April 28, 2021
Supporting neighbours is central to Calgary Community Fridge initiative
When psychology undergraduate student Sasha Lavoie volunteered at the Distress Centre in 2019, she noticed a pattern in the types of calls she was taking: Calgarians experiencing a mental-health crisis citing food scarcity as a stressor.
“My volunteer work with [the] Distress Centre created more understanding and empathy in me for the amount of stressors people are dealing with … financial instability, for instance, leading to troubles accessing basic needs like food,” says Lavoie, BA’12.
The Calgary Community Fridge is the recipient of the 2021 University of Calgary Sustainability Award in the Undergraduate category. Located in Crescent Heights, the mutual-aid project works to address redistribution of resources, food insecurity, barriers to access, and nutritional and culturally appropriate needs, while also reducing food waste. The project’s advocacy work has been recognized for its achievements in meeting the following United Nation’s Sustainability Goals.
1 – No Poverty
2 – Zero Hunger
3 – Good Health and Well-being
10 – Reduced Inequalities
A personal connection
Years ago, Lavoie was an intern in Toronto battling depression and financial debt. “The financial aspect of living in a big city while doing an unpaid internship contributed to my mental health at the time,” she says. The lack of financial support and stability only served as additional triggers. “I was struggling and, looking back now, I didn’t think I even had the mental capacity to consider asking for help outside of family, which I was privileged enough to have.”
It wasn’t until Lavoie learned through social media about vibrant community spaces offering open-access fridges and pantry spaces in New York and Toronto that she realized there were opportunities to support struggling Calgarians. Informed by her own lived experience and what she heard from callers at the Distress Centre, she reached out to friends interested in establishing a similar initiative in this city.
The fridge is located outdoors and accessible 24/7 for those in need of accessing food quickly and easily, with no questions asked. Food and personal hygiene item donations are welcomed to help foster community involvement in the program. Community fridges, which offer fresh produce, condiments, even food for pets, are especially critical in neighbourhoods where individuals may not have the means to travel to food banks.
By harnessing social media and liaising with community advocates early on in the process, the team used a strong network of personal and online contacts for help and guidance. In the summer of 2020, the fridge opened to the community, garnering media attention and support from city councillors, the mayor, neighbours, other mutual-aid networks and non-profits, ensuring the pilot’s success.
Team member James Hill
“It is amazing to see the community get together to address food scarcity and the immense impact access to food can have on a family’s physical and mental well-being,” says team member Alice Lam. “We all have so much we can give,” she adds, referring to the collaborative effort as an indicator of how teamwork is necessary to achieve sustainability goals.
Thanks to these community-focused efforts, the team continues to work with and provide progress updates to other organizations, including Action Dignity, Leftovers, Grow Calgary, the Calgary Foundation, and Vibrant Communities Calgary, as well as other mutual-aid and volunteer-run organizations in the city.
Several UCalgary Students’ Union clubs have hosted food drives to support the fridge.
“Unfortunately, students are a demographic that can also struggle with financial security,” says Lavoie. “I’d love to see a space like this pop up on my own campus. There are so many passionate, informed and caring people that I think are primed to make it happen, but the support needs to be there for them.”