With food security becoming a large issue locally, the City of Orillia will explore options in the coming months to bring a community fridge to the city.
The idea was first brought to council in June by Orillia Secondary School student Myles Odlozinski, who hoped to increase food availability in the city while also combatting the stigma around traditional food insecurity buffers such as food banks.
Odlozinski originally hoped to see a community fridge set up by the city outside the Orillia Public Library, but on Wednesday council moved to explore potential community partnerships and alternative locations, in consultation with Odlozinski, and directed staff to report back by March 2023.
City staff said their research found successful fridges were generally operated through food advocacy organizations, and not run by municipalities.
“For community fridge efforts and programs to be successful, it is not just the initial resources (or) getting in the fridge in place that matters: programming promotion, volunteers and donations play an even greater role,” said Renee Recoski, the city's manager of property and environmental sustainability.
She said municipalities typically form partnerships with these organizations, but it is not common for municipalities to run such programs themselves.
“While these organizations do certainly form partnerships with municipalities, it is not common that the municipality would be the lead organization,” Recoskie said. “Taking the lead role in such an initiative is not within the city's core services or current staffing complement to provide. Opportunities may exist for the city to support and promote community fridge organizations in partnership within the community.”
Staff presented council with the option to receive its report as information, and pursue alternative possibilities, or to send the request to the 2023 budget deliberations to consider a community fridge at the Orillia Public Library at a cost of $18,500.
Council, while quite supportive of the idea, opted to explore alternative options for the fridge moving forward.
“I really applaud initiatives like this, which I support. Hopefully we can figure out a way to make this work,” said Mayor Don McIsaac. “However, the caveat I have is the city needs to look at the difference between facilitating projects and owning them, and I think we should do what we can to facilitate something … but I don't think we should own it.”
Like staff suggested, McIsaac agreed with seeking a community partnership to run the fridge.
“If we could find, within the community, people who would help us with staffing, the volunteers, possibly the funding, I think that there's some workable premises here and I think we really need to explore them carefully," said McIsaac.
Coun. Ralph Cipolla also supported the initiative, but raised potential health concerns surrounding the community fridge, such as the condition of its food or potential tampering, given its proposed location outdoors.
“I'm very supportive of this, but has anybody consulted with the health unit on the ramifications of the safety of this particular thing?” he asked. “Can it be operated indoors, say, at the food bank or the Lighthouse?”
Recoskie said staff did reach out to the health unit, but there is limited data available for community fridges at this point.
“They have advised that it is early stages for community fridges,” Recoskie said. “They are aware of challenges that other community fridges are facing with a lack of resources to ensure that safety aspect is addressed.
“Their initial recommendation would be to focus on non-perishable items, so that would be more of a food pantry kind of setup, as opposed to a fridge, due to some of those concerns,” she said.
Odlozinski attended the Wednesday meeting, as well, to reiterate his desire to bring a community fridge to the city.
He highlighted a 220 per cent increase in traffic at the Sharing Place this September versus last year, and pointed to the rising costs of living affecting the quality of life of numerous residents.
“Anyone who has gone grocery shopping recently would notice the rising food prices. This affects students, families, the elderly, and those on fixed incomes, causing many to skip meals,” he said.
“For these reasons, now more than ever, the community fridge is important. Whether option one or two is agreed on, it is important that this project is developed as quick as possible," said Odlozinski.
The Brick has agreed to donate a fridge, Odlozinski said, and Home Hardware has agreed to donate building materials.
“I'm sure that other businesses and individuals in the community will answer similar calls to help – this would reduce the price needed to build this project,” he said. “The cost of Innisfil’s community fridge, besides the labor for building the structure, came to just under $5,000.
“I look forward to working with city staff to address these issues and bring forth the community fridge as soon as possible.”