Food Sharing Article Gains Traction

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Last week a Vanguard reader, Ernst Bertone, wrote an article for the Vanguard that we decided to post. Little did we realize the article on food sharing in Davis and the UC Davis students’ subsequent battle with the health department would resonate with our readers to the tune of thousands of views and 61 comments.

Mr. Bertone wrote, “In the past few weeks we performed a food sharing experiment in our neighborhood, installing a public refrigerator in our front yard (at 812 Douglass Avenue in Davis, CA). Over 29 days of operation, 122 food items were exchanged, an average of about 4 items per day! In the last days of operation we also had 3 books being shared, which led us to the creation of a space dedicated to book-exchange.”

He adds, “The name of this project is free.go. Our goal is to reduce food waste and build a stronger community through food sharing; we receive no profits, or personal benefits (except for some tasty items that show up in the fridge and need to be consumed fast…). This is an idea starting in Davis, but we recently heard that similar projects are happening in other countries… you might say: convergent evolution!”

Last night CBS13 in Sacramento picked up the story.

“An unusual idea to cut down on food waste has drawn the ire of the Yolo County health department. Grabbing a snack has never been so controversial. On a front lawn in Davis is a food-sharing refrigerator, now banned by Yolo County,” CBS 13 reporter Steve Large reported.

According to the report, Ernst Bertone and his roommates broke the law, according to the health department, when they put a refrigerator on their lawn with a sign reading “Take what you need, leave what you don’t.”

“The UC Davis students’ experiment proved a success as people shared,” the report stated. “Bertone and his roommates charted it all, posting photos of the food people put in the communal fridge and what they took out. They kept a database that showed 122 items were shared over 30 days.”

CBS added, “The neighbors liked it and even used it. But someone complained, prompting the health department to shut down the sharing fridge. The rationale? The open refrigerator doesn’t assure safe and pure food, and it can lead to people getting sick.”

“The law just hasn’t thought of something like this before I think. It’s a new idea,” said Eric Yen.

“For now, it’s a new idea that’s against the law, leaving the fridge off the lawn and out of order,” the report concluded.

On the Vanguard, posters were concerned about issues such as aesthetics and liability.

“This is a terrible idea, Davis doesn’t need ugly looking refrigerators sitting outside in the front of houses all over town,” one poster wrote. They added that “aesthetics is a large part of the problem. I wouldn’t want my neighborhood to have refrigerators sitting out front on my neighbor’s yard. I can’t imagine driving around town and seeing refrigerators everywhere, how ugly. Besides that, there has to be a huge liability risk of giving out food that one doesn’t know where it came from.  If the city ever okayed something like this would they also be liable?  When I go to a grocery store, a restaurant or my friend’s house for dinner I have a reasonable assumption of the food being safe, but a set up like this where anyone can put food in a fridge sitting out on the curb is a whole different animal.”

“How safe is the food inside free.go?” Mr. Berton wrote. “Most of the food shared in the fridge is non-perishable, like canned vegetables, canned juice, candies, packed cereals, uncooked pasta, tea bags, coffee, etc. Perishable items are also shared, but they normally don’t stay long.”

He added, “Products with higher contamination risks such as fresh meat are rare, and when they appear we only leave them there for a couple of days, or until their posted expiration date. We perform regular safety checks on the fridge, at least twice a day. We look for expired items and items that look “suspicious.” The fridge is cleaned at least once a week. The risk of food contamination is therefore very low, but of course not zero.”

As he noted, “Unfortunately there is no way to make sure that this food is 100% safe, like there is no way to make sure that crossing a street is 100% safe.”

In response to some criticism, Mr. Bertone noted that aesthetics is a point they have to consider. “Lately we painted the wooden box that protects the fridge in green, so it became much less visible. We were also planning to let artists expose their work on the box, so it would become an evolving art work.”

Liability is another issue, “I heard this point many times already, and I think it’s something we need to work on.”

Click here to see the Sacramento CBS 13 newscast on this issue:

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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24 thoughts on “Food Sharing Article Gains Traction”

  1. PhilColeman

    Like many of you, I suspect, I have a certain ambivalence about the concept of giving away “extra” food to people who are hungry. All the health and esthetic issues are noted and understood. My immediate reaction to a fridge in front of my neighbor’s front yard connected to a long extension cord, and a parade of “street people” parading by is not a positive image for me, I admit that. A bit of NIMBY at work, I admit that as well. By maybe the issue here is, “Location, location, location.”

    I also feel some guilt and selfishness in judging this idea. What’s wrong with folks who live with constant hunger, like animals in the wild, getting perfectly good food that would otherwise go down the garbage disposal or trash can? This concept before us could be argued to be the noblest and kindest form of environmental recycling. A “Green Effort” if you will, which automatically elevates this concept into a different level of judgment.

    Indulge me a moment as I exercise the right of the aged and tell an old story. It’s relevant to this issue.

    As a young police officer in the late evening hours, it was commonplace to witness street people in Oakland to go “dumpster diving” at the many fast-food locations. It looked repulsive and sad at the same time. As an aggressive patrol officer, I would approach fast-food managers as ask if they wanted me to order them to leave as a public nuisance. Invariably, all the workers would say “no,” and relate how they have “tons of perfectly good food” on the grill when they closed and cleaned up. Their orders were to destroy the food per health regulations. Instead, they would fry up the remaining food set for disposal, put it take-away containers and carefully place it on a convenient shelf in the dumpster and turn their head. I was asked to be discreet as this practice violated every company regulation for food disposal.

    Going back to an earlier discussion–also related to this topic–if we were to address this social issue with the idea of “How can we make this work?” rather than “It’s unsanitary, disgusting, and violates health regulations, so do nothing,” a win-win can be achieved. And I close with assuring you that really hungry people are not especially concerned with food that just past the expiration date. You should see what they eat now!

    1. ernstbo

      Great story! And I fully agree when you say: “if we were to address this social issue with the idea of “How can we make this work?” rather than “It’s unsanitary, disgusting, and violates health regulations, so do nothing,” a win-win can be achieved”

      If we all think like that we could go much further….

      I have only one comment to make about what you say: I don’t see this fridge as something made only for “street people”. Of course poor/hungry/homeless people can have access to it and this is great, but I also see this as community thing: people sharing food with each other. Someone once put japanese candies on it: it was delicious…

       

  2. Anon

    I understand the good intentions of this idea.  However, the minute a person falls ill or dies because of this concept, there will be howls of complaint.  We do have health regulations for very good reason.  Secondly, having a resource like this is an open invitation for more vagrants to move into town (the current homeless from Davis are already complaining about this phenomenon).  Is that the type of magnet we want to be?  Just asking.  In other words, when ideas like this are put forward, they have to be thought through thoroughly, and all the downsides looked at and dealt with.  And lastly, we do have a food bank in Yolo County, a resource that might be a better fit to address the issue of food waste.  They know what they are doing, abide by health codes in so far as I am aware, and distribute food where it is most needed.  It might be more useful to give your unwanted food to the local food bank.

      1. hpierce

        Please elaborate.  What “function that they are trying to serve” is not performed by a food closet/food bank?

        The STEAC food closet does require a referral from another group (social service, either public or private) and probably has a screen for “need” vs “want”.  Is the “function” to ensure free food is not “needs-based”?

        Or, were you just intending to be ‘dismissive’ of Anon?  Don’t see any other purpose for your post.

        The purpose of my post is to inquire, so as to understand how the functions of food closet/bank differ from that the Douglass folks are doing.

        1. Davis Progressive

          the idea of a food bank is a place where the needy/ hungry go to get food.  the idea of this – as i read it – is an opportunity to people to put food they can’t eat and exchange it or share it with others.

    1. ernstbo

      Anon,

      I agree with you when you say that “when ideas like this are put forward, they have to be thought through thoroughly, and all the downsides looked at and dealt with”. That’s what we are trying to do now, we will use the feedback we are getting from comments like yours and try to deal with the downsides.

      I did a little research about food banks during the time we were building the fridge and talked to people that worked in the uc davis food bank. Here are a few differences between free.go and food banks:

      1. The exclusive goal of food banks is giving non-perishable food from donors to poor people . The goal of our fridge is to provide a place in which food can be exchanged, in a variety of forms, thus reducing food waste and promoting community building. The same person leaving food in one day can take food in another day and vice-versa. Also people taking food from the fridge are not necessarily poor or homeless (even if on average food takers will probably be poorer than food “leavers”). Moreover, food banks don’t have a clear food waste reduction goal since non-perishable food almost never goes anyways.

      if our goal was only to provide food to poor people, there are still some differences:

      2. Food banks are only open a few days per week, a few hours per day (the uc davis pantry is open 5 days a week, 3 or 5 hours per day). free.go is open 24/7

      3. Food banks don’t take open packages of non-perishable food (like if you have an open package of pasta or rice)

      4. Food banks generally don’t accept perishable food (the one at UC Davis accepts only perishable food from uc davis farm)

      5. Uc davis pantry only give food to Uc Davis students (you need a UCD card to get food from them) and there are no other food banks in davis. To use free.go you don’t need to be a ucd student.

      6. free.go works at the neighborhood level. We don’t expect people to drive across town to bring or take food from the fridge. Of course there is no problem if this happens but if we had enough exchange points we wouldn’t need that.

      7. A food bank is much bigger than a fridge. UC Davis pantry feeds 450 students. if free.go role was only to “feed” people, one fridge could probably not feed more than 4 or 5.

      I also understand your point when you say that this could be seen as an open invitation for vagrants, but I think we are talking about different scales:

      The “exchange rate” we had in our test phase was about 4 or 5 items shared per day. Maybe this could go to 10 items per day but certainly not 50 (because the fridge is not big enough for that). So not enough to attract “vagrants” in my opinion. The fridge is not a shelter for homeless people. Even if we had 2 or 3 fridges like this in Davis (which I think is a good number given the city size), I doubt that “vagrants” would move to Davis because of it.

      1. ernstbo

        in paragraph 3 I wanted to say: “food banks don’t have a clear food waste reduction goal since non-perishable food almost never goes wasted anyways.” (wasted was missing)

      2. Barack Palin

        3. Food banks don’t take open packages of non-perishable food (like if you have an open package of pasta or rice)
        4. Food banks generally don’t accept perishable food (the one at UC Davis accepts only perishable food from uc davis farm)

        And why do you think that’s the case?  Maybe food poisoning, stale or out of date products, liability?

  3. Barack Palin

    Here’s a solution, collect only non-perishable foods up near the porch or some other more out of the way location that’s accessible and NOT IN THE FRONT OF YOUR YARD and donate the goods to the local food bank.

    1. Frankly

      Agree.

      Note to anyone leaving prepared food out.  Trial lawyers will love you.  Don’t be surprised to see Mike Harrington supporting a group of homeless people in a lawsuit against you claiming chronic intestinal damage from your malicious attempts to dispose of your waste products as consumables.

      I am chuckling over this because there are so many real business ideas killed because of the same.  Government regulations and lawyers… they kill more progressive and enterprising ideas than anything else.  Rid ourselves of the great numbers of both and people might be able to get back to solving their own community problems creatively.

      1. hpierce

        Well, given Mr H’s opposition and behind-the scenes dealings to keep the STEAC food closet from expanding next to his property, it would be REAL interesting if he supported homeless people in such a lawsuit.  REAL interesting.

        1. Frankly

          hpierce – I think you would be conflating his personal interests with his professional interests here.

          ryankelly nails it, IMO.

          For example, I know Mr. H is a caring liberal guy, but he has been vocal to me in opposition of the community church expanding its services because of the concentration of homeless and vagrants in his neighborhood.  I do see that point.

          Not picking on Mr. H here… I think that is probably a common thing… we are more supportive of impacts not in our own neighborhood.

          Certainly trial attorneys do good, but they also cause risk aversion and all of us pay for the damages won in these civil liability plaintiff awards.

      2. ernstbo

        @ Frankly

        Yes we are concerned with the liability issue and trying to find ways to survive in this “lawsuit” culture.

        For example the food bank of UCD doesn’t claim any responsibility for any food they give to students, and until now they never had any student trying to open a lawsuit against them. I think we can try to have the same legal status as they have.

        Right now this fridge thing looks tricky because is hard to define who is responsible for the food in there. If the person who eats food from the fridge falls sick, is this the fault of the person who put the food in there, or the fridge’s fault? And why should it be someone else’s fault?

        Taking perishable food from the fridge means that you need to evaluate the quality of the item, and decide if you should eat it or not, based on your own knowledge and past experiences. Accessing risks and taking risk-based decisions may sound hard, but we do it everyday, when you decide driving at 65 or 75 or 85 miles per hour in the highway, or when you decide to wear or not gloves when handling a hot pot.

        1. Barack Palin

          If the person who eats food from the fridge falls sick, is this the fault of the person who put the food in there, or the fridge’s fault? And why should it be someone else’s fault?
          Taking perishable food from the fridge means that you need to evaluate the quality of the item, and decide if you should eat it or not, based on your own knowledge and past experiences. Accessing risks and taking risk-based decisions may sound hard, but we do it everyday

          If a child falls sick from taking food from your refrigerator is it the child’s fault, should the child have evaluated the risk before they ate the food?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I think you raise a good point – there needs to be some sort of control mechanism that would prevent children from taking the food.

    2. ernstbo

      @Barack Palin Your concern about safety of perishable foods is understandable, but if we reduce free.go to the simple task of collecting non-perishable food we will not fulfill our goal of reducing food waste (because non-perishable food almost never goes wasted). Again, we are not trying to replace the food bank and be a branch of it. We have different goals as you can see in my comment above.

  4. ryankelly

    Would you feed your child food left in a refrigerator, prepared by an unknown person, in an unknown location, under unknown conditions?  If this changes to just non-perishables, then should the City allow this business, (non-profit or otherwise) to be set up in a residential neighborhood?  If it is non-perishable, is it really an answer to the idea of food waste, since people are unlikely to throw away canned and packaged food and is really just a donation?  It would turn into an unofficial food bank.  Is this appropriate for the front lawn in a residential neighborhood?  The neighbors who said they liked it, commented that it was a convenient way to get rid of leftovers.  Idealistic, with little reasoning on what could go wrong.

    Look at it this way – would you allow someone to park a Food Truck on your street on a regular basis and start selling food?  Probably not.  Now, make the food truck unattended after making the food and just give it away to anyone, who can come up, handle it, take it or exchange it.  I am astounded how people think that this doesn’t violate the Health Code, because “it isn’t being sold.”

    1. ernstbo

      I agree with you that there is no point in making it only for non-perishable food, “since people are unlikely to throw away canned and packaged food”. That is the main reason why we have a fridge and not a pantry.

      Maybe you would never take perishable food from a public refrigerator (prepared by an unknown person under unknown conditions), but some people do, as they did during our test phase.

      Maybe the users liked the fact that fridge was close their house and didn’t have to drive to the food bank for their “donation”. Or maybe the food they wanted to give away could not be accepted by the food bank, or maybe the food bank working hours was not convenient for them. But I think that the main reason is that they don’t see their act as “donation” but rather as “sharing”.

      The good thing about the fridge is that you can decide to take food from it or not. In the same way as some people like rock climbing, some other people think it’s dangerous and prefer not doing it. The fridge will not chase you down the street and put food in your mouth if you don’t want to take food from it.

      ” I am astounded how people think that this doesn’t violate the Health Code, because “it isn’t being sold.”

      We never said that we didn’t violate the Health Code. We said that we don’t violate the “California food retail code” which was used by the yolo county as justification for shutting down the fridge. We said that not because we “think” that, but because we read the code.

      About your comparison with the food truck, I see a very big difference in scale. A food truck can prepare hundreds or thousands of meals and it’s maybe not adapted to a residential neighborhood, also because their goal is selling food to anyone who drives there, not only people from the neighborhood. Our fridge is much smaller than a food truck. The situation you described could probably never happen in our fridge. I personally think that our fridge is adapted to a residential neighborhood level, given its size and scope. Of course people from other neighborhoods can use it and this is also good, but not the main purpose of our project.

      The fridge is not a shelter for homeless people or a food bank. It’s also not a food truck. It’s a only a fridge in which people from the same community share food with each other. These comparisons are welcome, but they reveal a misunderstanding about the concept we are trying to implement.

      If this idea was a failure and the neighbors did not like it at all, I would not be loosing my time and energy to fight for it.

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