Food security has always been a passion for Sandra Sunil and her family.
To help tackle the problem in her adopted province of P.E.I., she and her brother Samel started a non-profit called For Love, For Share in 2018 and began doing monthly free meal events. She says many people, especially single household families, are challenged in preparing nutritious meals and she and her brother wanted to do more.
“We wanted to do something where 24/7 anyone could come and take what they need, no questions asked,” she says.
Such a venture couldn’t succeed without strong community support and she had no doubt that would happen. One of the first things that struck her when she arrived in the province as a teenager back in 2006 was the caring spirit of Islanders. The Sunil family moved to the province from Kerala province in southwest India after living two years in Edmonton.
The idea of the first P.E.I. Community Fridge was born. Sunil and her brother began looking for a site in Charlottetown that was easily accessible and relatively close to the city’s bus routes since some people who visited the fridge may not have a vehicle.
“We wanted the fridge to be open to all, promoting inclusivity and dignity with anybody able to give or receive,” she says. “It is not one group or individual controlling it. They whole community has autonomy over it.”
The siblings scouted out the downtown area and their first priority quickly became a site at the corner of Queen and Connolly streets on land owned by the Parkdale-Sherwood Lions Club. The club uses the adjacent facility on Valley Street as its clubhouse and also hosts charity bingos.
The club immediately agreed to help out, and Sunil says, “They have been such great supporters. They do so much for the community.”
She says the club really exemplifies the spirit of neighbours helping neighbours that is the foundation of the project.
Sunil says she isn’t surprised by the support the project received, noting the topic of food security is “close to people’s hearts and top of mind.” She says a small army of volunteers has stepped up to help ensure the fridge is stocked and to organize community events.
“We have volunteers coming twice-a-day and we have community members ensuring any items that are expired get discarded,” she says. “I just can’t say enough about the work they do. Without the support of the community, this just wouldn’t be a reality.”
The front of the community fridge contains two actual fridges, donated by MacArthur’s Appliances, while around the back is a pantry for non-perishable items. There is a list of acceptable and non-acceptable items posted, as well as on the group’s webpage and on the group’s Facebook page.
“It is well taken care of and it is amazing to see the community support,” Sunil says.
During the half hour or so it took to do the interview for this story, a steady stream of people both dropped off and accessed items in the fridge. While the fridge doesn’t keep any statistics on how many people visit the site daily to either drop-off or pick-up food, Sunil says, “It seems to be steady most of the time.”
She says the support from restaurants and those in the food industry has been phenomenal.
“Many restaurants will now cook some extra meals and drop them off in the fridge. When fruits and vegetables are in season, many farmers and companies drop-off supplies at the fridge. Students in a number of Charlottetown schools have also raised collected items for the fridge.”
Sunil says that if the project continues to go well, she wants to expand the concept to other communities across the province.
“Everyone has different needs,” she says. “One thing I have learned through experience is that if you have resources one day, another day you may find yourself in a challenging situation where you might need resources like this.”
She says some people who are visiting the fridge may be getting food not only for themselves, but for friends and neighbours who don’t drive or have mobility issues.
Sunil is working with volunteers in other areas of the province to help set up similar community-based efforts, but she views the fridge as a stop-gap measure in the fight against food insecurity.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need this, but we don’t live in that reality right now and we need to fill that gap. We also need to discuss ways we can actively address food insecurity.”
She and Samel intend to be actively involved in that conversation. She says it’s a multi-faceted issue and there’s no silver bullet that can solve the problem.