At 11 AM each morning, Stef Mintiens opens his door and rolls out his Freego, a sort of cupboard composed of a two minibar fridges and filled with delicious treats that don't cost a penny. But he's awake far before that, making fresh soup and portioning out the previous day's leftovers for the hungry mouths and nagging stomachs of Ghent.
Mintiens has operated the Freego, from which anyone can take food free of charge, for the past three months. (Frigo is Flemish for refrigerator.) On this particular day, the racks of the fridges are filled with fresh chicory-caraway soup, salad with goat cheese and smoked Parma ham, savoury cake, pasta salad, and quiche.
Two months ago, Mintiens became the butt of a joke on the Dutch TV show De Wereld Draait Door, which happened to film two guys from Antwerp interpreting the Freego's "take what you want" message a bit too literally and attempting to steal the entire fridge.
I visited Mintiens—who is both an herbalist and a doctor, in addition to being a modest do-gooder—to hear what's been going on since, and to ask him about his inspiration for the Freego. When I left his house afterward, both fridges were already completely empty.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Stef! So, a refrigerator with free, tasty food—how did you come up with that idea? Stef Mintiens: Three winters ago, I started a "soup tour." Every Saturday morning I made 20 liters of soup with vegetables from an organic farm nearby, and around lunchtime I cycled around with my cargo bike to give beggars and the disadvantaged a healthy warm-up. Now I'm going back to school on Saturdays, because I'm learning how to fly airplanes. The Freego is my alternative to the soup tour, which I had to drop.
I once saw a photo of a guy in Saudi Arabia who had put a cupboard on a wall in his garden, and people who didn't have a lot to live on could take leftovers from it. I found that a wonderful idea, so I went on a search for old refrigerators. A hotel that was being renovated gave me these old minibars, so I built them into a cupboard and the Freego was born.
The Freego had only been outside of your house for a couple of days before it was nearly stolen. Did you catch the thieves? No. When these two men tried to run off with the fridge, the Flemish television crew was parked in front of my door. They came by for an interview, but they were early, so they were waiting outside and filmed the entire incident. The offenders claimed that they hadn't understood the Freego very well—that the fridge said it was "free to go." That excuse was so lame, I nearly wet my pants from laughing. It literally said that the food was for free.
But thanks to those guys, I became my own 'dumb Belgian joke'—and thanks to that, many more people now know about the Freego.
Have you taken any necessary steps to prevent theft in the future? I wrote down an extra sentence on the fridge.
What happened after the De Wereld Draait Door episode? Suddenly, help was coming from everywhere. Now, three restaurants call me up when they have leftovers. There's also a maître d'hôtel at a fancy restaurant in Brussels who lives nearby and brings over at least eight liters of soup every day. On New Years, a butcher from Aalst brought extra portions of what people had ordered for the holidays.
Now, there's another an open fridge in Schaarbeek in Brussels, by and for the people—and two more in Berlin and Milan. The other day, the city told me that it's planning to put a Freego in every district of Ghent. I'm proud of that—sharing is infectious. If you have a crazy idea, go for it, no matter what others say or think.
How do you decide what to put in the Freego? People eat way too unhealthily. The only rule for the Freego is that there cannot be any industrial crap in it: Everything needs to be homemade and fresh, not like at the food bank with cans of tomato paste or packages of spaghetti. The Freego also provides a home for the incredible amount of decent food we throw away, which can help so many others.
Who eats from the Freego? Many of the homeless people I met on my soup tour often come by. But students sometimes leave Post-Its in the Freego that say that they enjoyed a cup of my delicious soup during their exams.
Has there been any criticism of your project? People often ask how I know that the food ends up with the right people. My answer is: Are there wrong people? Who are we to judge whether somebody actually needs something? Whether it's a homeless guy or a student, I don't care. For every student who takes a bowl of soup from the fridge, there's one fewer person who has eaten Knorr or Cup-a-Soup that day.
Other people ask if I should seek patent protection for my idea, but I don't think that's important at all. I like the fact that other people are inspired by the Freego and give it their own personal touch. That's the only way people are going to keep doing it. Too many rules and conditions kill motivation.
Are you afraid of food inspection authorities? Bring 'em on! I have actually been waiting for them to come around. I'm looking forward to having a discussion with the federal food agency. Everything in the Freego is extremely fresh. How can they complain about fresh, organic soup just because there's no label on it, but allow the racks of the supermarket to be filled with cheese that looks more like plastic than food?
A lot of bread contains a conditioner that is made from human and animal hair. Pasteurized milk is totally not healthy for people, but it happens to travel better. Our fruit is plucked when it's still unripe, and then "artificially ripened" later—controlled rotting, they mean. We are being fooled all over, and we don't know what we're eating. The European Union approves of all of that, because politicians are being manipulated by the food industry. I would like to take on the fight, but everything is happening behind closed doors. Politicians should be wearing shirts like cyclists do—one that says the names of the people who are sponsoring them.
Any final advice? Don't eat anything unless you know where it came from. And if you have a crazy idea like the Freego, go for it. The crazier the better.
Thanks for speaking with me, Stef.
Stef Mintiens is the author of Herbatheek, which contains an important message: You are what you eat, and if you eat garbage, you become garbage. The book offers advice on strengthening your immune system and handling health problems with natural remedies. The book is now being translated into English and German.