A solution to food waste, a helping hand for food banks, and the end of post-work snack cravings.
Sounds ambitious, but a huge communal fridge in the Somerset town of Frome is setting out to solve all of the above problems.
And it's about time. The UK food and drink industry wastes 10 million tonnes of food every year, while British households chuck 7 million tonnes annually. What's more, waste research company WRAP estimated in May that from the grocery supply chain alone, 270,000 tonnes of discarded food could be suitable for redistribution. Currently, only 47 tonnes of waste food finds its way to food banks and charities.
As food waste figures pile up, so to does the number of people in the UK relying on food banks. A report in April by food bank charity the Trussell Trust found that food bank use had reached a record high, with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supply packs being given out over the year across 424 UK-wide food banks.
In an effort to combat the dual problem of food waste and food poverty, Frome Town Council partnered with local social enterprise Edventure, and took inspiration from the "solidarity fridges" of Spain.
The result is a fridge that sits in a converted public toilet in Frome's town centre. Open from 8 AM to 8 PM, anyone is free to donate food (with some exceptions like raw meat and raw fish) to the fridge, or take it out.
The fridge opened in April this year and has recently seen big retailers like Greggs and M&S sign up to donate their leftovers, as well as local businesses and households.
We spoke to Anna Francis, resilience officer at Frome Town Council, who has been involved in the project from the start.
MUNCHIES: Hi Anna, why did you decide to set up the community fridge? Anna Francis: We found out about the project because there are a series of solidarity fridges in Spain. And as a town council, we're particularly keen to reduce food waste in Frome. We've got a partnership with a local social enterprise that train young people in social entrepreneurship and we worked with them to set up the fridge.
It just doesn't make sense that so much food is thrown away and at the same time, you've got people living in poverty who could be using it. Food banks provide a lifeline and our local one serves about 1,000 people throughout the year. But most food banks around here can't provide fresh food.
Who can donate to the food bank? At the moment, our main donator is Greggs as they've signed up as a corporate participant. Every day at 5 PM, we go and pick up a couple of trays of cakes and pastries. We also get some leftovers from M&S but we'd love for more businesses to get on board.
Independent retailers are keen to participate, but they have so much less waste because they're not churning food out on the same scale and they have different policies around making sure that they don't run out of things. But we're gradually getting more and more in.
"It just doesn't make sense that so much food is thrown away and at the same time, you've got people living in poverty who could be using it."
Can individuals donate food too? In Spain, you get lots of grannies cooking stews for everyone but here, we can't take home-cooked food because, fromt the health-and-safety side of things, we don't know how the food has been prepared. It's different for businesses, where we can take anything that isn't raw meat or fish, because it's from a certified kitchen.
We say that households can being anything that's in-date, packaged, and hasn't been opened. And fresh fruit and veg is fine.
What are the health and safety regulations like for a scheme like this? We did a lot of research and we worked with insurance companies and the local health and hygiene officer. We've got a team of volunteers who come to the fridge and check none of the food is moldy. We've got a five-star hygiene rating, which is great.
On the door, there are disclaimers that people are taking the food at their own risk and we encourage people to check it over before they take it. We also ask people to label everything—when it was produced and when it should be eaten by—so there's traceability and we have a signing in and out book.
Have you had any strange food donations? We've had some tinned smoked oysters which I thought was a bit niche. We also had a woman who was saved from fainting by a KitKat salvaged from the fridge!
Saved by the snack! How much food do you reckon you've redistributed so far? The most recent stats from the logbook show that we've saved more than 1,500 food items with 1,000 redistributed in June alone.
It's more tricky to find out how many people have taken food from the fridge. Everyone is really good at signing food in but people don't always sign out, especially if people aren't confident at reading and writing. But we know from rough head-counts and the people that do sign things out, at least a few hundred people have used it.
What's the reaction been like from the businesses taking part and the community? The independent retailers in particular are very positive. One local independent baker hated throwing away his leftovers on a Saturday evening, so now one of our volunteers goes to pick up his waste.
Greggs have said that they reckon a couple of people, instead of coming in and buying a cake, do wait to 5 PM to get it free from the fridge. I suppose a little bit of that is inevitable but it's so small scale that it's not going to undermine business. Hopefully as we get more donations, that will be less of an issue as people can come anytime rather than waiting for Greggs at 5 PM!
We're also working with the food bank providers to ensure that the people who really need it, know about it. It's nice to have something that's inclusive and isn't patronising for those who are homeless or worse off. So many of us have stuff that we waste at home—it just enables the community to come together and share it.
It's been amazing to see the interactions between the volunteers and whoever is at the fridge. It has become a community hub which we didn't really anticipate. There's a group of skater kids who hang out there for the cream cakes!
What are your hopes for the future of the fridge? I think trying to get all the larger retailers on board will make a real difference. I think every community should have a community fridge. It seems criminal to be throwing away good food when there are people that need it. It doesn't make sense economically or socially so we'd love for it to be replicated everywhere.
Watch this space. Thanks for talking with us, Anna!