Stephen Jardine: How fridges can help build a genuine community

Use of food banks in Scotland has been growing sharply
Use of food banks in Scotland has been growing sharply
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Every so often, an idea comes along that is brilliant in its simplicity. Paisley shopkeeper Rekz Afzal is among those to have embraced one such idea – community fridges.

His decision to do so reflects a growing crisis in our society. The use of food banks in Scotland has risen 20 per cent in the past year. According to food bank charity the Trussell Trust, a record 76,764 three-day emergency food supply packs were given to people in need in the first half of 2017. The charity blames much of that on problems with benefit payments.

“Food banks will be working hard to provide dignified, non-judgmental support to people but we are concerned that the ongoing impact of welfare reform combined with increased demand we traditionally see over winter will leave food banks struggling to feed everyone that comes through the doors,” said the trust’s Scotland director, Tony Graham.

That is where the community fridge idea could plug a gap.

At Rekz’s shop in Paisley, a fridge in the corner contains items given free by other customers or funded by donations of small change. Customers on income support can take up to two items a day to help them through a difficult period.

It’s not a lot but it could be just enough to help someone at the end of their tether. Food banks try to offer support with as much dignity as possible but for some people crossing the threshold in the first place to ask for help will be a step too far.

“People feel more comfortable about going to their local shop than a food bank. They might not want to make their situation known,” says Rekz.

On top of that is the issue of opening hours. My son volunteers at a food bank in Edinburgh but it is only open for two hours, twice a week. It is run by people giving their spare time so the limited hours are understandable but they also restrict just how effective the service can be. Hunger and despair are actually more likely to strike at 8am when the kids have nothing to eat for breakfast or at 6pm when the fridge is empty for dinner rather than on a Wednesday afternoon. For that reason, community fridges are a brilliant idea. Local shops keep long hours to serve their customers so the support will be there when people need it most.

With the supermarkets increasingly muscling into local retail, the community fridge could also help corner shops, positioning them as genuine community hubs. In the sixth richest country in the world, food banks are our national shame and across Britain half a million people now rely on them to survive day to day. Some will say community fridges perpetuate a problem by alleviating the most obvious symptoms. That may be true but those of us lucky enough not to have to use food banks should stop for a moment and think about that experience.

For as long as need persists, surely it is incumbent on us all to make the act of seeking help as painless as possible. Just as the suspended-buying system at Social Bite in Edinburgh enables customers buying a sandwich and coffee to buy another for a homeless person, community fridges could offer a simple, accessible way for us all to help each other.