Why you should care
Les Frigos Solidaires found a way to cut food waste and hunger at once.
If you’re hungry and broke in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, you might want to stop by La Cantine du 18, tucked behind the Sacré-Coeur. Not to buy yourself lunch — you’re broke, remember? — but to partake of the restaurant’s Solidarity Fridge.
It’s a simple system: Businesses and community members with packaged food they can’t use and that would otherwise go to waste put it into the fridge. People who can’t afford to buy food are welcome to take some and eat it. France has been on the warpath against food waste in recent years: It was the first country to ban supermarkets from just throwing away unused food. As of 2017, French people waste an estimated 233 pounds of food per person per year. In the U.S., that number is 612 pounds per person.
Dozens of people come visit the fridge at La Cantine daily.
“Neighbors and neighborhood businesses donate the food,” explains Dounia Mebtoul, who runs La Cantine du 18, a family restaurant, and started the first French Frigo Solidaire. For example, when people are about to go on vacation and have extra food, or if businesses weren’t able to sell fresh food during that day, it can go in the Solidarity Fridge, she explains. As for who uses the program, they’re mostly locals — but not only locals. “Some people who know about the fridges make their way around the whole network,” Mebtoul explains. Dozens of people come visit the fridge at La Cantine daily.
For people wanting to start their own food version of a little free library, she says it’s important to have someone in charge of the fridge, looking out for it and making sure it stays clean and useful to the community. Mebtoul’s organization, Les Frigos Solidaires, works with restaurant partners around France to establish new outposts, finding restaurant owners who welcome the chance to make a difference for hungry people. There are also some basic rules about things that can’t go in the Solidarity Fridges: no home-cooked food, nothing expired and no meat or fish.
That’s not to say everyone supports the community fridges. Similar initiatives in Germany fell victim to a government crackdown when opponents argued that because the fridges are open to the public they are food businesses, and thus must comply with all attendant regulations. But France’s food fridges have been luckier: Despite the country’s reputation as a regulatory nightmare, the city of Paris is on their side. In fact, it was Paris that offered a grant last year to finance 15 new fridges for Les Frigos Solidaires at a cost of $1,435 each.
That’s evidence that the fridges are working. And, in fact, they’re expected to become even bigger. Since the first Solidarity Fridge opened at La Cantine du 18 in June 2017, there are now 19 fridges in Paris alone, and 38 in France — a number that’s expected to nearly double by the end of this year.