There is such a thing as a free lunch in Berlin
In the interest of reducing food waste, a Berlin initiative is connecting a system of publicly accessible fridges where people can safely drop off their leftovers in order to feed more hungry mouths.
The sharing fridges are an offshoot of Foodsharing.de, where more than 55,000 users throughout Germany advertise their leftovers free to be picked up by someone hungry nearby. In December 2014 the website incorporated what was previously known as Lebensmittelretten.de, a previously separate organisation which arranged teams to pick up leftover food from businesses (grocers, bakeries etc.) and redistribute it to those in need.
After hosting a rowdy Christmas party in our apartment that finally ended sometime the next morning, last December I found myself peering into a shared fridge on Wilhelmstrasse to see if there was any chance of squeezing our party food leftovers in there.
Single pieces of fruit had taken over one shelf like an army of soldiers without homes, and then there was half a tub of yoghurt atop which balanced an unrecognisable (but presumably tasty) Vietnamese takeaway meal, complete with plastic fork, just in case. The freezer was stuffed to the hilt with various semi-full packs of bread rolls and loaves.
The fridge I fought to get my leftovers to fit in stands in a Berlin courtyard tucked behind a cultural centre-cum-nightclub. It is hidden to those who aren’t sure where to look – but there are an increasing number who do.
There are currently 21 fridges around Germany’s capital, matching lonely leftovers with hungry stomachs.
In a country where the average resident throws out 80 kilograms of food each year, while young creative people gather in Berlin to swap new ideas and work for all kinds of social change, it isn’t so difficult to imagine this city as a welcoming home for communal fridges.
This spirit of sharing became clear on my first visit to the fridge. As I went about stuffing empty corners of the fridge with wrapped-up slices of quiche, crumbed fish and jars of pickled herring (it was a Danish Christmas party), a man, presumably homeless, shuffled around in the background, trying to remain out of sight but clearly waiting for me to leave. It pleased me to know that not only people in the food sharing game were in on this, but word had also spread to people who really needed something free to eat.
The sharing fridge hosts clearly know their crowd: on the front of the fridge was a poster explaining a recent crackdown on undocumented migrants, warning those who may be threatened by this in no less than four languages. The poster suggested ways to evade suspicion and seek help. In the centre of countercultural, Green-voting, solidarity-focused Berlin, here was something free to eat, and advice on how to remain undercover.
The green capital
Host to Europe’s first vegan supermarket outlet, as well as a much-hyped packaging-free supermarket, and Culinary Misfits, a café named for its use of ugly, unwanted produce, Berlin’s food scene is quickly adapting to focus on food waste reduction and sustainability.
In January the city, which has been a Green Party stronghold for decades, saw a march of 50,000 protest against the industrialisation of agriculture. Attendance had almost doubled from the previous year’s march, spurred on by the threat of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which, if agreed upon, will undermine the current EU ban on genetically modified food.
The last three years have seen a huge interest in urban gardening in Berlin. The city is now host to more than 100 gardens, including the well-known Prinzessinnengarten in Kreuzberg where organic food is grown and served in the café and upcycling workshops are held. Located on a vacant lot, the garden came under threat in 2013 when an attempt was made to privatise the land. Prizessinnengarten was saved by a crowdfunding and petition campaign called ‘Let it grow!”, winning itself a five-year reprieve. Many urban gardens across the city now operate long waiting lists as locals attempt to eek out little spaces for growing their own food.
Meanwhile, Brandenburg – the region encircling Berlin – is struggling to keep up with the demand for organic food from Berliners concerned about eating local produce to preserve their carbon footprints. This, despite being the region with the highest proportion of land dedicated to organic production in Germany.
Neighbourhood markets throughout the city tend to offer produce from regional producers, and street food vendors have jumped onboard as well. The wildly popular street food market Markthalle Neun houses vendors focused on organic and often locally-produced ingredients, and offers a delivery service of regional and seasonal produce to Berlin businesses, daycares and even homes. Fruit and vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy products are all on the list of items available for delivery.
Cleanliness no issue for enthusiastic users
So far it seems that Berlin’s support for both sharing and sustainability have saved the shared fridges from running into trouble.
All the fridges are open 24 hours a day, catering to the homeless, hungover or more generally hungry. Each fridge is connected to an organisation nearby that keeps an eye out for suspicious activity, however the maintenance of each fridge’s contents is the responsibility of those who use it. According to the organisers, this hasn’t turned out to be a problem at all. The rule of thumb is: don’t share any food that you wouldn’t eat yourself. They have not reported a single case of food poisoning.
When I first heard about the project, I pictured the sorry state of my old share house fridge, but ramped up to the power of 10. Stacks of mouldy leftovers that none of the five messy students wanted to claim, but this time serving a whole community.
So on my visit I was pleasantly surprised to find cleaning gear next to the fridge with an encouraging note for anyone who wanted to take a turn. There was also a sign on the fridge door advising on good food hygiene practices, including labelling and dating food, and a pen hanging from the door to make this easy.
It seems that the novelty of such a service is an incentive for people to take good care of it. As the project continues to expand, it will be up to effective organisation and that strong Berliner spirit of sustainability and solidarity to make it last.
Vanessa Ellingham is the editor of the Give Something Back to Berlin blog.
This post originally appeared on Fairplanet.