Parkdale Food Centre community fridge gives new life to leftovers

Users of Parkdale Food Centre's new community fridge say 'it's liberating' to take as much fresh, healthy food as you need with no questions asked.

'It's a godsend,' says food centre client Vivian Joynt. 'You just take what you need.'

Sarah Stewart, Parkdale Food Centre's kitchen manager, makes a meal as part of a healthy eating class. Once lunch is done, the leftovers will be put in the community fridge. (Elyse Skura/CBC )

The Parkdale Food Centre has lots of fridges, but the one that sits right beside the door is the only one that comes with these rules: take what you need, leave what you don't and help make sure no one goes hungry.

The centre's manager, Karen Secord, says she wants to encourage people to share food and reduce waste.
Manager Karen Secord says she also hopes the new food centre will help keep food out of the landfill. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"I opened it up and I told everybody, 'We're putting stuff in this fridge and you can come in here five days a week, anytime we're open, to take whatever you need out of that fridge."

At first, she says people "were suspicious," because they're used to food banks and shelters that ask for their names and monitor what they take. 

The openness is part of the the appeal for food centre user Vivian Joynt.

"It's very liberating in a way. A lot of us are very used to doing without and now it's helped us realize that we don't necessarily have to do without," Joynt said.

Keeping food from the landfill

Secord came up with the idea for the project after hearing about a community fridge in India. She said it's based on the simple idea that people who have more than they need should share with people who don't have enough.
The fridge is filled with leftovers from cooking classes, local restaurants and community members. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"It's an old concept. My grandparents shared food with their neighbours," Secord said. "And maybe we've gotten away from that."

She said people need to rethink today's "Super Size Me" mentality. 

"Here we are struggling with food banks across Canada, numbers going up, and yet there is so much food going into the landfill," she said.

The Parkdale Food Centre emphasizes high-quality, healthy food as opposed to the prepackaged food more commonly donated to food banks and shelters, Secord said.

The fridge, filled with fresh bread, homemade soups and baked treats from local restaurants, is an extension of that mentality.

'We can't keep it full'

Located by the entrance and blocked from the main kitchen area by a wall, it would be difficult for anyone who works at the food centre to see what clients grab. 

"Nobody's going to ask them any questions," said Sarah Stewart, who manages the centre's kitchen. "They can just come and take something if they're hungry."

She said clients also appreciate that they don't need to wait until the next time the food centre's dry food bank is open to get the food they need.

"We can get potatoes if we have none that night. If we're out of bread, there's usually bread in there," said Teri-Lynn McLaughlin. "I have used it myself and I've also told more than one person that I know that panhandles out on the street just to get money to eat."

For Annabelle Biefer, who has been volunteering and eating at the centre for about a year, the food centre creates a welcome atmosphere, where no one ever feels like they're being judged. 

"You don't have to be embarrassed." 
Annabelle Biefer, a client and volunteer with the Parkdale Food Centre says 'you never have to be embarrassed' to ask for help. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Donations welcome

Awesome Ottawa, the local chapter of philanthropist organization The Awesome Foundation, donated $1,000 to kickstart the project and Thyme and Again catering donated the commercial fridge.

Now that the idea is proving successful, the Parkdale Food Centre hopes Ottawa residents will help keep it stocked. 

"If you're going away on vacation and you realize that you have all these vegetables that you have to use up, instead of letting them go to waste, come and donate them and we'll put them in our community fridge," Stewart said.

"People will take them. They take it right away. So, it's never going to go bad here."