The saying “Ayyamittu Unn” from Avvaiyar’s Aathichoodi conveys a simple yet powerful message: share your food with those in need. This community fridge operates on a unique system where individuals contribute cooked food, fresh produce, fruits, and essential supplies, all of which are made available throughout the day for those in need. Notably, the fridge is equipped with a security guard who diligently maintains a logbook to monitor the items coming in and going out. Moreover, every provision is clearly labelled with its expiration date and recommended consumption period. Next to these fridges, charity counters are also installed which accept, gently used clothing, toys, shoes, books and household items can be donated.
“The initial challenge was the location. I wanted to start it from Besant Nagar since it was a new project and, a new ideology, I wanted it to be close to my residence so I could monitor and have good control over the happenings. So, Besant Nagar was the first choice and we needed a space that was on the main road. So, I approached the commercial shops and they didn’t approve. Even though it’s a small space 3ft by 3ft, none of them wanted to give us space because they thought it would affect their business. Ever since I had the idea in my mind, getting the location took 3 months. Once we got the location, next was the corporation approval. Since I was an individual starting this process, they needed me to register as a trust, which took another 1 month. These were the main challenges I faced when we began the project. One fine day, when I was chatting with a friend, he proposed the tennis club. When I met the secretary of the club and told him that I wanted to put a food fridge for people, he said go ahead. That’s how we set up the first fridge.”
After getting through the first few challenges, Issa Fathima got the ball rolling, “It’s going great. The public has accepted this idea and we get regular phone calls when they have excess food. Every day we receive about 50-100 packs of food in every fridge. We are scaling up slowly and steadily because maintenance and sustenance are a big challenge. We need the local people to support us. We have saved about 5 crores worth of food which is 1 big milestone for us.”
A community is made up of a few basic elements, like a school, hospital, and public park, Issa visualised Ayyamittu Unnu as one of the elements in a neighbourhood. She says, “ In this way, we can contain the food wastage that’s happening and also bridge the gap where people are looking for food. I want more people to join hands and when they talk about setting up a school or hospital, they would think about these community fridges. I want people to know that they can avail good, nutritious food.”
She was encouraged and joined by other women from various communities to assist with the project. When we asked her if she faced any unfairness because she’s a woman, she replied, “In fact, I had a different experience where people applauded the fact a woman could do something like this and hence I got more support because of that fact. Many household women joined this organisation to support us, they cooked and supplied us the food. Especially during COVID, women from every community came forward and supported us.”
We were curious to know the workings behind a community fridge, and her response was, “First and foremost, we fix on a location, we go for the corporation approval. Location hunting is the biggest challenge. It’s usually on a public platform or a pavement. Once we do that, we start seeking out funds to install the project there. And then we create awareness that such a fruit is not established in that particular location. We go around enquiring with the food business or restaurants, and bakeries to come forward and donate. Convincing them that this place would be the right medium for people to take food is a challenge. We hire security guards because we are dealing with perishable items like food. There are certain Dos and Don’ts that we follow which we put up on both sides of the fridge. Usually, the food stays there for 30-60 minutes. Even if someone brings in 200 packets of food, people come and take it. We just restrict one packet per person but in instances where there are older people or young children in the house, we make an exception. We never end the day with food packets in the fridge, it’s always an empty fridge that’s closed off during the night. This ensures absolutely no wastage.”