Since the start of the pandemic, communities across the UK have stepped up to help those who are vulnerable and isolated. Churches, charities, football clubs, mosques, local councilors and groups of concerned neighbors have distributed food, home learning technology, emotional support and everything in between.
These initiatives are grouped under the broad banner of “mutual aid”. This term, coined by anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, explains how the survival and evolution of the human race depends on our collaboration, as opposed to Darwinian notions of “survival of the fittest”.
COVID has brought mutual aid – a concept with a long and radical history in communist and anarchist politics – into the mainstream. But many people providing mutual aid during the pandemic may have misunderstood its mission. Much of the supporting work has been done by existing charities and faith groups, but in the form of direct giving rather than mutual sharing.
Mutual aid is when people help each other, exchange goods and services. This eliminates the need for donations from outside agencies, such as government or charities. Instead, mutual aid has been interpreted by state institutions and the mainstream media more as charity – giving to those in need without seeking to address the structural inequality that created the need. in the first place.
As welcome as they have been for people who have received food, emotional support and other vital services, many pandemic initiatives have operated largely as charity, with all the official legislation and bureaucracy that entails, such as background checks and food safety certificates. .
An example of more “mutual” practices of caring – favoring sharing rather than direct giving – that has played an important role for many during the pandemic is the humble community refrigerator. Responding to both climate change and food insecurity, the refrigerator is a place where anyone in the community can leave excess food, and others are free to take food as needed. . It’s not always a real fridge – sometimes old phone booths have been used.
Our ongoing research into community refrigerators and self-help has seen them grow in number during the pandemic. Hubbub, a network of community fridges created in 2016 with funding from the National Lottery, has grown its network from 150 fridges in 2017 to nearly 500 today, adding 250 last year.
Refrigerators are important in marginalized communities, both in areas of deprivation and affluence. They can help reduce the stigma of going to food banks or asking for food directly, as they are accessible anytime and without the need to register with a local authority or of a charitable association. One of our interviewees described setting up a community shopping cart full of food at a local school in Barnsley:
We put a cart outside the school reception area with all the food and it is open and accessible to everyone and anyone in the community. So there is no stigma attached to it, you don’t have to be in this school, you can just come and help yourself.
In the United States, community refrigerators emerged from – and are deeply entrenched in – low-income, often black communities.
In Britain, community fridge initiatives have mainly focused on reducing food waste. Kate Raby, spokesperson for Hubbub, said “community fridges are not food banks, they are very much about food waste”. Their value, she argues, is to bring the community together.
There will be people there because they hate food waste, there will be others because they need food.
She explains that those who take out the food can offer cooking demonstrations of their favorite dishes to those who put them on, or simply offer conversation and company.
Sharing, not charity
The power of the community fridge is to blur the lines between giver and receiver. Everyone is welcome to give or take from the fridge, depending on their level of need. Rather than dependency (the haves give to the have-nots), it promotes interdependence within a community and recognizes that at any time, its role can change from giver to receiver, or vice versa. Taking food out is as important to the commonality of the refrigerator as putting food in, as it ensures that food is not wasted.
Two years into the pandemic and social assistance in the form of furlough and increased Universal Credit ended. As such, the need for community support has continued) – and in some cases, increased. The growth of the community refrigerator network highlights a growing need for more equitably distributed food, reducing food waste and hunger at the same time.
The pandemic has made community refrigerators more visible and, sadly, more necessary. No one wants them to exist the way they do now – they show that overproduction leads to huge amounts of waste, and they represent a failure of state support and the need for a better solution to food inequality.
But the increased focus on mutual aid highlights the value of a political movement that celebrates community solidarity against systemic pressures, whether it’s poverty, pandemics or climate change.
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