If you’ve ever been passing through downtown Toronto and been in the Roncesvalles, Brockton Village, or Kensington Market neighbourhoods, you might have noticed something unique in each of these locations: refrigerators.
The fridges are operated by Community Fridges Toronto (CFTO), a volunteer-driven network of fridges and pantries that are operated by and for the community as a way of fighting food insecurity in the city. The group’s motto is “take what you need, leave what you can,” providing a free and accessible avenue for anyone who needs food to have it.
Launched in the summer of 2020, the fridges are fully run by volunteers. CFTO has no paid staff and relies a lot on partnerships with local businesses, farmer’s markets and other community groups such as The Bike Brigade, which helps to deliver and distribute food to the fridges. Anyone can drop food off at their local fridge, and anyone can take food.
Unlike food banks, which might only be open during certain hours, the fridges are open 24/7, making them fully available to whoever wishes to use them.
When people think of food insecurity, there are some misconceptions. Is it being hungry? Is it being unable to afford food altogether? Nicole, a volunteer organizer with CFTO who has been with CFTO since 2021, defines food insecurity as “personal feelings of or personal situations where your access to food isn’t as comfortable as it should be.”
“And that is due to situations and structures outside of your control that you are kind of at the mercy of,” she says.
According to the city of Toronto, food insecurity is “inadequate or insecure access to food due to lack of money” and affects nearly 1 in 5 households (18.5 per cent of residents). In 2019, Toronto Public Health reported that the cost of nutritious food in Toronto surged by 7.6 per cent between 2018 and 2019, the largest year-over-year increase in a decade. And then the COVID-19 pandemic created even more financial precariousness around food, as Statistics Canada found during the autumn of 2020, approximately 1 in 10 Canadians (9.6 per cent) experienced food insecurity in their homes due to financial limitations.
Take what you need, leave what you can.
Nicole stresses that food insecurity is a systemic issue due to people “falling through the cracks” because of societal systems that weren’t built to support them – making it something that affects individuals, even though it is not an individualized problem. “You have some people that are more affected by it than others. So, of course, if you’re Black, if you’re Indigenous, if you’re a newcomer… it’s definitely harder if you’re disabled, you know, you’re definitely left behind a lot more,” she explains.
This is where CFTO comes in. A core part of its operations is the idea that no matter your background, the fridges are there for anyone and everyone who needs food. They are a reduced barrier to food access. “We’re not trying to police who’s using the fridge and for what reasons,” Nicole says. “We try and create the space for it to be as accessible as possible for those who need it and have come to rely on the fridges.”
As Nicole points out, “because there’s no one way to look like you use a fridge, there is no – at least in my experience – stigma attached to it, or there shouldn’t be. And it’s because like we’re trying to make it as accessible as possible so people really have the like freedom and flexibility to like use it without feeling othered in a way.”
Currently, there are 10 fridges in total located throughout Toronto. Two are hosted and operated by partner organizations: one is at Seeds of Hope and the other is located at the Wildseed Centre for Activism & Art. And CFTO is always looking for more volunteers to support the work they do in the city.
“We are always looking for volunteers and the volunteer roles have really branched out in the past two years,” Nicole says. “So we have if you’re if you live by a fridge or can easily get to a fridge, we always need cleaning and maintenance volunteers. So what that looks like is you sign up for a couple shifts a week and you go on your own time and you just clean the fridge, [and] make sure there’s nothing expired or gross.”
No matter your background, the fridges are there for anyone and everyone who needs food.
Other volunteers are needed for drop-offs at the fridges, which involves picking up donated food from a local business and taking them to a few of the fridges. Volunteers with handy skills can also take time to do maintenance on fridges, and those who are artistically inclined can volunteer their time to create posters or social media posts.
“We’re coming closer to the end of [farmer’s] market season, but usually we have volunteers at our market tables talking to the public and soliciting produce donations or even cash donations that we can use to buy produce from the farmers at their markets,” Nicole says. “I like to say that there’s something for everyone.”
As for the impact the fridges have had in Toronto, Nicole says it is undeniable.
“A lot of people like have told us, ‘wow, we really needed this,’” she says. “It’s kind of interesting when you hear [their] stories because on one hand, you’re like, oh, I guess the work that is being done is so important. But on the other hand, it’s like, why? Why are these problems still consistent? Why is why are there not greater structural changes being [made] to make sure that people have enough food to eat?”
As food insecurity persists, there are multiple groups working to tackle it. At one level, there are groups like PROOF, which is a team of interdisciplinary researchers searching for policy approaches to decrease food insecurity in Canada. And at the local level, there are food banks, community food programs and non-profits. But until policy interventions are made that will create a larger tangible impact, mutual aid groups like CFTO will continue to help feed communities.
“I think for me, the whole concept of [the fridges] at the end of the day [is about] being a good neighbour,” says Nicole. “And if you have that in mind when you’re donating at the fridge or volunteering to clean the fridge or just engaging with the fridge in any way, having that in mind really helps.”