Community fridges clear another hurdle in tackling food stigma

15 April 2019

Heather Kay, project coordinator at the Star Project. Photograph: Sam Roberts, Star Project

Paisley’s Star Project lifts the lid on its new community fridge project

Latest figures from the Trussell Trust on the use of foodbanks in Scotland show that 170,625 emergency packages were handed out between 31 March 2017 and 1 April 2018 across Scotland, a rise of 13%. In Glasgow, 31,630 of those packages were distributed. What other initiatives can we count on to ensure everyone has access to as many food sources as possible?

The Star Project in Paisley is one small cog in a large chain of community-driven projects offering members of the public food to take home if needed, with no questions asked. At its Paisley drop-in service, space is provided for those coming and going to take fresh produce from their recently-launched community fridge and pantry. Other items, like sanitary products, are also available, although they have always been widely obtainable at the project. The main motivations for running a community fridge are deeply connected with a desire to make sure everyone is getting enough food to sustain them. It has also addressed wider issues, like tackling the social stigma of accepting food, and is also reducing food waste by its implementation, so it’s a win-win all round.

Heather Kay, project coordinator at the Star Project, discussed the organisation and what they’ve done since launching in 1999. She said: “We are a grassroots community organisation and really are guided by what our community members want and need. This can be anything from therapeutic art workshops to budgeting workshops and, most recently, the need for a community fridge.”

She added: “We have a wraparound service and, as far as we know, nobody quite offers the same service that we do. People come in and have a cup of tea, a biscuit and a chat, and from that we can identify other services like needing more one-to-one support, attending workshops and getting involved with the fridge, or even financial services like both the White Cart Credit Union and Advice Works who come in regularly and help with benefit claims and any financial difficulty.”

There has been a trend in the media of shaming individuals and families on benefits, so it’s hardly surprising that even though professionals have foodbank vouchers ready to give out to those in need, there is a social stigma attached to joining the queue at the local food bank. Some people who need a helping hand do not want to be seen in the food bank queue, thus initiatives like community fridges where you can take just as and when needed are a welcome addition. What’s more, The Star Project is just one example of where this concept is working in practice. Staff there are also encouraged to take what they need, and that helps to reduce the stigma of taking food at no cost. The food is donated to the project from different initiatives, like the Neilston Road branch of the Co-Op in Paisley and Eat Up, a new charity that doesn’t want to see any food going to landfill.

A lot of inspiration for the community fridge project has come from the outstanding community commitments of Rehman Afzal (Rekz), who runs the RA convenience store on Paisley’s Moss Street. Rekz set up his own community fridge in his Paisley shop 19 months ago, and members of the public are welcome to take what they require, when needed and without judgement. It’s a model that Rekz eventually would like to see implemented throughout convenience stores in Scotland. The fluid approach of taking products just from the shop is a great way to combat the stigma some people are impacted by. Rekz has also teamed up with Eat Up, which was officially registered in July last year.

Photograph: Rekz Afzal

As a shop owner, Rekz draws on his own experience. He said: “I feel like the foodbank model of practice is basically outdated and although it provides a great service and helps a lot of people, I feel there is a lot avoidance there. Stigma is one thing and also people feel embarrassed going into a foodbank as you are a user of that service and then somebody bumps into you that you know in the foodbank – they know why you are there.

“Obviously being in a convenience store setting for example like where our community fridge is, we provide it is as a service to those who are struggling locally or as a way at reducing food waste that bigger companies waste on a high level. Making use of that, somebody coming into a shop and being a service user here feels way more comfortable because whoever they bump into inside of a shop, well they don’t know if they are here to buy something or to use the service that is there for them. That obviously helps to take the stigma away in comparison to the food bank and it also helps to provide a relationship with your local shop which is more comfortable for an individual than getting dealt with a volunteer at the food bank, who are compassionate people and do a fantastic job, but there is more to think about, who am I going to meet and it can make the process daunting and this is why I feel that the model of practice used by the food banks could be looked into and other services could be derived from the model they are running today.”

Tommy Reid, one of the founders of Eat Up, said: “We just don’t want to see any food getting thrown out. We want all the food waste or food like it should be known, we want it all from supermarkets into our depots and out to the people.”

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