How two friends are helping to combat hunger in Toronto, one community fridge at a time

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“Take what you need, leave what you don’t”: How two friends are helping to combat hunger in Toronto, one community fridge at a time

On July 17, two mini fridges filled with fresh produce appeared outside of Ten Restaurant at 1132 College Street, with signage reading “Free Food” and “Take what you need, leave what you don’t.” The fridges are a community-run initiative spearheaded by Ten’s executive chef Julian Bentivegna and community organizer Jalil Bokhari, who are aiming to reduce hunger by allowing citizens to donate and pick up food as needed. Toronto Life caught up with the pair to discuss the future of the pilot project and community response to the fridges so far.

Julian: Since opening Ten last year, I’ve been looking for ways to help combat the problem of food insecurity in Toronto. Restaurants, especially fine dining ones, are guilty of a lot of food waste, so I wanted to find a way to avoid waste and give back to the community at the same time. Last year, the Ten team was involved with a program called Community Meal, where we prepared about 40 meals every two weeks for different women’s shelters in our neighbourhood.

Jalil: Earlier in July, my friend Zenat Begum opened a community fridge outside of her Brooklyn café, Playground Coffee Shop, and now she’s running a network of seven community-run fridges. I saw the same thing happening elsewhere and realized it was working. We’re having a moment right now where people are trying to find a way to help others who aren’t as privileged as they are. Earlier this summer, I made a list of Black-owned businesses in Toronto and I posted to Instagram—it went viral. Pat’s Homestyle Jamaican Restaurant on Queen West got in touch and told me they had a lineup down the block on what would have otherwise been a quiet Tuesday. Seeing the impact that the list had made me realize that people really do want to help; they just need some direction. I told Zenat I loved what she was doing, and she reassured me that it was totally possible to do the same thing in Toronto. Julian and I were hanging out at the Scarborough Bluffs a couple weeks ago, and I told him I wanted to get some fridges going. He said he’d be interested in helping.

The first two fridges of (hopefully) many

Julian: I had two mini fridges in the basement of the restaurant that I normally use for wine, but since we’re only open for takeout right now, I figured we might as well repurpose them. We were able to get the fridges set up outside within a day. There’s no electric socket outside the restaurant, so we had to run an extension cord underneath the closed door. Once we had that sorted, we hauled the fridges upstairs, put them in front of the restaurant and filled them up with produce, mostly lettuces and fruit.

Jalil: I put up a picture of the fridges on my Instagram account and the post just took off. Almost immediately, people started reaching out, wanting to volunteer their time. People with cars have offered to help transport fridges and food. The owners of Camp 4 bar on Dundas West reached out; it turns out they’re closing and have a large fridge they’re willing to donate. Somebody even offered to buy a fridge. I was like, ‘Honestly, no. Just stop by on your way home from a grocery store and donate something to the fridge.’ It’s really easy.

Julian: I ordered a few extra pounds of produce from our suppliers to start and put a bunch of stuff—lettuce, kale, carrots, bananas, apples, oranges—in the fridges. We filled them up that first day, but since then we’ve left it to the community to give what they can or take what they need. Whenever I have any extra produce, I’ll add it to the collection. To be honest, I didn’t think people would use it as much as they have been. I thought we would be sitting on all this donated produce, but it’s been quite the opposite. We don’t monitor who leaves or takes food, and so far no one has abused the system. As long as the food is getting eaten, I’m really happy that it isn’t going into a landfill.

Bentivegna and Bokhari check out the current contents

Jalil: I was at the fridge around 1 p.m. the other day to take a photo for our community fridge Instagram account, and by 4 p.m. someone had sent me another photo of the contents—a lot of the food that was there earlier was gone and had already been replaced by newer stuff. There have been a couple of times when Julian has come by in the morning and noticed the fridge was empty, but it’s usually filled back up again by noon. Because of the shame that’s attached to food insecurity, a lot of people come to take food at night, when they won’t be seen.

Julian: I take about 20 minutes every day to sanitize, clean, and organize the fridges. I just make sure they’re not too crowded, nothing is going rotten and no one is putting in products that shouldn’t be there. I haven’t seen anything too weird turn up yet. If we ever do have too many donations, I just put the extra food inside my restaurant’s fridge until there’s enough space in the community fridges.

Jalil: We want to be as respectful as possible to the people who are going to be accessing the fridges. It’s a privilege to be able to go to a grocery store and shop for food that’s been arranged nicely, so I want to make sure it doesn’t become a dumping ground for rotting food.

Julian: Right now we’re sticking with pretty simple produce, but as we get more comfortable with the program, I really want to be able to put some pre-made meals in there, like fried rice that somebody can just grab and go. At the moment, we’re happy being able to provide access to good quality produce for people who might not otherwise be able to afford it. We’re trying to get at least one fridge set up in Parkdale, then hopefully one near Moss Park and one near Dundas and Bathurst. We’re trying to put them as close to encampments as possible, where they will be the most useful.

Anyone is able to donate food or take food, 24 hours a day—no questions asked

Jalil: I think a lot of the time, we want our government or organizations to help solve social problems, but it’s actually really easy to just help others by doing it ourselves. Often these larger bodies have a lot of red tape and hoops to jump through. I’m not using permits or anything. I’m literally just asking, ‘Hey, do you have a house or a business? Want to put a fridge in front of it?’ It’s not like we’re trying to take over food banks, it’s just another way to help. So far we’ve lined up five or six more donated fridges and three more potential locations for those fridges. Black Diamond Vintage in Parkdale reached out and let us know they wanted to set up a fridge outside their store, so we were able to connect them with a donated fridge. An employee at The Iceman Toronto—a company that’s been providing water and ice to the encampments at Moss Park—reached out saying they’d like to be able to do more to help and they want to put a fridge outside their own house.

Julian: I like the idea that once Ten is able to open up for indoor dining, our guests will see the community fridges outside and be able to think a little bit past themselves and think of how they can help others in their own way. I guess they’re kind of an eyesore out there, but we’re giving two Toronto artists, Joshua Advincula and Tabban Soleimani, total creative control to paint the fridges in a bright, inviting way.

Jalil: At first, we were afraid somebody might try to steal the fridges or throw them through Julian’s window to try to rob his place, or that the city would interfere and tell us to take them away. So far, though, we’ve had no problems at all. I think we are living in a time when people really want to help out and are trying to take matters into their own hands.

Julian: Everything has been going smoothly so far. On really hot days, the fridges struggle a bit, but they’ve hung in. I’ve been amazed and impressed by the support from the community. It’s been great to see that people are really interested, and they want it to continue and succeed. More and more people are realizing that food is a basic human right. It’s easy to get pessimistic about the state of the world, but it’s been so uplifting to see how many people want to make a difference, even if it’s a small change.

The fridges are for everyone, but please don’t use them as benches (this was just for the shoot)