Spain’s economy was among the hardest hit by the global recession, and it remains in bad shape to this day, with record-high levels of unemployment and poverty.
But with a long and deeply entrenched sense of community and social cohesion, many Spanish communities have weathered these trying times through good old-fashioned collective action.
A resounding testament to these values is the aptly-named “Solidarity Fridge” located in the Basque town of Galdakao. As NPR reports, this community of 30,000 is the catalyst for this almost-unheard of idea.
The goal is to avoid wasting perfectly good food and groceries. In April, the town established Spain’s first communal refrigerator. It sits on a city sidewalk, with a tidy little fence around it, so that no one mistakes it for an abandoned appliance. Anyone can deposit food inside or help themselves.
“The idea for a Solidarity Fridge started with the economic crisis — these images of people searching dumpsters for food — the indignity of it. That’s what got me thinking about how much food we waste,” Saiz told NPR over Skype from Mongolia, where he’s moved onto his next project, living in a yurt and building a hospital for handicapped children.
Saiz says he was intrigued by reading about a scheme in Germany in which people can go online and post notices about extra food and others can claim it.
But Saiz wanted something more low-tech in his hometown of Galdakao — something accessible to his elderly neighbors who don’t use the Internet. So he went to the mayor with his idea for a Solidarity Fridge.
The mayor gave the idea resounding approval, and the city quickly put together the equivalent of $5,580 to pay for the fridge, an initial health safety study, electricity, and upkeep. Cleverly, the Solidarity Fridge was also granted special independent legal status, preventing the city from getting sued if someone gets sick from its contents (fear of litigation is allegedly why most ideas like this aren’t implemented in the first place, especially in the U.S.).
Nevertheless, to help mitigate any health risks, there are certain sensible rules: raw meat, fish, and eggs are prohibited, while homemade food must be labeled with a date and thrown out after four days.
But as evidence of how sorely needed these offerings are, there is rarely ever anything left to discard by the four-day limit. And lest anyone think that the fridge is simply a place for people to get rid of unwanted scraps..
“Restaurants drop off their leftover tapas at night — and they’re gone by next morning,” he says. “We even have grannies who cook especially for this fridge. And after weekend barbecues, you’ll find it stocked with ribs and sausage.”
When NPR visited on Monday, the fridge was filled with fresh vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini — from a local community garden, along with unopened cartons of milk and jars of lentils and baby food. There were also pintxos — Basque tapas — wrapped in plastic and labeled with the date, from a local bar.
The pintxos were especially appetizing to Issam Massaoudi, an unemployed Moroccan immigrant who stopped by to check out the Solidarity Fridge’s offerings.
“Sincerely, it’s wonderful,” Massaoudi says, chuffed about the pintxos. “When money is tight, to be able to come here and open this fridge and find really good food — bread, tomatoes, vegetables, meat — it’s amazing.”
NPR also notes that this wonderful idea is par for the course in this region of Spain, which has a well-established appreciation for both food and community spirit.
The Solidarity Fridge may be the legacy of Spain’s economic crisis, during which frugality became a necessity. But in Galdakao, the unemployment rate is about 13 percent — nearly half that of the rest of Spain. The Basque region’s welfare state is robust, and few residents go hungry.
The Basque country has a special relationship with food, says Uribe. The region is famed for its gastronomy, especially in nearby cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian.
“Here, food is sacrosanct — it’s something that’s venerated. We have one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world,” Uribe says. “So we value eating well, and conserving food. It’s part of our culture, and the Solidarity Fridge is part of that.”
The idea is catching on. Another Solidarity Fridge has opened in Murcia, a town on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. And elementary schools have been organizing field trips to the original fridge in Galdakao to teach children how to cut down on food waste, and share.
Some might see this idea as just a palliative for the bigger problem of inequality and poverty, but on the contrary, I think it addresses these problems by attacking the source — greed, self-interest, wastefulness, and negligence giving way to principles of social responsibility, cooperation, and the public good. Actionable ideas like this are what cultivate humanistic and ethical values, making it perfectly normal — and thus common — for people to consume more carefully, to share their surplus, to look after one another, and so on. If enough people take such ideas to heart, then maybe, in the long-term, the forces and notions that wreck economies and ruin lives will be undermined.
I know it is a lot to take away from a community fridge in a small Spanish town, but little things like this are what help spark bigger and more consequential change. Every life that is bettered makes a difference. Every idea we have to help improve the human condition matters and must be cultivated and spread.
As it turns out, a similar concept of a “charity fridge” for the community was set up about a year ago in the Saudi Arabian city of Ha’il by an anonymous benefactor. It is good to see that humanism knows no bounds, and that ideas like this can sprout up anywhere independently.