A Guide to Community Fridges in the UK and Around the World

How this food waste solution captured a country’s imagination and continues to spread across the globe

By Heather Grant

There’s no denying that food waste is a massive problem in the UK. Research has found that 8.4 million people are struggling to afford to eat (the equivalent of the entire population of London). Meanwhile, 3.6 million tonnes of food is wasted by the food industry every year and over 2 million tonnes of that food is still edible. That’s enough for 1.3 billion meals. At industry level, the most common reasons food is wasted are overproduction, damaged packaging, manufacturing or order mistakes, stock control issues, and cosmetic standards.

And the problem filters down to individual households too. It’s estimated that an average of £700 of food is wasted per family, yet only 3% of people think there is a stigma to throwing away food. Mirroring the attitudes that perpetuate fast fashion, 86% of people admit that following food trends and buying ingredients for one recipe knowing that they won’t be used again is a key contributor to why they waste food. Confusion around ‘best before’, ‘use by’, and ‘display until’ dates also contribute to unnecessary waste.

With food waste and food insecurity hitting the news regularly, the problem is beginning to surface on the nation’s conscience and behaviour is following suit. Hence the rise of the ‘community fridge’: a much-needed resource where everyone can share surplus food.

Community fridges offer a creative and collaborative way to reduce food waste, bring communities together, and provide an opportunity for everyone to access healthy food and save money. They collect leftovers that would otherwise be wasted, from members of the community or local businesses and supermarkets, and make them available to everyone in the area.

This guide looks at what community fridges are, why they are needed in the UK, their emergence in the UK, and finishes with a whistle-stop tour of similar schemes in other countries.

rotting vegetables

1: What is a Community Fridge?

In its simplest definition, a community fridge is a public space that enables food to be shared within a community. They work on a basic premise of ‘take what you need and leave what you don’t’. Community Fridges are open to everyone and aim to fight food waste by connecting communities.

How Do Community Fridges Differ from Foodbanks?

Food banks distribute food to those who cannot otherwise afford to eat. They have a vital role in the UK, acting on the front-line of food poverty. Between April and September 2017, The Trussell Trust, one of the largest food Bank networks, gave out 586109 3-day emergency food supplies. 208,956 of these went to children. As the Community Fridge Network describes, ‘food banks are a lifeline solution within a broken system, but most people would rather they didn’t have to exist’. In an ideal world, emergency food provisions would be no longer needed, everyone would have equal access to nutritional food, and children would never have to go to bed hungry.

Community Fridges, in contrast, are intended to be a longer-term feature of a community and a more sustainable solution to food insecurity. They are open to all: you don’t need a referral and they aren’t means-tested. They bring people together to share food and, ultimately, pave the way for a long-lasting approach to tackling food insecurity.

Who are Community Fridges Run By?

Community fridges tend to be run by a combination of community or charity workers and volunteers. A plethora of produce is donated locally by community residents, bakeries, restaurants, supermarkets, community farms, and sometimes gardens and allotments. It’s usually fresh produce that is donated, but often fridges have designated areas for dry foods and canned goods, and even health, beauty, and sanitary supplies. The fridge workers and volunteers collect donations and organise the space, and then trust is placed in the community to help redistribute and fairly share the food.

What Can and Can’t Be Donated?

If you would like to and are able to, you might consider donating food that would otherwise be wasted to a local community fridge. Each one has its own subtly different rules, usually to do with health and safety concerns and the space available, so it’s worth checking in before you visit.

Generally, you can donate fresh foods such as fruit and veg, cheese, eggs, meat, bread, unopened milk and yoghurts, salads, and fruit juices. You can also donate other items such as tins, sauces, rice, pasta, noodles, lentils, beans and pulses, tea, coffee, biscuits and cereals. They usually can’t accept cooked food from homes or unregistered sources, cooked rice, raw milk cheeses, and unpasteurised milk.

Make sure you only donate food that is good for at least the next 24 hours, has been stored safely and handled correctly, and is not contaminated in any way. If you’re donating packaged items, make sure they’re unopened and still intact with any labels, dates, allergens that are clearly visible.

FareShare fights hunger and food waste.

2: Why are Community Fridges needed in the UK?

As mentioned above, food waste is a massive issue in the UK. Connected to this is food insecurity: the state of not having consistent and reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food. Community fridges help reduce food waste and improve food security by redistributing food in the community.

Not to mention that community fridges, like all community centred schemes and events, help address the problem of social isolation and loneliness. There’s plenty of food to go around – and plenty of people in the community ready to connect with others –community fridges just bring them together!

Food Waste

Cutting food waste is a delicious way of saving money, helping to feed the world, and protect the planet’ – Tristram Stuart, English author and campaigner

Food is a precious resource, yet we are far too quick to chuck it away. With so many people not having enough to eat in the UK, food waste is blatantly an ethical issue. On top of this, food waste feeds climate change. Across the globe, wasting food accounts for three times more greenhouse gas emissions than flights.

In an attempt to reduce food waste, it is a legal requirement in the UK for food companies to operate according to five principles according to environmental impact, which can be extended to household and individual waste too. First on the list is ‘reduce’: the most important word in sustainability. This is about taking no more than you need, reducing the amount of surplus food you have in the first place, and in turn, reducing the amount of food you are likely to waste.

Next up is feeding people in need. Whilst the aim is to only have as much food as you need, realistically, there will always be leftovers from companies and individuals that make a misjudgement or whose plans change. Before anything else, that food should be used to serve people who don’t have enough food to eat. Community fridges come in here, helping share out the surplus food before it goes to waste.

After this, food should go towards feeding livestock, then to be used for composting and renewable energy, and finally, when there’s no other option, the food should be disposed of appropriately.

Confusion Over Labels

One of the main reasons food is unnecessarily wasted is because of confusion over labels. ‘Display until’, ‘Best before’, ‘Use by’ are misunderstood as interchangeable, but they all have very different meanings:

Display Until or ‘sell by’ labels are for stock control purposes. They aren’t required by law and are instructions for shop staff, not for shoppers. You don’t need to look at this date at all. Anyway, if you’re seeing the product on the shelf it is extremely unlikely to be after the date given.

Best before is to do with quality. Your food will be at its very best before the date given. After this date, it may have lost some of its texture and flavour. It will still be safe to eat, it just might not be quite as good. You should use your senses and your own judgement here to ensure perfectly good food doesn’t go to waste.

Use by refers to safety. You should not eat food past the use-by date given. You cannot always smell the bacteria that cause food to spoil, so often food that has passed its ‘use by’ date may seem to be fine but can still lead to food poisoning and/ or negatively impact your health. To prevent food from reaching the use by plan your meals and snacks for the week and buy only what you need and cook according to the dates, if plans change or you accidentally buy too much, then be quick and get it to your local community fridge before the use by!

Food Insecurity

Food poverty is contributing to social unrest. Add school closures, redundancies, and furloughs into the equation and we have an issue that could negatively impact generations to come. It all starts with stability around access to food. – Marcus Rashford MBE

The UK is the sixth richest economy in the world, yet many people are going hungry every day. 4.7 million people in the UK live in severely food insecure homes and regularly experience physical sensations of hunger. The charity FareShare found that 46% of people accessing their services had gone a whole day without a proper meal in the last month.

Thanks to Marcus Rashford MBE, Manchester United Footballer and child poverty campaigner, the detrimental effect that food insecurity has on children has been top of the news agenda in recent months. 2.3 million children experienced food insecurity between August 2020 and January 2021. Rashford has helped raise enough money to enable FareShare to distribute the equivalent of over 21 million meals for children and families who might not otherwise eat. He also successfully influenced government policy with his #MakeTheUTurn campaign – a voucher replacement for the government’s Free School Meals when schools were closed throughout lockdown. This campaign ensured that 1.3 million vulnerable children could continue to access food.

Rashford’s campaign reiterates that until change occurs at a systematic level, emergency provisions such as free school meals and food banks will remain crucial. However, a longer-term solution to food insecurity is also required. Community fridges empower individuals to be part of the solution as well as removing some of the stigma attached to food poverty. They create an inclusive space where every one can donate or take as they can or need to.

Social Isolation

The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician, clinic or hospital’ ­– Mark Hyman, American Physician

Loneliness is one of the largest health concerns we face in the UK and beyond. Social isolation poses a health risk that rivals smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Research has even suggested that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and strokes.

After over a year of lockdowns, social distancing, and restrictions on travel and gatherings, many groups of people have reported higher rates of loneliness and poorer wellbeing than in previous years. Between the 3rd of April and May 2020, 5.0% of the population (about 2,6 million adults) said they felt lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. Between October 2020 and February 2021, this proportion increased to 7.2% of adults (about 3.7 million adults). The need to bring communities together is more important than ever.

Community fridges help address social isolation by forming ties between community residents and local businesses. They create warm, welcoming, and inclusive environments built on trust and collaboration. By encouraging communities to work together, they unite those who may otherwise be divided by gratification and social politics. As well as sharing food, community fridges also frequently run community events such as cooking classes, clothes swaps, and food growing workshops. They are social spaces and communal hubs designed for sharing.

foodsharing.de

3: The Rise of the Community Fridge in the UK

Food waste, food insecurity, and social isolation paint a picture of the desperate need for community fridges. Their positive reception illuminates the UK’s growing appetite for sharing surplus food and connecting with their community.

The Beginnings: Spain and Germany

The story of the rise of the community fridge in the UK starts across the pond: the concept first occurred in Berlin, Germany, in 2012. The organisation Food Sharing started to save unwanted food in private households, as well as from small and large businesses, and distribute it in the community. They now have an expansive online platform to encourage people to share food and are committed to stopping throwaway culture and the excess of packaging in supermarkets.

In Galdako, a small city on the outskirts of Bilbao, Spain, residents began to wonder what would happen if the town’s rubbish bins were replaced with fridges. After researching the community fridge network in Berlin, in 2015 they decided to put it to the test. The town set up a ‘solidarity fridge’: a fridge where residents and restaurants can share leftover food otherwise destined for the bin.

The Fridges Leading the Way

Frome (a town in Eastern Somerset) first brought the idea to the UK in 2016. The UK’s first community fridge was born out of a challenge set by Edventure: Frome, a school for community enterprise, in partnership with Frome Town Council. Students were asked to help tackle the problem of food waste in the town and, inspired by the projects overseas, a community fridge was set up.

In 2015 supermarket Sainsbury’s began the Waste Less, Save More campaign to reduce household waste. Swadlincote, a small market town in South Derbyshire, was chosen to receive a £1 million investment to employ initiatives that aimed to change behaviour around food waste. One of these initiatives, of course, was a community fridge, set up in 2016. Over 16,000 food items were redistributed in the first year of Swadlincote’s fridge, largely led by donations from local businesses. As a result, more than a third of the town’s residents showed an increased awareness of the amounts of food they had at home.

Next up were fridges in Brixton (London) and Botley (Oxford). With these early fridges lighting the path, they fast began to spring up across the nation.

The National Network of Community Fridges

In July 2017, The National Network of Community Fridges was set up by the environmental charity Hubbub UK. This is the world’s largest community fridge network, coordinating over 150 fridges and supporting another 100 throughout this year. The network aims to empower communities, combat food waste, and give everyone equal access to nutritional food that would otherwise be wasted.

The National Network of Community Fridges provides free guidance for groups wanting to set up their own community fridges. They offer support, design assets, peer mentoring, health and safety advice, templates, and even discounted fridges and freezers. Since 2019, the Community Fridge Network has redistributed the equivalent of over 9 million meals (over 4,000 tonnes of surplus food) to over 250,000 visitors. Each fridge shares an average of 2.5 tonnes of food each month.

In 2021 they joined a partnership with the food retail business Co-Op, offering grants and helping more community fridges throughout the UK. The partnership is said to be saving a further 6.8 million meals from going to waste.

If you are in the UK and are keen to find a fridge near you, you can check out the map on their website. You can also find details on how to become a member, start your own fridge, or donate on their site. Be sure to check out #CommunityFridge to follow the campaign on social media.

food donations
Source: hubbub.org.uk

4: Community Fridges in the Rest of the World

The rise of the community fridge extends beyond the UK, with fridges and similar schemes mushrooming in countries around the world. The United States, Thailand, and the Philippines are to name but a few countries combating food waste by creating food sharing spaces in various neighbourhoods.

The United States

Community fridges have become a growing phenomenon in the U.S triggered by economic insecurity and the need for connection during the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York City community fridges, nicknamed ‘Friendly Fridges’, were introduced in February 2020. The first one was set up by the mutual-aid activism group In Our Hearts. The group stands by the belief that ‘food is not, and should never be, a privilege’. They want people to be able to work cooperatively to meet the needs of everyone in their community.

In Boston, Josiel Gonzalez noticed that traditional food aid organizations were struggling to keep up with the increased need for nourishment due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Greater Boston Foodbank, 1 in 8 Eastern Massachusetts are struggling with hunger. He also noted that pride and dignity stood in the way of many people approaching these organisations for the vital resources they need, largely because of the personal questions they are required to ask. Inspired by New York, he set up the Boston Community Fridge. The fridge works on a ‘no questions asked’ basis. What’s needed to stock the fridge is posted on Instagram, and then faith is placed in the community to provide it, so those who need it, can take it.

In Philadelphia, Dr Michele Nelson launched Mama-Tee Community Fridges. This is a group run by women of colour that currently coordinate 18 fridges across Philly. There are now numerous community fridges across the states.

Thailand

Also sparked by the pandemic and its threats to people’s health and financial security, a food sharing scheme was launched in Thailand. Entrepreneur Supakit Kulchartvijit initiated the Pantry of Sharing in May 2020. Four Pantry of Sharing cupboards were set up in Bangkok and one in Rayong, and locals are asked to give what they can and take what they need from them. By May 2020 there were 60 pantry cabinets across the country. A unique feature of this Thai variation on the community fridge is a small notebook placed within the cupboards where both donors and benefactors can quietly and anonymously communicate.

Philippines

In the following year, two similar concepts emerged in the Philippines. In March 2021 The Members Church of God International (MCGI) placed small carts filled with essential ideas at the side of roads for locals to help themselves to items free of charge. These became the ‘MCGI Free Store’.

Subsequently, a community pantry was started in the Teacher’s Village neighbourhood of Quezon City. The concept quickly caught on and a week after the pantry’s launch more than 100 new pantries were set up in various locations. A week thereafter, 300 pantries were running across the country.

Conclusion: The Future of the Community Fridge

My hope is that community fridges become a common fixture in communities all over the UK and that we continue to see food sharing schemes cropping up in countries around the world.

Learning and hearing about climate change and humanitarian issues frequently breed dismay and the feeling of ‘while there’s nothing we can do about it’. But this despair leads to inaction and, consequently, no effort to make a change occurs.

Community fridges, on the other hand, cultivate hope. They provide communities with a concrete and tangible way to tackle inequalities on a hyper-local scale. The need for community fridges sounds the alarm bell that jerks us into an awareness of the food insecurity and waste in our area, whilst their positive reception and growth around the country illuminates an exit route and optimistic vision that things can begin to change.

Hopefully, the future narrative around surplus food will shift from insecurity, waste, and poverty, to sharing, empowerment, and quality nutrition for all. I believe that community fridges will help us on our way.