.

Mumbai couldn’t be behind. In September this year, Rotary Club of Borivali (RCB) installed one community fridge in Kandivali West, just outside its famous Saibaba temple run by Shri Sai Sewa Mandal. A WhatsApp post of Versova Welfare Association (VWA) played its part. “We were toying with this idea in our club when Rotarian Harish Dawda approached us. He wanted to install a fridge right away,” says Mona Gyani, President of the Club. The message of ‘eating with dignity’ in VWA’s video had moved Dawda, a philanthropist immensely. After seeking guidance from VWA’s members, he approached Ashish Patil of Sai Sewa Mandal who readily agreed. Patil too had seen the Association’s video. The Kandivali temple staff supervises the working of the fridge and helps in its upkeep.

Dawda soon donated another fridge in Borivali West, installed again outside a famous Saibaba temple. “I want to donate 11 such fridges as the happiness on the faces of people when they get good food and have a choice of items is only seen to be believed,” he says. Patil too is planning to install one more fridge near the BMC school in Kandivali. But the effort comes with its challenges. “Caterers keep so much food in huge bags that it gets difficult for a single person to take food for his or her consumption,” says Patil. Hence, Dawda and Patil are planning to create awareness about packing food in smaller containers for single use so as to enable more people to benefit from the initiative.

The issue of containers bogs VWA too. Earlier, the Association used to keep plastic containers for people to take food in but since the plastic ban, they grappling with the challenge as paper plates cannot hold liquid food like dal or curry. “We are still trying to find a solution”, says Haresh Kundnani, committee member. Since 2016, the Association has installed four fridges in the Andheri-Versova area. “We were perturbed by food wastage and our aim is to eradicate hunger. Our motto is simple: food with dignity. Anybody can pick up the food they like and walk away. We have mentioned the terms and conditions for stocking food clearly on the fridges”, he says. And for supervising it, “Our members visit the fridges every day”.

Archana Foundation, run by women, faced some challenges too after it installed a community fridge in Juhu in October 2017. The members hired a security guard at a monthly salary of INR 12,000 to look into the distribution of food, cleaning of the fridge and discarding stale food. “We were very enthusiastic. We had a team that visited the fridge thrice a day. We kept a ledger. The idea was to benefit anyone or everyone who was hungry or thirsty,” says Kiran Jalan, Trustee of the Foundation.

However, after the initial novelty waned, keeping the fridge stocked became a challenge. The members chipped in for some time. Soon visits to the refrigerators reduced. And complaints against the security guard proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Food would just vanish in an hour. He was distributing to his friends and family, was often found sleeping and had also begun selling the food. He wasn’t cleaning the fridge either. We were afraid someone could fall sick. Hence, the Trust decided to end its initiative in April this year” says Jalan. However, a past President is still trying to keep it going.

So, despite the challenges, there are people and associations that have taken to community fridges with all their heart. Kundnani says, “We are thankful to the people who take food from our fridges because they help us reduce food wastage”. This idea alone should bring in more donors.