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How outdoor community fridges are changing life for those facing hard times

You might have spotted a refrigerator, painted with bright colours, out on a public sidewalk near where you live. If so, you’ve stumbled upon a growing international food-sharing initiative known as “the community fridge.”

The idea behind the fridges that have cropped all across Canada, especially since the pandemic began, is as simple as the motto painted onto their doors: “Take what you need — leave what you can.”

The refrigerators offer free food to anyone who needs it, and are stocked by anyone who wants to donate.

There are eight community fridge locations spread across downtown Toronto. CBC’s nightly newscast The National spent some time at several fridges and spoke to people who use them, as well as people who keep them filled.

  • WATCH | The feature about Toronto’s community refrigerators, Sunday May 2 on The National at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch The National online on CBC Gem.

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Bernice Sampson

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Bernice Sampson, 60, is happy that the local community fridge in her Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale is so well stocked. ‘Oh, it’s wonderful,’ she said. ‘I feel proud of Parkdale.’ (Nick Purdon/CBC )

“I just come to see what I can get. Something to eat for supper,” Bernice Sampson said. “Or if I get some toothpaste and toothbrush, I’m good to go.”

Sampson frequents the community fridge in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale almost every day. She says it has become part of her routine.

On the day CBC News spoke with Sampson, she was able to grab a couple of onions and a box of breaded shrimp from the fridge.

“They’re going to go in my stomach when I get home,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s awesome that someone wants to give back something to the community,” Sampson continued. “It feels good to know that people are doing that for the community — not only for me, but for the kids, for the old ones, for people that don’t have nothing.”

Diane Hanson, 73

Diane Hanson comes to the fridges in Parkdale, accompanied by her son, in the hope of finding donations of fresh, healthy food:

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Diane Hanson, a senior on a fixed income, describes how important it is for her to get food from the community fridges in her Toronto neighbourhood. 1:09

Kathryn Arab, 31

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Kathryn Arab is a front-line nurse who lives a few doors down from a community fridge in Toronto. ‘I think a lot of people are struggling,’ she said. ‘I’m just trying to help out others any way I can.’ (Nick Purdon/CBC )

Kathryn Arab lives near one of Toronto’s community fridges and she stocks it whenever she can.

“I just drop off whatever I had that I wasn’t using. And it all gets taken, like, within five minutes,” she said.

For Arab, helping comes naturally. She’s a front-line nurse and has worked through the pandemic. She also cares deeply about the Toronto community of Parkdale where she lives — one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city.

“I know these people. I see them on the streets. I see them struggling. I see them begging, sleeping on the sidewalk,” she said. “And they’re my family. They’re my brothers and sisters. They’re my friends. Why wouldn’t I want to help them if I could?”

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Many of the community refrigerators in Toronto have been decorated by the volunteers who maintain and supply them. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Jake Silva

Along with his father, Jake Silva runs The Iceman, an ice-making business that serves restaurants in Toronto. The family business has been in the same neighbourhood for 40 years.

Silva helped set up a community fridge outside his business as a way of giving back.

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Jake Silva helped set a fridge up in front of his ice making business in Toronto. He explains that the fridge is filling a need for food in the community, and it’s a way for him to give back. 0:58

Patricia Reid

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Patricia Reid holds the items she took from her community fridge. ‘It’s just a godsend,’ she said. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Patricia Reid says she only recently found out about Toronto’s community fridges. Now she visits them often.

“I got a tomato, I got spinach. I could make a salad. They’re expensive,” she said on a recent trip, smiling.

Reid is 80 and lives on a fixed income. She explains that the community fridge helps her because she needs to save money to pay for her dental surgery.

“I have to pay $4,000 for my tooth implants. And I’ll give up food for that, because teeth are really important in health,” she said. “I have to give my food money away to that.”

Reid says she doesn’t know much about who is behind the community fridges, but she wants them to know that the initiative has made a difference in her life.

“You have eased my life, that’s what they’ve done. And I couldn’t imagine somebody being so kind. I get really worked up about that,” she said with tears in her eyes.

“It’s given to me, so I don’t have to go beg. I don’t want to beg.”

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80-year-old Patricia Reid takes a tomato and a bag of spinach from the community fridge in her Toronto neighbourhood to make a salad. Reid is grateful to the people supplying the fridges, and says that because of them she doesn’t have to beg for money in order to eat. 0:59

Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.

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