In Romania a few years ago, Ernst Bertone had an idea so simple even a grade school kid could understand. "We were talking about the days when people used to share stuff," he said. "And how that doesn't happen anymore."
As a graduate student in the Agricultural and Resource Economics department at UC Davis, Bertone is well-versed with the world's excessive amount of food waste. To combat this in his own small way, he proposed a small fix: A neighborhood communal fridge. So, his housemates found a fridge on Craigslist, built a shelter to keep it safe from the elements, and set it up in their front yard. Anyone could use it to take food or leave leftovers. And people did.
Until, that is, the health department shut it down.
"A lot of people are bummed that it's gone," said Eric Yen, an Agricultural and Resource Economics graduate student who also lives in the house. "All of our neighbors that we spoke to really like it. Not just students, but people with families, people in their 50s and 60s. They were all using it."
That's not just an anecdotal pulling of the heartstrings. While the project did have community-building intentions, the graduate students also collected data to back that claim. Bertone and company charted how the fridge was being used: What was placed in the fridge, what was taken out, how long it stayed there, and how much expired and eventually thrown out. At the end of the 30 days, over 120 items were shared during that time.
"Nothing stayed for more than three or four days," Yen said. "We had a combination of some leftovers, a lot of canned goods, a lot of people put fruit and nuts in the fridge. At some point, one of our neighbors thought it'd be cool to share books as well, so somebody put books in there. But we took it out because we didn't want the books to get moist."
After about a week, someone phoned in a complaint, and a Yolo County health officer paid a visit to the house. "They taped it up with duct tape, put a sign that said "Condemned," and wrote a list of violations," Yen said. The violations referenced the retail food code, which certainly didn't apply to the communal fridge, so the students just tore off the tape and continued the project. Twenty days later, Bertone received word from their property manager that they were in violation of their lease, and if they didn't remove the fridge they'd be evicted. So, away it went.
Bertone understands how some people may have a problem with this method of sharing food. "What if a child got stuck in the fridge? What if someone was sick and got other people sick?" But at the same time, he feels these worries are misguided. "It's not 100% safe, but nothing is 100% safe. At the end of the day, you are left to your own destiny. You go there and you choose. If you don't think the food's okay, then you don't take it." (As far as the worries about children getting locked inside: "Probably the parents should be more concerned about not knowing about where their two-year-old is.")
"People are afraid, you know," Bertone said. "I talked to a guy the other day who said, 'What if someone put poison in there?' Yes, it's possible. But it's unlikely." While we live in a world fraught with worries over terrorism, Bertone doesn't believe we should allow those possibilities to dictate how we live. "If people want to do bad stuff, they will do bad stuff. That's how it is."
But just because the fridge is no longer available doesn't mean the idea's dead. Communal spaces for sharing food are quickly gaining steam throughout cities, despite constant hounding by local health departments. For instance, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, homemade shelves are popping up near restaurants that allow customers to leave behind leftovers for others to take home.
And, at UC Davis, Bertone's communal fridge project still has some life. He's put together a petition that he intends to bring to the City Council to try to get the project going again, possibly by tweaking some of the arrangements, like adding a lock to keep it somewhat private, or designing an app that requires users to read a disclaimer before being granted access. Or by simply making the fridge nicer to look at.
"People will accept it more if it were a beautiful fridge and not an ugly fridge," said Bertone.
Rules and aesthetics aside, more changes need to be made in our food sharing laws. In Florida last November, a 90-year-old veteran was arrested for giving food to the homeless. It's not just in Florida where it's bad, but laws against sharing food aren't all that unique. It simply doesn't make sense.
"The law should do more good than harm, right?" Bertone said. "There's a lot of fear making it hard to give food away. How do you get to that level? I don't understand."
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