Several restaurant owners in the Argentine city of Tucumán were frustrated by having to throw away kilos of edible food every day, especially when they saw people digging in trash cans to collect the discarded food. In February they set up a free-service refrigerator on the sidewalk and let people leave and take what they want as a way to fight food waste.
People in cities in Germany and Spain first tried out these free-service fridges several years ago, but the concept is new in Argentina, where 16 million tonnes of food are thrown away each year, according to the agricultural ministry.
"Around 60 people get food from our fridge every day"
For years, we threw out large quantities of food, including food that our customers left on their plates. One day, when we were finishing work and leaving for the night around 1am, we saw a man and his son outside our restaurant. The man lifted his son into the dumpster and the kid was digging for food. It really shocked us, thinking about how they were living off food that we had thrown away just a few minutes before.
That’s when we started the project that we call “Heladora Social”, which means Communal Fridge. We wanted people to be able to have dignified access to our unwanted food. We put a fridge outside one of our restaurants where we put leftovers that our customers hadn’t touched as well as other dishes that hadn’t been served for one reason or another. Sometimes, we also filled it with food left over from weddings or events.
“Most of the food comes from people in the neighborhood”
Very quickly, other people in the neighbourhood started adding food to the fridge. Some people bring leftovers while others make special dishes just to put in the fridge. They can leave fruits and vegetables or cooked dishes, as long as they are nicely packaged with a date to show when they were made. Now, most of the food in the fridge comes from people in the neighbourhood!
About 60 people a day come and get food from our fridge. Most come here into the town centre from a really low-income neighbourhood. Others are homeless.
"We’ve been seeing more and more of these fridges in the past few weeks”
Two other communal fridges have also been set up in Tucumán. One was set up in front of the León Foundation, which works to help low-income people, and another was put up outside the offices of the Catholic parish.
But the even better news is that these “communal fridges” are being set up all over the country. We’ve heard of them being set up in almost every province now.
For the most part, these fridges are set up by regular people, by nonprofits and by various foundations, not so much by restaurants. In Buenos Aires, for example, an NGO called "Red Solidaria" ["Solidarity Network"] set one up in Plaza de Mayo [Editor’s note: In front of the presidential palace].
They also set up a “communal closet” nearby where people can donate clothes, which are then cleaned and mended by professionals before being set out, free of charge.
It’s quite easy to set up these fridges because there are no laws in Argentina governing how leftover food is managed.
Solidarity, inflation and poverty
I think these fridges are working because Argentineans are very united and often act in solidarity with their fellow countrymen. Many of them are ready to help their friends and neighbours if you tell them how to do it.
There are many food pantries in Argentina but most of them only give non-perishables, like canned food, and they don’t actually offer any cooked dishes. So that makes the contents of our “communal fridges” a real treat!
But I think these fridges have also been such a successful initiative because of the current economic situation. Food prices keep rising because of inflation. The price of meat has doubled here in the past five months. It’s really hard for people with very low incomes and, unfortunately, there are many people struggling to make ends meet.
In 2015, the IMF reported that there was a 27 percent inflation rate in Argentina, which was the third highest rate in the world after Venezuela and Ukraine.
Prices have been rising between 20 percent and 35 percent for the past eight years.
According to a recent study done by the Social Debt Observatory at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, about 35 percent of the population is currently living under the poverty line, versus 29 percent at the end of 2015.