How Cambridge Community Kitchen asserted the right to help yourself to free food from a public fridge
Cambridge Community Kitchen has prepared thousands of free meals for the local community without mishap since cooking began at its Fair Street base in October – except for one major glitch when its community fridge went missing.
The Lockon, a legal squat on the site of what was the Hopbine pub, came into existence just before the first lockdown in March. A collaboration between Movement Against Racism, Cambridge For Black Lives and other independent volunteers, the group initially addressed the needs of asylum seekers and displaced communities.
But this winter, as the number of people using food banks has risen, the group and its residents started a food collective dedicated to ensuring no one goes hungry in Cambridge.
The team began offering free, plant-based hot meals to those who most need them.
“There were two of us who had the original idea, and then 10 other people pitched in really quickly,” says Badger – who lives in the building just near The Grafton – of the origins of Cambridge’s fastest-growing new collective.
“I had been a long-term volunteer for a refugee kitchen in Calais, so when I came back – to start at the university – I brought that experience from France, and we went through the process of assessing this and registering with the council. We are a registered food premises, and we have also put in an application as a community interest company. We’ve put everything in place to make sure we are completely above board, even though we are squatting.
“It’s a legally occupied building with all relevant legal notices up in the windows. Everyone involved in the Lockon was already keen on the idea of community food and it then became a question of who has experience of the food industry, and getting Covid assessments and all the other requirements.”
The kitchen is now delivering more than 300 free vegan meals to the public a week – more than 1,500 since starting the service in November – and is set to expand.
“We’ve just had a virtual fundraiser to get bigger cooking pots,” explains Badger. “The capacity should be 100 meals a day but we managed 113 last week: the service operates three times a week, so if we get larger pots we should be able to up that to 250 meals a day.
“We’re supporting a couple of homeless hostels, the Cambridge Refugee Resettlement campaign for asylum seekers, some NHS mental health workers have referred some of people they work with to us, and the rough sleeping community. We support the care packages they receive with supplementary meals. We are also working with the movement against racism.”
The Lockon collective is hierarchy-free.
“We have a kitchen team, a delivery team and an admin team – admin is split into fundraising plus outreach – but pretty much we try to run it as horizontally as possible, although with a kitchen there is inevitably a knowledge hierarchy rather than a power hierarchy.”
The community fridge project started early this month, explains the Cambridge University student.
“The on-street fridge is technically a Lockon project run by the Lockon in support of the community kitchen. The idea was to provide free food for passers-by.
“Ideally the council would be able to provide for everyone’s basic needs but, given that isn’t happening, we want to keep working and make sure people aren’t going hungry – that’s absolutely abominable in the sixth richest country in the world.
“We started up it to cater for a slightly different need – for people with capacity to get to the meals, that gives them autonomy. Anyone can access it outside without any judgment or hoops to jump through, and the fridge enables other members of the community to leave donations – which, for instance, The Grafton centre has done on a couple of occasions.
“The community kitchen hasn’t got a lot of space so we can put donations to use even though they wouldn’t be suitable for the kitchen.
“It was hugely popular – even though it had only been in place for a week when it was stolen – which is why, when it went missing, the speculation about what had happened was intense. And not just the speculation, of course – the outrage, the disappointment, the concern... and the demand for answers.”
It turned out that within days of starting, the city council had put a sticker saying ‘Environmental Crime Scene’ on the fridge.
“I didn’t see the sticker go up but we did see it on the fridge on Thursday (December 17). There was no word or contact from council even though it was clearly labelled as a community fridge, with links to the community kitchen, so they would have been able to get in contact if they really wanted to. The sticker went up on the morning of the 17th, then the fridge disappeared on the 18th.
“It was checked three or four times in the week it was up there, by someone with a level 2 food hygiene certificate, and we’d arranged to clean it weekly,” notes Badger.
“It was only stocked with long-life food which was checked to be sure it was OK to eat, though it is public so people have to use their own discretion. There was a spat on Twitter because Cambridge Sustainable Food hub didn’t know about it, but actually they visited us last week and said they really like the fridge and want to support us.
“They have an info pack on setting up a community fridge and we had followed everything in there and they are now very keen to support us. Meanwhile, we received offers of free fridges.”
After tracking down the fridge to the city council, the Cambridge Independent is pleased to report a positive outcome.
A Cambridge City Council spokesperson said just before Christmas: “The council is arranging for the fridge to be returned to the Lockon at the Hopbine, and will be explaining to the proprietors that they will need an appropriate pavement licence and meet the required conditions if they wish to use the fridge on the public highway.
“The council had removed the fridge on Friday, December 18, as it had been left on the public highway without county council authority. It was stored safely at the council depot in accordance with our normal agreed procedures.
“It had previously been stickered with a warning that, if not moved from the highway, it would be removed by the city council.
“Council officers have previously been in contact with the occupants of the premises, and provided them with links to food safety advice in order to assist them with their recently registered community food operation. They are also in the process of arranging a routine food hygiene inspection, which all registered food operations are required to undergo in order to assess compliance with food safety.
“The Lockon can continue to trade pending this inspection and has registered with the council as a food business.”
Speaking after the situation had been fully resolved, Badger said: “We are so pleased that the fridge has been returned, and we were able to stock it with some tasty treats in time for Christmas.
“The past week has shown us just how important community spirit is in these difficult times – we were blown away by the number of people offering help to find a new fridge, sending enquiries to the council, or stopping by to say just how much they appreciate the fridge and the community kitchen. Now that it has been returned, we are heartened and committed to continuing to facilitate community care and mutual aid through food in our city.”
So a happy ending, and Badger is optimistic about the future, saying: “What has been consistently amazing is how many people have been willing to give their time and get involved with so much passion and energy.
“It was never going to be easy building a project entirely from donations and volunteers, we thought we’d like to do a little food project for our local community, and gradually we became aware of just how big a gap it was we needed to fill.
“In an ideal world it shouldn’t be necessary, but in this current situation I’d like to see a free food service across the city in 2021.”
*Cambridge Community Kitchen needs volunteers. If you’re available for kitchen, delivery or admin roles – either in person or from home – check the Facebook page or email email@example.com.